Legal Considerations of Working with an Architect

Once the architect has drawn up the plans and handed them over to you, who legally owns them? Who pays for design errors? What about construction defects?

Ownership of the Plans

After you’ve paid fees to have your project designed, you might think the plans are yours. The standard contract from the AIA, however, designates the copyright to the plans to the architect. The client is granted a one-time use of those copyrighted plans. So your neighbor could hire the same architect and get a copy of your project made.

Where the ownership issue usually gets tested, though, is when a client and architect break up before the work is finished. Can you still use what part of the plan was completed and modify it as you see fit? If you hired the architect only for the preliminary design phase, the answer might be yes. However, you need to discuss this matter upfront and early in the first meeting so that you are both on the same page. Otherwise, the architect retains full ownership as the plans are part of their service to you.

Design Errors

A professional architect is expected to know what they’re doing, but even a very competent architect can make mistakes. Some errors and omissions are only found out after the construction has begun. A contractor is expected to build to the specified dimension, but who bears the burden if the dimensions are faulty? Even though a contractor is expected to “check and verify all dimensions” before beginning the work, some errors can still get through. Fortunately, these errors are often small and can be worked out among the client, contractor, and architect.  Expect a standard of care, but recognize that there is never a perfect set of plans.

Construction Defects

An architect is not a building contractor. Though the architect may inspect the site and verify that the work is going according to plan, they are not expected to know the construction trade. He or she may inform the client about any apparent substandard work, but the liability for construction defects falls ultimately on the building contractor.

In Conclusion

As with anyone you may hire for a project, be sure to get multiple bids. Ask to see several samples of the architect’s work to ensure they are skilled with the design you have in mind. Speak with former clients and ask questions about the process, how satisfied they were with the finished product, and how problems were resolved. Ask whether the plan stayed on budget or if there were a lot of change orders that raised the cost. If they worked with a large firm, ask who they worked with directly.

Hiring an architect can be a serious investment, but it’s ultimately worth it to make sure you avoid costly mistakes. Also, don’t base your decision solely on low fees.  Base your decision on the value you will receive for the fees.

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