The Declining Role of Architects in Representing Ownership Interests

Melissa Brumback is a North Carolina construction lawyer and specializes in representing design professionals. Her blog, Construction Law in North Carolina is on my short list of must-read blogs pertaining to the built environment. A recent post of hers triggered some interesting discussion because of an inadvertent mis-wording. Originally titled, Construction Administration, she quickly revised the title to, Construction, er make that CONTRACT, Administration services: a primer (law note).

Liz O’Sullivan, a Denver-based architectural specification writer, first alerted Melissa that CA in an architectural contract refers to Contract Administration, not Construction Administration. She followed up with a blog post of her own: A Note on “C.A.” – Administration of the Contract. Well at least we got that cleared up…

How does this benefit the client?

A while back, I wrote a post over at my personal blog entitled, The Future of Architecture as a Profession? In that post, I pulled out some key points from a report by UK-based think tank, Building Futures, attempting to assess the viability of the architecture profession in 2025. Architects no longer function in the same roles that they used, for the most part. In the distant (but yet not so distant) past, architects were the owners’ representative. They breathed life into the dreams of their clients from the initial sketches through to completion. Contrast that image with the following quote from Brumback’s post:

Perhaps the most concept to remember for your CA role on a construction project: never agree to “inspect” the contractor’s work. Your role should be observation to see that the work is in general conformance with your design. You cannot guarantee the contractor’s work (nor would such be insurable). Therefore, be careful to use the word “observation” and not the word ”inspect” in your CA description.

From a risk management perspective, she is absolutely right. From the client/owner’s perspective (you know, those people that pay for and must live with your work), this is not in their best interest. And it is my opinion (as a non-architect) that this dynamic in architect-client relations is precisely why architects are seeing a diminished role in the built environment.

But all is not lost. The forward thinking and more entrepreneurial architects are diversifying their service offerings and finding other ways to bring value to their clients. In my original post I highlighted some examples of ways that architects are expanding beyond the increasingly limited role of the profession. Innovation isn’t easy. But isn’t that why you went to architecture school in the first place – to innovate?

Speaking of innovation, here is Bjarke Ingels on the topic:

Oh, and one more thing…

Check out this post I wrote about How to Effectively Market a Small Professional Service Firm, featuring another forward-thinking architecture firm that is not resting on its laurels.

Image courtesy seattlemunicipalarchives

5 thoughts on “The Declining Role of Architects in Representing Ownership Interests

  1. Brian,

    The Owner also pays for, and must live with, the work of the CONTRACTOR. The
    Owner has one Contract with the Architect, and a separate Contract with the

    The Architect does not have a Contract with the Contractor.

    The Architect does not have the legal ability to make sure that the
    Contractor’s work is in compliance with the Contract Documents. The
    Architect cannot obtain insurance coverage that will allow him to do this.
    The Contractor is the only party (PRIOR to litigation, anyway) who has the
    ability to make sure that his work is in compliance with the Contract

    Sometimes an Owner wishes to pay for a full-time project representative from
    the Architect’s office. AIA documents define this as an additional service.
    This more extensive representation by the Architect allows for the Architect
    to provide more continuous observation, but, just as with regular
    Construction Contract Administration, an on-site project representative is
    still not licensed or qualified to take on any of the Contractor’s
    responsibilities, or give the Contractor direction on means and methods or

    The Contractor is responsible for complying with the requirements of his
    Contract with the Owner. He’s the only party (again, PRIOR to litigation)
    who can make sure he does that.

    1. Liz,

      Thanks for your comment! I hear you, and you are absolutely right, especially with regard to managing/directing work.

      In hundreds, possibly well over 1,000 construction defect cases I have been involved in, less than 1% result in any claims involving the architect. There are many complicated reasons for this, but suffice to say, even when there are legitimate design deficiencies, the architect rarely ends up paying out.

      The bigger issue, for me, is that most owners are unaware of the need for a separate owners rep, whether that is an independent third party or as part of additional services. I disagree with the statement, "The Contractor is the only party (PRIOR to litigation, anyway) who has the ability to make sure that his work is in compliance with the Contract Documents." Many of the defects that exist in the built environment stem from the mistaken belief that contractors should be verifying their own work. From a liability standpoint, my understanding is that most insurance policies exclude coverage for self-performed work.

      Few owners have the ability to adequately verify that work is completed per the CDs, applicable codes, industry standards. Yet, this is a role that architects ARE well qualified to perform. For construction quality to improve, we need to move beyond simply "trusting" that the contractor will comply with CDs to actually "verifying" that work is performed as required. And yes, I'm well aware of the fact that the standards of practice currently preclude architects from taking on those roles.

      My whole point is that architects have a lot of value to offer, but their role has diminished over time. If you check out that post I referenced regarding the future of the profession, I refer to architects as the MBAs of the construction industry. If architects could take a more proactive role and focus more on delivering real value to the clients, I think we could all benefit.

      Playing it safe isn't going to cut it any more.

  2. By the way Liz, I just noticed this article that you linked to a while back from Ron Green:

    I'd say that he does an even better job than I at making the same point – architects could/should take a larger role in leading the development of the built environment.

    Between you, Ron and Melissa, I feel like I am getting a good education today!

  3. Brian, you’re right, of course – the Owner’s Rep or the Owner’s testing agencies or the Contractor’s testing agencies can verify compliance with certain aspects of the Contract Documents. 

    I agree with you, and with Ron, that architects need to be taking a larger role in the built environment.  However, I think that the way we do this is, as Ron says, we expand our “knowledge of building technology and construction documents” – we need to work on the stuff that has to happen BEFORE anyone picks up a hammer. 

    We need to stop giving away the documentation and decision work (the way many architects give this work away to construction managers), and we need to get better at the documentation and decision work.  We do not serve owners well if we hand the technical design and documentation reins over to contractors.  WE ARCHITECTS need to be the people doing that work.  THIS is the area where we need to hold onto, and expand, and take responsibility for, the role of the architect.

    As I posted on someone else’s blog recently, “Architects need to be the people practicing architecture. But in order to continue doing that competently and effectively, architects need to be focusing more on technical building knowledge. Architects as a profession are losing ground in the area of technical competency. Sometimes, it seems as if architects are trying to make up for that by relying on construction managers to fill in the technical gaps, but we’re the ones who are better suited to be doing that.  Construction management delivery cannot be a replacement for lack of technical competency on the part of the architect. (We still have the professional liability for the technical aspects of those designs. If you don’t believe me, just ask the lawyers.)”

    My observation is that the construction documents that some architects issue are not very good.  Different parts of the documents conflict with each other.  Many design decisions haven’t been made by the time of the bid period, therefore many details that the bidders and constructors really need haven’t been drawn (there’s always more than one way to do things – but some architects think that “the Contractor will know how to do this” and he will, but he’ll do it one way or another, and probably not the way the architect intended).

    We don’t need to start doing the Contractor’s Quality Control – we have our own work to get better at.  First, we need to improve upon those tasks which we are already legally responsible for (building technology and construction documents).  After we, as a profession, have gotten much better at that, I’d love to talk with you about whether or not we should be inspecting the Contractor’s work!    

    Thanks for the discussion, Brian!   

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