Most of the time, there are few topics more boring than professional practice. As long as a lawyer I’m talking to has passed the bar exam and is licensed, for example, I don’t care about the details of their continuing education. Every once in a while, a problem in this topic crops up in an ugly manner and we’re all reminded that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Based on my memories of the news over the last few decades, it feels like the ugliest cases involve doctors, but cases involving engineers and architects happen more frequently. That’s anecdotal in any case, but this is not: there’s a 51-story building in construction right now and no one seems to know who the architect is. There’s an architect’s name on the paperwork that was filed with the Department of Buildings, but he’s retired and has explicitly said he was not part of the design team.
I have no information other than what’s been made publicly available in the Times article linked to above and a few other news sources. So I’m not going to speculate and I encourage everyone to read the article. However I read the comments on the Times article – usually a mistake – and realized that a lot of people outside the AEC world really don’t understand what happened or what it means. I was particularly annoyed by the people who said that it was a meaningless paperwork error because engineers are the ones responsible for safety. So here’s my view of this, two weeks shy of thirty years since I was licensed by New York as an engineer:
- Architects are one type of specialist involved in building design, all of whom are responsible for safety. Elevator designers are, for the most part, mechanical engineers, but there’s nothing that is more obviously related to safety than elevator design. A lot of the systems that mechanical engineers touch are obviously related to safety (sprinklers, electric systems, boilers) and those that are not so obvious (plumbing, HVAC) are still part of the safety discussion. If you don’t think air supply is related to safety, have a horrifying read about Legionnaires’ Disease. I feel like structural engineers’ connection to safety is too obvious to discuss, but the may just mean I’m a fish who doesn’t know he’s swimming. Architects carry responsibility for, among other things, fire-proofing and fire egress, which are obviously safety related. They also make decisions about occupancy, which is indirectly safety related.
- The average person does not know the details of what an architect or engineers knows (just as the average architect or engineer doesn’t know the details of what a doctor knows) and the purpose of state licensure is to provide some minimum benchmark of competence. Being licensed doesn’t mean you’re good at your job, or a good person, or the right professional for any particular project. It means that you’ve shown (once) that you can clear a bar based on professional knowledge. And in most states (including New York) it shows that you’re making some minimum effort on continuing education.
- Licenses are linked to individuals. However, most licensed architects and engineers work at companies rather than being self-employed. So what kind of company can offer those services? According to the state Office of the Professions: “Architectural services may be provided by a sole practitioner, a professional service corporation (PC), a professional service limited liability company (PLLC), a registered limited liability partnership (LLP), or a professional partnership (all partners must be licensed). With few exceptions, no other types of businesses may offer architectural services.” Pretty good…only architecture firms may offer architectural services, and there’s similar language for engineers. But there’s no real policing of firms, and, in the case that started me on this track, it appears that the development company had a branch company that provided architectural design. So there was no real separation between developer and architect.
- The use of a seal – which is simply a representation of the professional’s license, no more and no less – without the professional’s knowledge is a crime. I don’t know if the retired architect knew his seal and license were being used or not. But the recent and on-going switch from paper drawings to PDFs and from a physical seal to an image embedded in a PDF has certainly made it more difficult to know if your seal is being misused. When I retire, off in the future, I can take my rubber New York State seal with me, but there are a lot of images of it out in the world, beyond my control.
I could keep going, but this is probably enough. If someone forged a lawyer’s name on a court filing or a doctor’s name on a prescription, there would not be much, if any, debate that the fault lies in the forgery.