Apologize for a design error? (law note)

SorryHave you ever apologized to a client for a failure in your professional work? Is that a good idea, or one that will get you in trouble with your partners/ lawyers/ insurance carrier/ the Court? As always, the answer is “it depends”.

Clients are people too. Even institutional clients are made up of people, and all people appreciate being told the truth and having a sincere apology when warranted. However, in general, anything that is said against your own interests can be used against you in Court. What’s a responsible engineer or architect to do?

Last week, I attended a thoughtful presentation on apologies by Burns Logan, Corporate Counsel for Jacobs, at the American Bar Association’s Construction Law Forum. Burns Logan

Burns’ main take aways:

1. You don’t have to actually say you are “sorry” (especially if you aren’t) to get the benefit of the strategy. You only have to include an explanation, accept responsibility, and make a reasonable offer of repair.

2. Deliver the “apology” in mediation where you don’t run the risk of it being used against you as evidence in court (most apology statutes don’t help in construction-related disputes)


The second point is key– mediation in most states (including North Carolina) is confidential.  Nothing can be quoted or held against you if it is part of mediation.  So, consider taking responsibility (with explanation), but do so at your mediation conference.

If you’d like to see Burns’ entire slide show, it can be found here.  Thanks, Burns, for a very informative presentation.

Questions/thoughts/comments?  Share below, or drop me an email.

“Sorry” photo (c) myguitarzz via Creative Commons. 

Orders of Precedence in Construction Contracts, and the conflict between architects and contractors

duking it outA few years back, we discussed the Orders of Precedence clause in Construction Contracts.  I wrote a post talking about how having such a clause in a contract can help the parties navigate in the grey areas where specifications and drawings may disagree.

My post generated a follow up guest post from Phil Kabza, a MasterSpec specialist, on what he saw as the problems with an order of precedence clause in truly protecting all parties to the contract.

This week, Phil’s guest post generated a new, and thought-provoking (flame-provoking?) comment from “Joe GC”.  Joe writes:

It is another very typical situation of the Architect and Engineer doing a poor job and then trying to seek relief of their error at the contractors expense. Phil’s comments are based on the fact that all contractors are not ethical, which is simply not true. If the subcontractor is the expert, then why are the drawings and specifications prepared by Architect’s and Engineer?

This is exactly why Design Build delivery methods are becoming more popular by the day.   Single source responsibility from someone who really is an expert, not someone who has a lot of education and therefore purports to be an expert.

In otherwords in laymen’s terms “If I have to verify everything you draw and specify Mr. Architect, then why do I need you in the process at all”? If you are not responsible for the review of the submittals then why do I need to send them to you? No more “approved” stamps just “reviewed” stamps; it’s becoming a joke!

When will the Design Community wake up? That is why so many Architects and Engineers are now finding themselves working for contractors.  You are responsible for the Design Mr. Architect, it is cut and dry, simple as that, not rocket science and you do not need to be AIA or P.E. to understand it.

AIA needs to do more training, especially when it comes to spending time in the field. They need to understand what they are designing, just as the contractor needs to understand what he is building.  They have never seen it that way because they think they are above the contractor or smarter than the contractor.

Until they learn they are not better or smarter because of classroom education things will not be improving and the lawyers will continue to be the most successful.


Interesting perspective as to why Design Build is becoming more popular.  I think Joe is correct that Design Build is more popular now, but I think it has less to do with concerns about design professionals avoiding liability and more to do with the economic value in having the “buck stopping” at one single entity.

Is there a perception that designers are classroom educated but not field trained?  Is it a fair one?  Share YOUR thoughts with Joe and me, below.


Universal Design-Part 2: Current Challenges

Ed. note:  This is the second of a two part series on Universal Design by Guest Post author Dick Duncan.  “Universal Design-Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing,” can be found here

 UDI logo



Current Challenges

Partially due to success of accessibility implementation and compliance in recent years, the term “accessibility” and the ideas about an “accessible” built environment are commonly known, if imperfectly understood. For example, to many people “fully accessible” means primarily usable by people who use wheelchairs, losing the inclusionary aspect of responding to the needs of people with other disabling conditions. One result of this pervasive consciousness about and misunderstandings of accessibility is confusion about the nature of universal design.

 Common myths include: 

  • That universal design is really “just accessibility that is dressed up to look good.”  If this were true, a new paint job might suffice.
  • That universal design is just fully accessible design but with the addition of characteristics that makes it usable by other people too. Well-engineered functionality is crucial to a universal outcome but will always fall short if the design is not integrated or mainstreamed. Often misused in this regard is the term universal access.
  • That universal design is an umbrella term that now covers all things accessible and assistive. This lacks recognition of the broad beneficiary groups, the integrated and mainstreamed aspects of universal design, and the differences between accessibility, assistive technology, and universal design.
  • That universal design is the new age or current term for accessible design. It is “what we are calling it” now. This suggests the notion that universal design is merely the politically correct term that one must be careful to use in polite company. With this thinking, universal design is grouped together with code compliance and other efforts.

