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Time to be tort a lesson

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Insurance, contracts and tort. Not the name of a firm of solicitors but some of the harsh realities of the law that architects should be educated to understand.


Can they study law without compromising their design flair? Mark Van Hoorebeek and Abe Fineberg make their case


Law exerts a considerable influence over the world of architectural design, as it is intrinsically linked to the design and subsequent project management of all architectural ventures. This influence is set to continue to increase in significance, first due to the UK’s increasingly litigious societal structure, and second as UK firms continue to move in to European and increasingly world markets.


This article proposes that Part 1 or Part 2 architecture students should be taught a module consisting entirely of architecturally related law; if not as a compulsory module, then at least the law component should be offered as an optional choice. The legal knowledge obtained though a taught course can be used subsequently in the year-out in practice and notably in the Part 3 stage of training, where law features heavily. A foundation in law provides a base for further practical knowledge to be developed by the student as his or her career progresses.


Law influences a wide variety of architectural processes:


the initial stage of client/architect contact may be governed by confidentiality;


subsequent designs are covered by copyright, in turn this area is influenced by employment law;


innovative design processes may receive a patent (AJ 27.2.03);


the land is covered by the tenets of property law;


contractors and subcontracts are employed under various types of contract with warranties, conditions guarantees and waivers, not to mention the near-legendary JCT98 contract;


post-build, the architect can meet many forms of liability through negligence and nuisance, in the law of tort; and lprofessional insurances must also be put in place (insurance law).


Aims and objectives


The areas of law outlined above cover virtually all the facets of an undergraduate law degree, which is taught during the three years of a student’s professional qualification. In-depth coverage of each aspect of the UK law is clearly not feasible within the current structure of an undergraduate architectural degree. However, a module can at least endeavour to provide a basic guide to how to identify potential legal problems, and second, to give students the skills to find and subsequently deal with the relevant legislation. Architects must have sufficient knowledge to recognise the nature of any legal issue that may arise.


Current practice


Certain elements of architectural law are currently dealt with in most university departments as a facet of a project/contracts management-type module. There are notable exceptions, such as Plymouth (see tint box) and Edinburgh universities, but the majority of architectural courses cover a limited number of legal topics, preferring to encourage the creative arm of architecture. If law is covered, it is it is generally contracts alone that are explored in depth.


There is little similarity in the way the law is dealt with in the various UK architectural schools. A foundation course would provide an easy introduction and framework for the previously described law modules to build on. Architectural law is an under-discussed area and links between local university law departments, solicitors and architecture schools may provide new insight, funding, specialism and innovation in this area.


Relevant references


The most important legal book for student and professional architects may well be The Architect’s Legal Handbook: The Law for Architects, which is currently edited by Anthony Speaight and Gregory Stone. The Architect’s Legal Handbook is already established as the standard textbook on law for architectural students and the most widely used reference on the law for architects in practice. Even though the current edition is three years old (the publisher expects a new edition to be released soon), the book still deals with many of the problems that will inevitably be encountered by a qualified architect.


However, Part 1 students may find the book over-complex for a basic introduction and so ‘general introduction to law’ textbooks can fill this gap and provide an introduction to the essential themes of UK law; these themes can subsequently be applied to architectural problems. It is not a subject that can be left to undergraduate self-study.


Achieving a balance


Law is a contentious subject and many heads of school have been vocal in expressing where they believe the balance should lie between the practical, professional and creative aspects of architectural education.


Whatever they decide, a legal background can allow young architects to be more aware of the legal pitfalls and therefore to be innovative in the ways that they design around them.


At present, architecture schools in the UK provide a mixture of approaches to improving the legal understanding of their undergraduates; however, architecture schools need to give serious thought to their legal provision. Should schools market themselves on the basis that they produce legally trained architects, highlighting that their students have strong legal backgrounds? Other professional training courses such as accountancy have mandatory modules (administered by independent bodies) that specifically deal with the relevant law. Do accountants deal with more legal material than architects? Should the RIBA introduce a mandatory module in law? If an architecture school did achieve a national or international reputation for legal/architectural excellence, short courses or consultancy could be offered internationally as a supplementary departmental fee-earner.


The reality of the situation is that encompassing legal knowledge within the architectural education system, which will spill over into the profession, will give a better understanding of social realities of litigation while minimising the amount of outside legal consultation required.


There may be room for debate about how individual schools should carry this out in practice - to avoid subsuming the creative aspects of architecture in legalese - but the advantages are too obvious to be ignored.




Knowledge of the law looks impressive on a CV or during an interview.The question on every architect’s lips is, ‘what is our liability?’After all, livelihoods are on the line, not to mention the family home of business partners often being at risk; .


A foundation in law will enable litigious situations to be avoided, thus lessening the possibility of lawyers being involved.Early basic knowledge of the law can prevent costly mistakes.


The legal tenets surrounding architecture may improve the students’practical design skills and ease the transition from the ‘drawing board’ to the site.




The extra module may overburden the undergraduate architectural degree.


It may be difficult to obtain the relevant pedagogical talent in the law from the architectural school.


It may hinder the student architects’creativity, by placing constraints upon their designs at a time when it is thought that these constraints are both unnecessary and indeed detrimental to the inspiration and vision of the students in question.


Plymouth University, a rare exception to the rule, provides: ‘A specific Professional Studies module which contains lectures on the law and the legal framework within which the building industry operates. Aspects of the legal framework are also dealt with in technology courses in relation to the Building Regulations and to health and safety. The context of design course in stage two discusses the roles and the legal responsibilities of a range of players in the built environment that includes planners and conservation officers. In stage three the legal framework for building conservation is explained as part of a technology module that deals with that topic.


Design projects in stages two and three expect students to be conversant with fire escape regulations, health and safety legislation and the Building Regulations.’


Mark Van Hoorebeek researches architectural intellectual property law at the University of Sheffield (additional material by Abe Fineberg, Davidson Architects, Sheffield).


Email 2marky@excite. com or tel 07870 735994

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