Turf wars among A/E firms define disciplines

August 11, 2010

The differences and similarities between architecture and engineering are no more apparent than in the turf wars between these two learned professions. Virtually every state regulates architects and engineers and offers its own definition of what each one is. In reality, however, there is no bright line legal distinction between architecture and engineering. Each relates to the application of mathematical knowledge to the planning and design of structures and the supervision of their erection.

Because architecture and engineering disciplines overlap, those common areas often given rise to turf wars between the professions. Yet, when one of the professions accuses the other of encroachment, the one that is accused of encroaching defends upon the basis of differences, not similarities.

The entire justification for regulating the two professions is to protect the public on important issues related to health, safety and property. Courts are generally reluctant to get involved in pure turf wars between architects and engineers where one is viewed as trying to protect its own self-interest at the expense of the other.

Court cases cloud clarity

There are a number of cases in the U.S. that illustrate how common elements between the two professions prevent the application of a bright line test that will distinguish one from the other. For example, the Florida District Court of Appeals has found that the separate Florida statutes dealing with architects and engineers each independently allow both architects and engineers to plan, design and supervise construction. Thus, there is no clear basis upon which to distinguish between the practice of architecture and engineering. [Verich vs. Florida State Board of Architecture, 239 So. 2d 29 (Fla.App. 1970)]

The Pennsylvania statutory scheme also presents an example of the muddy water that clouds the differences between architects and engineers. In interpreting Pennsylvania's professional licensing statutes, the court refused to erect unreasonable barriers or boundaries between the two professions or to carve out areas of turf for one profession at the expense of the other.

In this case, an owner hired a firm to survey the owner's building and create a set of drawings so that the building could be renovated. Upon completing the drawings, the owner informed the surveyor that he wished to proceed with construction, but was told that he would have to hire a licensed design professional to approve the structural integrity of the alterations and to affix a professional seal to the drawings. The owner then contacted a licensed professional architect who reviewed the plans and agreed to manage the project. However, the owner declined to hire the architect because of high fees. On the surveyor's recommendation, the owner then contacted a professional engineering firm that reviewed the drawings and agreed to manage the project for an acceptable fee. Upon learning that an engineer had sealed the design documents, the architect filed a complaint with the Architect's Licensure Board asserting that the surveyor and the engineer had engaged in the practice of architecture without a license.

After working its way through the administrative process, the case was finally decided by the court. The Pennsylvania high court decided that the state law was not unlike the law of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Utah, California, Idaho, Illinois and Nevada. It found that there is not a clear basis and bright line by which to distinguish between the practice of architecture and engineering.

Accordingly, the court ruled that even though there were incidental items of architecture performed by the engineer, the engineer would not be found to have practiced architecture without a license because the statute permits an engineer to practice architecture, if the practice of the allied profession is incidental to the practice of engineering. [Rosen vs. Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, etc., 763 A 2d 962 (2000)]

Carry-over effects

Courts disdain architecture and engineering disputes involving turf wars. This same reluctance will carry over when architects and engineers want to join forces to block unlicensed contractors from engaging in design-build work. However, where matters of public health and property are involved, courts are not reluctant to get involved.


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