Legally, How Do the Responsibilities of Engineers and Designers Differ?

The vertical building market includes many different professionals—architects, engineers, designers, contractors, building officials, etc.—and we all have a place within the market. We also have some common interests: protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare, serving our clients’ needs, and cooperating/coordinating with the design and construction teams as well as with the building officials.

MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) consultants have two major team members who work together to develop a client’s concept: engineers and designers. In addition, the design team has the support of many other team members: administration, graphical presentation (Revit, AutoCAD, etc.), and field services. Generally speaking, the “M” works on the design of HVAC&R (heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration) and building automation systems that serve the environmental needs of the facility. The “E” works on the power, low-voltage, communication, fire alarm, and security system needs of the facility. The “P” works on the design of the plumbing and fire suppression systems (currently, most consulting firms do not have a separate fire protection discipline).

Each of these disciplines is led by an Engineer of Record (EOR), who is a registered Professional Engineer in responsible charge for the contract documents. The EOR may, if qualified by peer-recognized expertise, oversee more than one discipline (working outside of one’s expertise is a violation of the registration law).

So What Is an Engineer?

An engineer is a person who applies and makes use of scientific principles through the application of science, mathematics, and physics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people. These engineers apply the scientific method in which they make observations/questions, research topic areas, develop hypotheses, test with experiment, analyze data, and report conclusions—and repeating this process until a valid conclusion can be determined and supported with repeatable data.

Now, in the public view, there are different levels of engineers: registered Professional Engineers (PEs), degreed engineers, and those given the title by an employer (who may or may not have an engineering degree). The difference is how the public view and the legal requirements differ. Professional Engineers are the only level recognized by state laws as being allowed to promote and provide engineering services to the public. In exchange for this privilege, PEs are required by law to hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other interests or concerns. This should not detract from the qualifications and expertise of any other engineer, but they are not held to the same legal and ethical standards. These other engineers may belong to various organizations that hold them to a code of ethics, or they may belong to the Order of the Engineer, which has an ethics code similar to state laws; however, it is up to the individual whether or not they honor those codes.

Engineers’ Role in Human History

Engineering has been a part of human history, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Of course, as our knowledge and understanding of science and mathematics has grown, so has our engineering expertise and competence improved. Today’s engineers use the most advanced technologies alongside established scientific principles to apply cutting-edge solutions and innovation to real-world challenges.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of engineering in human history; from designing transportation systems to powering our homes, engineering is all around us, right down to the device being used to read this column. Engineering is an integral part of our everyday lives. It is something that many people take for granted, but engineering allows us to make coffee in the morning, heat or cool our homes, travel, communicate on our mobile devices, and so much more.

As our scientific knowledge continues to advance, so engineering will find ways to take this new information and apply it to the world around us. As James A. Michener wrote in his 1983 novel, Space“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.”

Designer Defined

Another important part of the design team is the designer. The word designer came into English in the seventeenth century, meaning “one who schemes,” and soon after came to describe someone who figures out how something should look or operate. A designer is a person who plans (imagines how) the form or structure of something before it is made, by preparing drawings or plans.

The designer, working under the engineer in responsible charge, applies the design methods of procedures, techniques, aids, code and standard research, etc., to develop and provide detail to the engineer’s conceptual plans. Design methods have commonality in that they attempt to make public the hitherto private thinking or conceptualization of the team—to externalize the concepts to allow the construction team and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to understand, evaluate, construct, and approve the final documents.

While designers do not have the ability under the various state laws to sign and seal construction documents, they are a very important and integral part of the design process. Designers come from many different backgrounds and experiences. Some grew up in the trades and moved over to the design side; some are retired contractors or skilled tradespersons who wanted to gain a wider understanding of the process; and others came up through the community educational experience and started in drafting. Regardless of how a designer got into the process, they bring a practical technical knowledge and an understanding of the means and methods used in the field that the engineer generally lacks. The designer is an integral and valuable part of the design team. In many cases, the designer is also the person who completes the drafting (AutoCAD, Revit, or some other electronic means of document development).

It is important that the engineer and designer coordinate and work closely with each other. Through this combined effort, a design serves the public’s good and the client’s needs as well as meets the intent of the code.

So What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between the EOR and the designer is how the law views their responsibilities. In the vertical build market, the law requires all documents to be signed and sealed by a Professional Engineer in responsible charge of the degreed engineers and/or designers working under their direction. This requirement places many legal, ethical, and moral obligations on the PE. The principal obligation is to hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations in accordance with a code of ethics that is incorporated into the law.

While degreed engineers, others who use the title “engineer,” or designers may be obligated to a code of ethics through the various technical and professional organizations to which they belong, this does not equal the obligation under law.

“Ethics” is a moral obligation that many strive to live up to, but a Professional Engineer must comply with the law or risk censure, penalty, or possible loss of professional registration. So while both the engineer and the designer are important members of the design team, the EOR must have the final say and sign and seal the documents while holding legal liability under the law.

The owner has a legal right to construct their project in accordance with the approved documents that EOR provided. The contractor is obligated to construct the project in accordance with the approved documents without alteration. Unapproved alterations shift legal liability from the EOR to the contractor and create a dilemma for the AHJ who is charged with ensuring code compliance via strict conformance with the approved set of documents. Hence, any unapproved alteration or deviation from the approved documents is not in conformance with those documents and should result in corrective action to bring the installation into conformance.

The EOR heads up the design team and must closely work with the designers for whom the engineer has responsible charge. This should not lessen the importance of the designer, who is a valuable contributor to the design—it is just the reality of the legal requirements.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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