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28 September 2012

How have the architect's responsibilities changed?

About a hundred years ago, when AIA produced the document that eventually would become the familiar A201, the architect was firmly in control of construction. The 1915 AIA general conditions state, in Article 9, "The Architect shall have general supervision and direction of the work….The Architect has authority to stop the work whenever, in his opinion, such stoppage may be necessary to insure the proper execution of the Contract." Article 11 required the Contractor to "give efficient supervision to the work", and Article 12 required the Contractor to "provide and pay for all materials, labor, water, tools, equipment, light and power necessary for the execution of the work."

Those basic responsibilities remained essentially the same until the 1960s. Since then, a lot has changed.

In 1961, an architect was found liable for the death of a worker in Day v. National U.S. Radiator Corporation. It wasn't the first time an architect had been sued and it won't be the last, but this was a case that called into question the basic responsibilities of the architect, as defined by the general conditions.

Briefly, Wilson & Coleman, an architectural firm in Louisiana, designed a new hospital building for the Louisiana State Building Authority. The contractor hired a subcontractor for all work related to the central heating system and the hot water system, which included a boiler. The specifications required a thermostat and a pressure relief valve for the boiler, but the subcontractor installed them instead on a water storage tank. The subcontractor did not inform the architect the system was ready for inspection, or request that an inspection be made. The subcontractor performed a preliminary test, the boiler exploded, and one of the subcontractor's employees was killed.

It seems obvious that the subcontractor caused the explosion, first, by not installing the required safety equipment, and second, by not requesting inspection of the system before testing. However, a district court found the architects responsible, and relieved other defendants of liability. The architects appealed the decision. The court of appeals not only agreed with the lower court, but increased the amount of damages.

How could the courts come to this decision? The architects, by contract responsible for "supervision of the work", were found negligent for failing to inspect the installation of the hot water system, and for approving shop drawings that did not show a pressure relief valve. In other words, the architects should have been at the site all the time, and should have watched the entire construction process. Apparently, they should have known the boiler was being installed, and they should have inspected it continuously, even if the installer did not tell them about the installation.

In the end, the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court of Louisiana. That court determined that the architect's responsibility was not to continuously verify compliance with the contract documents, but to verify before final acceptance that the contractor had used the correct materials, and "generally that the owner secured the building it had contracted for."

In this case, the courts eventually came to the conclusion that the architect is not responsible for safety, provided the architect is not specifically assigned that responsibility. In other decisions, similar conclusions were made, except in cases when the architect assumed that responsibility by voluntarily becoming engaged in matters related to safety.

Even though the architects in this case eventually were absolved, the AIA quickly updated and reissued its A201 in 1963, only two years after the previous edition. In the 1963 general conditions, the architect's responsibilities were reduced; the architect now was required only to "make periodic visits to the site" and was not required to "make exhaustive or continuous on-site inspections…"

In the 1966 A201, the definitions of responsibilities of both the architect and the contractor were expanded. The brief comments regarding the contractor's supervision of the work and paying for "light and power" were supplemented by making the contractor "solely responsible for all construction means, methods, techniques, sequences and procedures and for coordinating all portions of the Work under the Contract." And if that wasn't clear enough, Article 2 - Architect, states the same thing, as a negative, for the architect: "The Architect will not be responsible for construction means, methods, techniques, sequences or procedures, or for safety precautions and programs in connection with the Work, and he will not be responsible for the Contractor's failure to carry out the Work…" (my emphasis).

Read again what is said about the responsibilities of the architect and of the contractor. In essence, the architect is responsible for showing what the building should look like, and what materials should be used where, and the contractor is responsible for pretty much everything else. Note there is nothing that requires the architect to tell the contractor, or the manufacturer, or the installer how to do their jobs. In fact, it states "The contractor shall be solely responsible for and have control over construction means, methods, techniques, sequences, and procedures and for coordinating all portions of the Work…"

In 1970, the last vestige of the architect's former power was removed. The power to "stop the work" was taken from the architect and given to the owner. This was important, as architects continued to be found liable for worksite injuries, despite the exculpatory provisions of the general conditions. In effect, courts found the "stop the work" clause to mean the architect remained in control of the project, had a duty to understand the hazards associated with all types of work, and should take appropriate action to prevent injuries. Since then, the requirement to "make periodic visits" was changed to "visit the site at intervals appropriate to the stage of construction" to further reduce liability.

