The Practice of Architecture in California and Architectural Negligence

Architecture and Expert Witnesses

In litigation, the determination of architectural negligence, or malpractice as it is commonly known, has to be evidenced by testimony of expert witnesses. In assessing whether or not an architect conformed to the “standard of care,” an expert witness must consider whether or not the architect used ordinary care and skill, that is, what a reasonably prudent architect would do in the same community and in a given time frame given the same or similar circumstances.

Establishing Architectural Competency in California

What seems like an extremely subjective evaluation can, however, make use of the results of a large body of research published by the California State Board of Architectural Examiners (CBAE), first in 1989, then ten years later in 1999. One of the missions of CBAE is to establish the minimum level of competency for an architect to be licensed to practice. Except for a short time in the 1980’s, the CBAE has utilized the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE) produced by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Because of the perception that the national examination was neither rigorous enough nor sufficiently pertinent to conditions unique to California, the CBAE created, and used for a short time, its own examination, which was first administered in 1988.In the process of creating and later validating the new examination, the CBAE in 1986 hired CTB/McGraw-Hill to conduct a survey to identify and quantify the minimum architectural skills and competencies necessary to ensure protection of the public health, safety and welfare. This effort yielded a wealth of information about the nature of the practice of architecture in California, “information that has never before been collected, sorted, analyzed, studied and made available to the public in such depth” (CTB/McGraw Hill, Current Architecture Practice, 1989).The survey data, which was published in 1989, was first used to develop the California Architects Licensing Examination (CALE) and then later used to develop the oral California Supplemental Examination (CSE) after California returned to the fold of other states using the NCARB national examination. The 1989 report attempted to answer the elusive question of “What is architecture?” and “What qualifies a person to practice architecture?”

1989 Core Competencies

What emerged from the study, which incorporated surveys completed by hundreds of California architects, was, ” … a clearer picture than we have previously had of the demands of architectural practice — and therefore a clearer definition of what competent architects need in daily practice, and in what measure.” The top 10 of the total of 405 practice “aspects’ rated by California architects were:

  1. Understand the techniques for making buildings water and moisture proof
  2. Understanding roof system slopes, applications, and flashing
  3. Apply knowledge of material characteristics in meting fire safety requirements
  4. Knowledge of roof drainage and water disposal
  5. Prepare details for moisture and environmental control
  6. Knowledge of flashing, drainage, and weatherstripping of wall openings
  7. Design and detail of ramps and stairs
  8. Determine any special safety and emergency egress requirements
  9. Understand dampproofing and waterproofing subgrade walls
  10. Use moisture barriers in concrete slabs on grade.

1999 Core Competencies

In January of 1997, the CBAE contracted with Professional Management Evaluation Services, Inc., (PMES) to develop a new test plan for the California Supplemental Examination (oral exam) for implementation beginning with the February 1999 examination administration. A comprehensive report on the survey and its interpretation, The Practice of Architecture in California, is available from the California Board of Architectural Examiners, 400 “R” Street, Suite 4000, Sacramento, CA 95814-6238, phone 916/445-3393. When comparing the results of the 1987 and the 1997 surveys, a significant pattern or shift in the practice of architecture can be detected. The ten highest priority issues identified by architects in 1997 were as follows:

  1. Laws, codes, regulations and standards
  2. Program information related to design solution
  3. Communication of design decisions for project implementation
  4. Relationships with relevant regulatory agencies
  5. Integrate appropriate building systems and materials
  6. Natural systems and the built environment related to a site or facility
  7. Role of architect in relationship with client and users
  8. Relationships with consultants and team members

Changes in Core Competencies Over a Decade

Moisture problems, followed by codes and regulations, ranked highest a decade earlier. According to CBAE, “this suggests that the profession is becoming more sophisticated and is accepting an expanded level of challenge. Building mechanics and technical considerations are still very important, but they have been joined by concerns dealing with design solutions, regulations, and regulatory agencies, and the expanding role of the architect as he/she interacts with clients, users and other consultants. Some of the differences in the two surveys may be the result of the change in the methodology used in constructing the survey instrument; however, a change has occurred adding relationships with people to the technical issues dealing with things.”For expert witnesses ascertaining the standard of care for California architects, the expectations of what a practicing architect must know and do have both expanded and risen.Another point of view is that the shift in the focus of architecture from technical competence to understanding codes and regulations is less due to the profession becoming more sophisticated and accepting an expanded level of challenge, as the CBAE asserts, or whether the shift is due to the increasing, and often overwhelming, number of codes and regulations architects are being asked to comply with. Ten years ago, the Uniform Building Code consisted of one volume. Today it occupies three volumes. Add to that California’s ever growing CCR Title 24 (some of which are applicable only to specific building types and only by specific regulatory agencies), ADA, an assortment of environmental agency regulations, and local ordinances and codes, and the job of keeping it all straight can be a full time job. The proposed changes to the International Building Code, for the year 2000 is over two inches thick. In the quest to protect the safety and welfare of the public, those who have undertaken the task of regulating building by heaping responsibilities on architects may be creating a system of complex rules as incomprehensible as to those of the IRS and, as a result, imposing a burden on architects beyond the capacity of any individual to carry.