Judge OKs Suit over Architects’ Plans

FRIDAY, JULY 25, 2014

Major architectural firms may be held legally responsible to future occupants of their designs, even if the firm does not build the project or control the construction decisions, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

The unanimous seven-judge ruling greenlights a case by a San Francisco condo owners' association against Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) LLP and Dallas-based HKS Architects Inc.

The suit alleges substandard windows, insufficient ventilation ducts, and other construction design defects in a luxury complex that renders the units "unsafe and uninhabitable for significant portions of the year," according to the 28-page decision issued July 3.

Both SOM, founded in 1936, and HKS, founded in 1939, have a global presence with projects across dozens of countries. Neither firm responded Thursday (July 24) to a request for comment on the litigation.

Luxury Project, $5M Contract

The current case pits the Beacon Residential Community Association against SOM, HKS and the condominium developer.

According to court documents, SOM and HKS were paid more than $5 million to provide a variety of architectural and engineering services for a 595-unit condo complex called The Beacon, billed as one of San Francisco's largest recent residential developments.

The Beacon

The 16-story condo complex has a private dog park, heated pool, business center and two spas. Prices top $1 million for a two-bedroom unit.

The 16-story luxury complex covers a city block and features a fitness and business center, private dog park, heated lap pool, and two outdoor spas. Sales prices start above $500,000 and top $1 million for a 1,200-square-foot unit. The condo association was formed, and its covenants established, before construction began.

SOM and HKS were the only two architects on the project, making them "principal architects"—a key consideration in the ruling.

Water, Fire, Heat and Cracks

The residents allege that "negligent architectural design work" resulted in "several defects, including extensive water infiltration, inadequate fire separations, structural cracks, and other safety hazards."

One major defect alleged is "solar heat gain," which the residents say makes the units uninhabitable and unsafe during hot weather.


Residents say that the specifications were changed to use substandard windows and that the number of ventilation ducts was reduced, making the units inhabitable at times.

The plaintiffs accuse the architects of approving a specification change to "less expensive, substandard windows" and a building design "that lacked adequate ventilation" in violation of state and local building codes.

The suit says that the two firms provided not only initial design services but "played an active role throughout the construction process," including frequent site visits, inspections, revisions and monitoring compliance with design plans.

Blaming the Owner

The architectural firms contend that all final decisions rested with the owner and that they thus owed no duty to the future condo owners. The trial court agreed and sided with the firms.

The Court of Appeal reversed the decision, however, and the state Supreme Court has now sided with the appellate decision.


The connection between the architectural design and the injury alleged was "direct and immediate," the plaintiffs say. The court agreed.

Courts "have found in a variety of circumstances that builders, contractors, and architects owe a duty of care to third parties," the new ruling says.

For example, it notes, a builder may now be held liable for injury caused by a structure well after the building is deemed complete, accepted, and handed over to the owner. Duty of care gives injured third parties a remedy for the builder's negligence.

Thus, the court said, the duty-of-care rule has been applied to makers of defective ladders, citations, railings and subcontractors on projects. The rule has also been extended to future unidentified occupants of building projects.

Architects, Too

The courts have applied the same third-party liability to architects, the court noted. It cited, for example, a case involving a fall at a bus depot where the victim had relied on an inadequate handrail.

In another case, it noted, an architect was found liable for failing to indicate the location of underground power lines that later electrocuted a construction worker.

VenetianMacau WillisTower
Wikimedia Commons

Both HKS and SOM are U.S.-based firms founded in the 1930s with a global presence. HKS's portfolio includes The Venetian Macao Resort (left); SOM's includes the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago.

That liability has extended to property damage, the court said. It cited a 1976 case, similar to the current one, in which architects were deemed responsible to condo owners who could not sell their units because of design defects.

And in a 1984 case, the court "took as a given that design professionals could be held liable to third parties for defective designs causing property damage and economic loss."

Right to Repair

Finally, the court noted, Califronia's Right to Repair Act gives future homeowners the legal right to sue builders and other entities involved in the construction of their homes.

The statute explicitly names "general contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, individual product manufacturers, and design professionals," the court wrote, adding the emphasis.

The Supreme Court also noted that the current case involves a "close connection" because the defects and injuries alleged. The plaintiffs had also contended that their damages from the design are "direct and immediate."

In such cases, the ruling said, the principal architect is responsible, even if the firm did not build the project or control the construction decisions.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. Founded in 1936, we have completed more than 10,000 projects across 50-plus countries. - See more at: http://www.som.com/about#about_som

Tagged categories: Architects; Building codes; Color + Design; Commercial Construction; Design; Laws and litigation; Residential Construction; Specification; Ventilation; Windows

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