Drawing a line
Engineers and architects battle over regulation
IT’S NOT QUITE a gang war with combatants brandishing mechanical pencils but there’s a brewing battle over state regulations that engineering companies say are arcane and outdated but architects insist are necessary for the “health, safety, and general welfare” of the public, especially for projects involving tax dollars.
Under Massachusetts regulations, only a licensed architect with “responsible control”—in other words, someone who works hands-on with the project from start to finish—can sign off on drawings to certify they meet state building codes.
Further, if an engineering company is in charge of the project, the architect with responsible control must be a corporate officer in order to ensure there’s a place for the buck to stop should something go wrong.
“You don’t want to lose personal responsibility,” says John Pesa, a licensed architect and member of the state Board of Registration of Architects. “The whole business of safety is people taking responsibility. The corporation doesn’t have an identity. They literally can get away with killing someone with a bad design. If you lose the personal accountability, it’s game over.”
“We have some member firms that practice both architecture and engineering, which was a business model that was not contemplated when the first statutes and regulations regarding the practice were promulgated over 50 years ago,” Goodman wrote in an email response. “Those opposed to what we are saying appear to have a protectionist position.“
The architect board is currently fashioning updated regulations and, in September, passed some amendments that reinforced the requirement for responsible control. But engineering companies are working hard behind the scenes to make changes that would be more favorable.
Much of the fight stems from an investigation several years ago into worldwide engineering giant AECOM, which has scores of offices around the globe, including one in Boston. Pesa, a former employee of AECOM, tried unsuccessfully through internal channels to force the company to stop falsely representing employees as Massachusetts licensed architects. He then went to state officials to alert them but was told he’d have to file a formal complaint for the state to launch a probe, which he ultimately did.
The ensuing investigation by the Division of Professional Licensure determined AECOM misrepresented four employees as licensed architects. According to records, the probe determined the company had at least 14 public projects, including at the MBTA, Massport, and municipal government level, that were not signed off by licensed architects certifying them as compliant with state code.
Officials at AECOM, who did not return a call to the corporate office for comment, passed it off at the time, saying the four employees were issued business cards—which had the titles “Project Architect” or “Senior Architect”—“through inadvertency and oversight without intent to circumvent the Commonwealth’s laws.”
The Board of Registration of Architects, though, saw it as a more egregious action that compromised public safety and levied a fine of $75,000, the largest ever for violations of state regulations for architects.
John F. Miller, one of the founders of Cambridge-based HMFH Architects Inc. and chairman of the architect board at the time, said the violations were significant and, though nothing has occurred to date, could have potential impacts on public safety because the projects involved areas paid for and used by the public.
Goodman, the engineering industry group’s executive director, says the same end can be accomplished by having a lower-level architect handle the project under the “supervisory and professional control” of corporate officers who can review the work.
“The level of detail and knowledge required by the definition of responsible control suggests an intimacy with a project that is not practical for every officer tasked with overseeing a firm’s business practice,” she says. “Delegation of that responsibility, with oversight by an officer, will lead to better professional results.”
But Miller says that approach has been tried and failed.“You can just go to the Big Dig to find evidence of that happening,” he says, citing a 2006 fatality from a collapsed ceiling panel that was signed off by engineers who didn’t factor in the requirements for load-bearing epoxy.
The engineering group “has made a particular point that the old regulations have been outdated and need to be changed and these are very cumbersome to companies,” says Miller. “I don’t believe that is the case. It’s the primary way of ensuring that the design meets the building codes and it is done in a safe manner.”