Design Defects: All for One, One for All
It is generally assumed that the duties associated with the professions of architecture and engineering are as distinct as are the two disciplines. An architect focuses on the design of a building, making certain it is aesthetically pleasing, while an engineer assures that a building functions properly. However, Florida construction law shows that such a strict division of responsibilities may be incorrect.
When a hurricane struck a job site causing partly installed tilt-up construction panels to collapse, a suit was brought for professional malpractice by the owner against his architect. The owner believed the architect should have known that the temporary bracing of the walls was inadequate and would not hold up against hurricane force winds. Moreover, the owner alleged, the architect should have realized that such a failure could cause the complete demolition of the walls resulting in the project being delayed as the walls were reconstructed. The architect countered that this aspect of the project was not his responsibility – and this was more an engineering than an architectural issue. To support his contention, the architect showed that there was no corresponding duty enumerated in his contract with the owner, and he argued, no contracting party ever has any obligation greater than that promised in its contract.
But in reality, the responsibilities of architects and engineers often overlap, especially on larger scope projects such as the one at issue. Had the architect looked a bit more closely at his construction contract documents, he would have found what the court discovered – a supplementary document marked as an exhibit to the architect’s underlying agreement with the owner, specifically stating that the architect’s scope of services, as well as his compensation, encompassed “structural engineering, including site visits during construction”. A surprise for the architect on this case but in fact not especially unusual on projects of this sort. The law in several jurisdictions actually anticipates that there will be times when incidental to one’s practice, a professional may perform services outside his or her specific discipline on a project, such that, for example, an engineer may perform architectural services and an architect engineering related tasks.
Simply thinking one can defend a claim on the grounds that he or she is by discipline not required to perform any specific duties related to another, different profession, could be a big mistake. Such responsibilities can easily become blurred in today’s complicated projects, and they generally do when something goes wrong. It is as critical for professionals to spell out those obligations they are not agreeing to take on as those that they are.