By Any Other Name

Government watchdogs keep tabs on those who call themselves architects

Back Article Dec 1, 2009 By Bill Romanelli

Just because you can design, doesn’t make you an architect. That was certainly the message sent when the California Architects Board issued two fines of $2,500 each in September 2008 to Diana Suhanova, owner of All in One in Sacramento. The first fine was for submitting plans for a residence with a tile block stating “Architectural Drafting Service” despite the fact Suhanova was not a licensed architect. Likewise, on a community website where All in One was listed as a vendor, the firm was described as providing architectural services, among others, creating grounds for the second fine.

Suhanova hasn’t been the first in the Capital Region to be cited. In March 2008, CAB fined Bruce Gregory Oveson of Vacaville $500 for indicating on a resume that he held an architect’s license in California. He was hired by an El Dorado Hills firm on the understanding that he was a licensed architect. However, his license expired in 1997 and, according to CAB, “was not renewable.” Prior to that, in September 2006, CAB fined Jess Real of Real Design Studio in Manteca $500 for proposing to develop plans for a 12-unit townhouse in Lathrop. Real was not and did not claim to be an architect, but the law required a structure of this size be designed by a licensed architect. By even proposing to develop the plans, Real was “practicing without a license.”

All told, about two-thirds of the citations issued by CAB involve cases of individuals directly or indirectly calling themselves architects when they shouldn’t. In many cases it’s a simple mistake. In others it’s arguably more willful, but either way, the 20,000 licensed architects that CAB regulates have a watchdog on their side.

“It’s a matter of state law. There are restrictions on who can call themselves an architect,” says Don Comstock, executive director of the Central Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “It’s a title like a doctor or an attorney. You have to have a license before you can use the title.”

Without that license, claiming to be an architect in California could result in a penalty of up to $5,000 per count under the state’s Architects Practice Act. The law was enacted to standardize how architectural services should be provided. Differing ideas on how and where a load-bearing wall should be installed, for example, would not bode well for overall public safety.

Today all 50 states have statutes in place similar to California’s Architects Practice Act, which restricts the use of the title. In California, however, CAB is authorized to enforce the law by issuing citations and penalties for “practicing without a license or holding one’s self out as an architect.” That authority, according to Architect magazine, makes California one of the states with the most enforcement muscle.

It’s an authority the board takes seriously. Every single complaint brought to the board is investigated and resolved, whether it’s a warning or a cease-and-desist letter, according to Doug McCauley, CAB’s executive officer.

Others require a financial penalty and in some instances are egregious enough for a referral to the attorney general for criminal prosecution. In CAB’s 2009 fiscal year, the board investigated 282 complaints, of which more than 200 were resolved with citations or cease-and-desist orders.

The range of actions and penalties by CAB are based on how each violation is classified according to the law: class A, B, C, etc. That said, CAB does apply some discretion depending on the facts of a specific case. For example, investigators would determine whether there was an actual attempt at fraud vs. a mistake made and quickly corrected.

Despite how the numbers and the anecdotes may appear, the problem of unlicensed individuals is a relatively small one. Roughly half of the “practicing without a license” cases arise from misunderstandings of the law. For example, an architect licensed in 49 other states still needs to pass an exam and earn a license in California.

In order for most structures to obtain a building permit in California, the design plans must be submitted with a licensed architect’s stamp on them. That means the licensed architect is completely in charge of those drawings, has reviewed and approved them, and ensured the specs are all up to code.

“It all comes down to consumer safety.”

— Matthew Wheeler, executive director, California Building Officials

Now, that’s for most structures. Under California law, any single-family dwelling of wood-frame construction and less than two stories and a basement does not require an architect’s stamp to apply for a permit. In short, your mailman could design your next home if you wanted. The same exemption applies to multifamily dwellings of up to four units per lot, garages and “nonstructural or nonseismic” storefronts and other additions to a building.

That said, no local building official is going to provide a permit for an unsound design, so nothing is meant to suggest that a licensed architect is a must for structures that fit into the exemption areas. There are numerous builders and designers qualified to design these structures.

“Frankly, a lot of the violations we see are from individuals going across the exempt area into the regulated just to pump up their resumes and earn more money,” McCauley says. “Especially in a tough economy, people want to broaden the kind of work they do.”

Whether or not that was Jon Green’s motivation no one can say, and either way it was immaterial to CAB when it fined him $1,000 for two separate causes of action in mid-2006. By executing an agreement to prepare “architectural drawings” for a private, single-family three-story residence in El Dorado Hills, he was practicing architecture without a license. Had it only been a two-story house, he might have only been fined for calling his services “architectural.”

The good news for consumers is that relatively few of the complaints the board investigates are from customers who’ve had projects go sideways on them. That’s because outside of enforcement, the bulk of CAB’s work is preventative. CAB works with several of the 190 architecture-accredited schools in the state, helping students understand what the exemptions cover and, more importantly, what they don’t. It also works with trade groups.

“It all comes down to consumer safety,” says Matthew Wheeler, executive director of California Building Officials, a nonprofit trade group that promotes public health and safety in building construction. “As soon as that architect provides you with their license, you know their credentials. You know what they’ve studied, what exams they’ve taken and what they’re qualified to do. Any time we can partner with CAB to ensure people aren’t acting as architects without a license, and to do something about it when they are, it helps us protect public safety.”

Obtaining an architect’s license is on par with earning a CPA or a law degree. For starters, five years of education and/or qualified work experience are required just to take the national Architect Registration Examination. California takes it a step further and requires an additional three years of education and/or qualified work experience, as well as passing the California Supplemental Examination. Candidates for licensure must also complete a Comprehensive Intern Development Program administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. California does not, however, require an accredited degree in architecture for licensure.

The other benefit for consumers is the inherent system of checks and balances that go into the design and building processes.

“The nature of construction design is multilayered, and that ensures projects won’t advance to the point that some kind of disaster can happen,” McCauley says. “There are contractors and engineers working on projects, there are local cities and counties working to verify that qualified people are submitting plans, and then they’re taking the next step to inspect and approve the construction itself. There are numerous points along the way where we can discover whether someone’s doing something they’re not qualified to do.”

That brings up an important point; It should not be overlooked that the last one-third of the complaints CAB investigates involve licensed architects themselves. Indeed, there have been some examples of licensed architects committing everything from willful misconduct to fraud.

With some 20,000 licensed architects in the state, the bad actors represent a substantially small percentage, and while CAB officials would probably like to believe all the really bad ones have already been smoked out, consumer education on how to hire an architect remains an important pillar of its work.

“All the actions we’ve taken against licensed architects are a matter of public record, so before hiring anyone, consumers should log on and see whether the person they’re considering has been cited before,” McCauley says. “Check references, and have a written contract in place. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this. From there, keep a log and document everything. Those two things, the contract and the log, will be invaluable if a problem comes up.”

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