Architecture Organization Says P.E.s Not Fit For Building Design

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff November 15, 2004

Reopening Age-old Design Debate

The National Society of Professional Engineers has alerted its state societies to the release of an updated guidance document published by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards that attempts to cut engineers out of the building design process.

“Architecture as it Differs from Engineering” asserts that architects are the only licensed professionals qualified to design buildings intended for human occupancy. NSPE objects to this statement, which follows NCARB’s longstanding tradition of trying to prohibit qualified professional engineers from performing building and other facility design services or from serving as the coordinating design professional on facilities design and construction projects.

NCARB, the national organization for state architectural boards, says the paper was reissued to assist its member boards in their “continuing effort to prevent the unlawful practice of architecture by unlicensed persons.” NCARB published the document in 1982 and reissued it in 1995 and again this past August. NSPE is most concerned about statements in the paper that contend that architects are the only licensed professionals qualified to coordinate design and construction of buildings intended for human habitation.

“We’ve been watching this issue for the past several years and architects need to realize that engineers are also competent to oversee the design of buildings and structures,” says NSPE President Bobby Price. “By working with our state societies and our members, NSPE will continue to safeguard an engineer’s right to design facilities and structures that keep the public’s health, safety, and welfare in mind.”

NCARB bases its position, in part, on architects’ “more diverse education,” their prescribed training, and unique ability to “synthesize programmatic and environmental requirements into a coherent and aesthetic concept.” The paper also explains that the architect registration exam requires applicants to demonstrate their mastery of humanities, professional practice, contract law, construction industry operations, office procedures, construction contract administration, and other practice-related topics.

NSPE disputes one section of the document that states “a registered architect should be involved in all buildings intended for human occupancy and habitation and that a registered architect is the only design professional prepared to coordinate all of the other disciplines required for the project.”

NCARB and other groups have tried to limit engineering practice over the years through the distribution of the NCARB publication, state legislation, and other efforts. However, scope-of-practice issues have generally been ruled on by the courts on a case-by-case basis at the state level. Many of these decisions have supported the right of engineers to be involved in building design.

One example is a Pennsylvania court decision in 2000. In this case, a lawyer hired a drafting professional to create a set of renovation drawings for a building he owned. After he approved the drawings, he started looking for a licensed design professional to approve and seal the plans. An architect agreed to seal the plans, but due to differences, the lawyer hired a professional engineer to do the job instead.

When the architect found out what had happened, he filed a complaint with the state licensing board for architects, claiming that the designer and the engineer had engaged in the practice of architecture without a license. The board decided that the two had engaged in the unauthorized practice of architecture and fined the engineer $1,000 and the drafting professional $300. They appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, saying that the services they had provided fell within the realms of both engineering and architecture. The court agreed, and ruled that there is an overlap in the professions and that engineering law allows engineers to design buildings and take on construction planning and management.

NCARB describes the outcome of the case as an “anomalous decision.”

NCARB Chief Legal Counsel Dan Taylor says the paper was reissued to reflect recent court cases and to report on newer commentary on the issue; however, no policy changes have been made.

“NCARB has long believed that by training and by many state statutes, typically architecture is defined as dealing with buildings that are intended for human habitation,” Taylor says. “That’s been NCARB’s long position for all the reasons that are set forth in the report as it was originally published, and it’s been republished.”

NCARB’s guidance is not supported by the vast majority of state engineering licensure statutes nor the Model Law of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, which incorporate the “design of buildings and structures” into the definition of the practice of engineering.

The NCEES Model Law and an increasing number of state engineering licensure statutes also define the practice of engineering to include “design coordination,” defined as “review and coordination of those technical submissions prepared by others including as appropriate and without limitation, consulting engineers, architects, landscape architects, surveyors, and others working under the direction of the engineer.” NSPE endorses the NCEES Model Law.

To clarify the role of the professional engineer in the process of building design, NSPE has published “Managing Engineer-Architect Relations: An NSPE Strategy and Resource Guide,” which contains case studies, definitions, strategies, and other resources that run counter to the position taken by NCARB. NSPE has also published a white paper titled “Engineering Licensing Laws & The Design of Buildings” as well as “Building Design: The Engineer’s Role.”

NSPE’s policy states that when there is an overlap between activities that could be performed by licensed professionals, project owners should choose the individual who they feel is the best licensed professional to be the lead professional. Any licensed professional who is chosen for the position shall practice only in his or her area of competency and should add other licensed professionals to the team to provide the scope of expertise and services needed for the project.

Click here for the full text of NCARB’s “Architecture as it Differs from Engineering.”