There is legitimate confusion between universal design and more similar concepts or concepts, such as visitability (an US-based approach, limited to housing, that promotes limited usability features), Design for All (a similar idea to universal design, principally in use in Europe), Life Span Design (used in the US, principally reflecting age sensitive design), Transgenerational Design (an idea formed in the US that good design now must accommodate people of all ages), Flex Housing (developed by Canadian Housing and Mortgage that includes features of accessibility as well as other innovative design ideas), and Lifetime Homes (developed in the UK, broadly applied standards with specific usability features). The variety of concepts and common misunderstandings regarding universal design highlights the need for continued educational activities and suggests the need for international communication and collaboration.

An important component of a universal approach to design challenges focuses on the process of design. In this manner, an appropriate outcome can be assured through the process itself. Termed  ‘universal designing’ , a broad and inclusive design process includes many perspectives and is mindful of the ergonomic, human factors, and social equity considerations.

Global Universal Design Code

A national effort is now underway to develop voluntary universal design standards that will cover all domains of the built environment, initially retail, community and housing. The Mace Institute is an active participant with the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) and AARP in efforts to bring these new standards to life over the next several years.



Universal Design Summit 4 

To obtain excellent education on UD issues, consider attending Universal Design Summit 4 this fall.  The Summit, entitled “Creating Livable Homes & Communities” will be held October 10-12, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. 


RL Mace Universal Design Institute

To learn more about the RL Mace Universal Design Institute, download this Executive Summary (pdf) or visit the UDI website.

Universal Design- Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing

Most construction professionals in America are well aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the changes in design which have resulted in an effort to accommodate disabled persons in public places.  Far fewer construction professionals, however, are aware of the concept of “universal design”.  The international nonprofit RL Mace Universal Design Institute , which is based in Chapel Hill, NC, is aiming to change that and to educate the construction professional on why building to a UD standard will add value to all built environments. [Full disclosure: I am the current Vice President of the RL Mace UDI and member of the Board of Directors].

The Institute’s Mission Statement :

“The Institute’s work manifests the belief that all new environments and products, to the greatest extent possible, should and can be usable by everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance.”

I asked Richard (“Dick”) Duncan, Executive Director of the Mace UDI, to explain a little about the need for and concept of universal design.  What follows is the Part 1 of the first ever Guest Post on this blog:

UDI logo

Richard Duncacn

Universal Design Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing

by Richard C. Duncan, MRP, Executive Director

Adapted and revised from: Universal Design – Clarification and Development: A Report for the Ministry of the Environment, Government of Norway, Richard Duncan, NC State University, March 2007


“The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. “

Ron Mace, 1988

Emergence of Universal Design

It is generally agreed that the term universal design first entered into usage in the mid-1980’s by United States (US) architect, Ronald L. Mace, FAIA Since then the concept of universal design has spread worldwide and has influenced and joined related concepts such as Design for All, Life Span Design, and Inclusive Design. In its 20-year history in the US, universal design has slowly gained acceptance but has seen an uneven adoption. Universal design still remains a strategy that has been implemented by different sectors of the private and public domains, selectively and for fairly narrowly framed purposes. From the perspective of more usable and supportive environments, the US remains principally focussed on accessibility: developing regulations, codes, standards, policies and procedures to provide societal inclusion to people with disabilities.

The emergence of universal design depended substantially on many years of work on accessibility and the lessons learned from those activities. Accessibility efforts and the fundamental values of the disability rights movement in large part formed the foundation on which universal design concepts were built. But, universal design came into being partly because of the nature of accessibility that existed in the US by 1985; it was neither commonly found nor was it creatively applied. However, the appearance of universal design did not herald the end of accessibility. Two of the most significant American federal laws requiring accessibility were yet to be enacted by the time universal design began to emerge: the Fair Housing Amendments Act was signed in 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. Universal design and accessibility have continued to develop in a connected yet parallel manner, during the time of the greatest activity in the realm of accessibility code compliance. To be sure, the philosophical basis for the accessibility movement and universal design are quite similar: inclusion, full participation, and social equity. Universal design extends beyond the confines of accessibility to include all persons and creates that inclusion by promoting integrated and mainstreamed products, environmental features, and services.

