When it comes to the planning and designing of buildings, the line between engineering and architecture is not always clear.
In jurisdictions where the law dictates that only ‘architects’ can perform certain functions and only ‘engineers’ can perform others, however, such a distinction can have important legal consequences.
Those were the circumstances in a court case outlined in the Structural Engineer magazine by deputy executive director and general counsel for the National Society of Engineers Arthur Schwartz.
The case in question concerned three licenced engineers in the US state of Texas. The engineers in question had each separately prepared and issued comprehensive plans and specifications for a range of publicly-owned building projects, including a library, an addition to a public school, an auditorium and a law enforcement centre.
Being engineers, none of the three were registered as architects in Texas or any other state, nor did any of them claim to be architects at any stage or elicit the input of any architect at any stage during which the plans were prepared.
That raised the ire of the Texas Architecture Board, which filed complaints against the three for the ‘unauthorised practice of architecture’ in violation of the Texas Architecture Practice Act.
For a number of reasons, the Texas Court of Appeal said when hearing the case, the legal issues involved were complex. For starters, by nature, a considerable degree of overlap exists between the two disciplines and their respective regulatory regimes under Texas law. Furthermore, the Texas Architecture Act and Texas Engineering Act cross reference one another, meaning that to some extent, in order to interpret one of the Acts, the court also had to interpret the other.
In the end, the court said neither Act established a clear line of demarcation between the two professions, and that to the extent of any overlap between the Acts, it would be unreasonable and contrary to the legislature’s intention to defer entirely to either agency’s interpretation of their respective Acts.
As a result, the court has now sent the case back to a lower court to determine, on the basis of the facts in question, whether or not the engineers’ work in this case constituted the practice of ‘engineering’ under the Texas Engineering Act. If so, it appears the three may escape penalty.
Common sense the order of the day
The case highlights the need to apply common sense in setting laws determining which work which can and cannot be done by engineers and architects, and also in interpreting those laws.
As Schwartz says in his article, there will always be some degree of overlap on certain areas between the two professions and there is no way that any legal regime can credibly draw a fine line of demarcation between the two that will cover each and every situation.
Where potential for overlap exists, it should be up to individual engineering firms and practitioners to practice within the scope of their expertise and to seek appropriate external help from suitably qualified architects or designers for any tasks on jobs which exceeds this expertise. Likewise, the reverse applies for architects for work involving engineering skills.
Surely, no engineer or architect should ever be penalised for performing any form of work which is reasonably within the scope of their function, qualifications or professional expertise.
Ultimately, users of either engineering or architectural services are best served if a degree of latitude is given to enable practitioners to make a professional judgement call based on common sense as to the work they do and do not perform.