Some may argue that none of this diminishes the architect's position as Master Builder, but AIA commentaries suggest otherwise. The commentary to the 2007 A201 states, regarding the means and methods clause in 4.2.2, "The last sentence [which ends with 'since these are solely the Contractor's rights and responsibilities'] underscores the statement of the contractor's responsibilities in 3.3.1 and reinforces the dividing line between the contractor's responsibilities and those of the architect" (my emphasis). Regarding 1.2.1, which states, "The intent of the Contract Documents is to include all items necessary…what is required by one shall be as binding as if required by all…" the comment is, “The contractor is expected to make reasonable inferences…[if] the documents show wall partitions covered by drywall…it may be inferred that some reasonable method will be used to attach the drywall to the underlying framework."

Clearly, those who write the general conditions no longer see the architect as responsible for much beyond a general description of the intended results, and now expect the contractor to play a more prominent role in execution of the contract.

Links to other articles in this series:
What happened to the master builder?
What is a Master Builder?
What have architects given up?
What happened to the architect?
Are specifiers weak in faith?
What lies ahead for architects? 

© 2012, Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CSC


  1. Great history of the evolution of A201 regarding the responsibilities of the architect and contractor. Many are probably not familiar with the changes made during the 60’s.

    I think however that you have quoted the A201-2007 commentary at 1.2.2 out of context - “The contractor is expected to make reasonable inferences…[if] the documents show wall partitions covered by drywall…it may be inferred that some reasonable method will be used to attach the drywall to the underlying framework.".

    This article is about the correlation and intent of the contract documents rather than the division of responsibilities of the architect and contractor. It is not recommending that the architect only indicate ceramic tile flooring without indicating the method of installation. It is saying that if the method of installation was not included in the contract documents, the contractor is still responsible to install the tile flooring by a reasonable method, not necessarily the method that the architect desired.

    Bob Johnson

    1. The point, as you state, is that even if something is shown on the drawings but not specified, the contractor is responsible for providing it. Without the explanation of correlation and intent of documents, the contractor could leave out anything not specifically shown or specified.

      Absent additional information, the results may not be what the architect intended, but the example does make it clear that all that is required of the architect is to illustrate the intended results, and the contractor is required to figure out how to get there. While architects may be great planners or great designers, they do not know, nor are they expected to know, everything about everything; they must rely on contractors to know all the things they don't know. Without the clear dividing line, this would not be the case, and architects would be required to tell the entire construction team how to do their jobs.

      This is not to say that architects shouldn't do more than draw pretty pictures. Along with the drawings, they also must establish minimum standards. They do this by specifying the products they want, by specifying standards, and by specifying required performance. Beyond that, the contractor is required to fill in the gaps - to figure out the sequence of work, to hire and schedule subcontractors, to decide who does what, to comply with specified standards and regulations, and to comply with manufacturers' instructions. The general conditions not only state these are the contractor's responsibilities, but also state they are not the architect's responsibilities.

  2. "While architects may be great planners or great designers, they do not know, nor are they expected to know, everything about everything; they must rely on contractors to know all the things they don't know."
    I don't think that contractors are by any means the only source of finding out about things that Architects don't know.

    I don't believe the general conditions state that the contractor is to install products in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions - that has to be specified.

    A For Instance:
    A publicly bid project includes drawings that indicate and call out all the materials and products required. There is minimal information on the drawings about how the materials and products are assembled. There are no specifications to establish quality levels for the products, include reference standards to follow, or establish installation methods. How would an arbitrator, mediator, judge, or registration board rule about the validity of the bidding/contract documents even with the A201 1.2.1 statement that the contractor is responsible for requirements reasonably inferable from the contract documents to produce the indicated results?

    Bob Johnson

    1. Thanks again for your comments, Bob.

      No, the general conditions do not require compliance with manufacturers' instructions; that is specified in Division 01, as mentioned in the previous article in this series, "Are specifiers weak in faith?"

      "Make sure your Division 01 sections include those aspects of construction common to all sections. State requirements for selection of materials, for storage, for resolution of discrepancies between applicable standards, for installation, for following the manufacturer's instructions, and so on."