The national expansion of accessibility provisions into private buildings, multifamily housing, and beyond, has continued the dominant role of accessible design to this time. This has presented a challenge for advocates of universal design in their promotion of conceptual, policy and practical distinctions. While the great advantage of 50 years worth of work on accessible design has been the creation of a markedly accessible non-residential built environment, it has also carved a large space in the collective psychology of people in the US. For example, universal design as a distinct idea is often confused with, if not subsumed by, the more narrowly targeted concept of accessible design. Broadening the beneficiary group of more usable designing to include all of society is a significant practical and symbolic step that still requires much more effort.

The accessibility field in the US has been part of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities that began after World War II, and was related to the larger worldwide human rights movement principally identified with the United Nations. The US disability activities paralleled other similar civil rights movements by disenfranchised groups in the US at that time, for example women, African Americans, and Native Americans. During the 1960’s and since then, the disability community in the US has vigorously advocated for the creation of civil rights legislation and building regulations that provided accessibility features, e.g., curb cuts, stepless entrances, and lever door hardware. The initial major push into accessible building design came after the publication of the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) A117.1 standard in 1961, the first US accessibility design standard.

When Universal Design arose 25 years later, accessibility work in the intervening years had made great progress by appearing in some federal and state policies with respect to programs and services, architecture, transportation, public rights of way, public spaces, and to a lesser extent, housing. Although not uniformly applied or consistently rendered, by the mid-1980’s accessible design was becoming more of a reality for the design and construction industry across the US. Standards such as ANSI A117.1, and its many later revisions and other accessibility provisions that were based on it were a great steps forward in the field, yet had similar flaws. Those flaws revealed the limitations of a code-based approach. Later analysis showed that the codes and standards “… have been developed by an approach of modifying the norm through the use of a few specially designed features and products to accommodate the ‘few’ who vary from the norm.” This approach led to an ‘after-the-fact’ implementation of access features (even in new construction) which resulted in “…  facilities which have their own ‘functional limitations’ and aesthetic problems.”  Other code-based challenges were also noted. Too often, segregated accessible features were ‘special,’ more expensive, and usually ugly.

The twenty-five years of work on accessible design in the US, from 1960 – 1985, formed the body of work from which universal design emerged. Continued progress in the realm of accessibility since then has firmly established accessible design as a fundamental discipline and outcome that has benefited many. Done well and creatively, good accessible design can be truly universal. As was said nearly 10 years ago, “The demographic, legislative, economic, and social changes that brought us to this point are increasing the momentum that will propel us into the 21st century that will need to be more accommodating of individual differences. Universal design provides a blueprint for maximum inclusion of all people.”

Tomorrow’s Post:  Universal Design Part 2- Current Challenges in Universal Design


Design Error and the Spearin Doctrine (Law note)

engineering plansDesign Error.  Two words that strike fear into the heart of any architect, engineer, or lawyer representing them.  Today’s post discussion is to discuss the different obligations of each of the parties on a construction project relating to design errors.

As discussed last week, designers have an obligation to design in accordance with a reasonable standard of care.  That does not mean that the plans and specifications are perfect, however.

While the contractor is not responsible for design errors, he does have a duty to report any design errors or omissions which he discovers during his review of the plans.  If he discovers any design errors, he must report them to the owner.  See, for example, AIA A201 3-2.2.

As we have also discussed, an owner also impliedly warrants the adequacy of the plans and specifications .  This is sometimes known as the “Spearin Doctrine,” after the seminal Supreme Court  case, US. v. Spearin, 248 U.S. 132 (1918).   In Spearin, a contractor sought to recover from the government for the government’s failure to provide accurate plans reflecting the overflow issues which preexisted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard,   The Court held:

[I]f the contractor is bound to build according to plans and specifications prepared by the owner, the contractor will not be
responsible for the consequences of defects in the plans and specifications, (Citations omitted). This responsibility of the owner is
not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, to check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements of the
work. The duty to check plans did not impose the obligation to pass upon their adequacy to accomplish the purpose in view.

Id. at 136-137. The Spearin Doctrine has been faithfully followed in the North Carolina courts. See, e.g., City of Charlotte v. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 103 N.C, App. 667, 407 S.E.2d 571 (1991); Burke Co Public School Bd of Education v Juno Construction Corp, 50 N.C App. 238, 273 S.E,2d 504 (1981).

One state court held, “[i]t is simply unfair to bar recovery to contractors who are mislead by inaccurate plans and submit bids lower than they might otherwise have submitted.” Battle Ridge Companies v. North Carolina Dept. of Transportation, 161 N.C. App. 156, 160, 587 S.E.2d 426 (2003), quoting Lowder v. Highway Comm., 26 N.C, App, 622, 638, 217 S.E.2d 682, 692, cert denied, 288 N.C. 393, 218 S.E.2d 467 (1975).

Obviously, the architect or engineer is the ultimate party responsible for design errors, but all parties play a role in identifying and minimizing the effect of such errors through prompt notification.


Photo “pipes” by moonlight on celluloid via Flickr via Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.