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The limits of the architect's role

Legal matters

An architect undertakes a wide range of tasks when working on a typical construction project. Although employed as something of a generalist, it is essential that he or she is able to identify areas in which more expert or more detailed advice may be needed. Many architects are adept at identifying where design and technical matters are beyond the scope of their expertise, and readily recommend to their clients that another consultant or a specialist sub-contractor with design responsibilities be brought on board. Less clear-cut are matters in which architects find clients relying on their advice, or lack of it, in administration. It is all too easy for a client to be induced to believe that all is well, and then blame their architect when things go wrong.

A recent illustration of this can be found in Pozzolanic Lytag Ltd v Brian Hobson Associates, one of the first cases to be decided by the re- named Technology and Construction Court, the tcc. This concerned the parallel example of a project manager and his role in relation to a contractor's insurance. The project manager was an engineer employed to deal with a jct 80 contract with a Contractor's Designed Portion Supplement. The contractor's design was checked by its own engineer sub-contractor, asc. The project manager's duties included ensuring the contractor's compliance with insurance requirements. He asked for details of asc's insurance, which he passed on to the employer. Unhappily, the completed building collapsed, and asc's insurance was found not to comply with the requirements of the main contract.

Mr Justice Dyson, the new head of the tcc, found that the project manager was potentially at fault and that he 'cannot . . . simply act as a 'post- box' and send evidence of the proposed arrangements to the client without comment.' The judge said that if the project manager did not have the expertise to advise on the adequacy of the insurance arrangements, he had two choices. Either he should have sought expert advice himself, or advised his client that expert advice was required.

An example of the court's expectations towards duties entailing advice to clients, which specifically related to an architect, can be found in an earlier case, Partridge v Morris. The court found that the architect's duty to advise on the relative merits of tendering contractors extended to considering their financial acceptability. On the facts of the case, the judge said that the building owner needed advice on this point, and, as there was no other member of the professional team more immediately concerned with the question, the duty to advise fell to the architect. The court said that the architect should have done one or more of the following: obtained a bank reference, obtained a trade credit reference, made enquires of other architects, carried out a company search, or asked the contractor for a copy of its audited accounts.

Terms of appointment should identify the matters on which an architect is to advise. However these may not be exhaustive and the court can look at other evidence for guidance. In Partridge v Morris, to decide the scope of the duty owed, the judge looked at the then current edition of the Architect's Job Book which said: 'When [tenders] have been returned and analysed . . . discreetly check financial status of firms'. Where there is any doubt as to how extensive advice should be, consider the comments of the court in Richard Roberts Holding v Douglas Smith Stimson: 'If [the architects] had wished to limit their role, they should have done so expressly and in writing. They cannot realistically claim to have been bystanders . . .'

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