Over the past two decades—as American business has placed increased emphasis on quality—promises of a perfect product, complete with warranties and/or guarantees, have become commonplace. From your car to your refrigerator to your candy bar, manufacturers are guaranteeing that their product will be free of defects. It has become so common that consumers now expect it. Can this expectation of perfection encompass architectural and engineering design as well?
While some business consumers expect it, perfection, in its strictest sense (unequivocally without defects) cannot exist, both due to physical and legal reasons.
Architectural and engineering are a professional service – there is no physical product. A licensed architect or engineer is a professional as is a physician or an attorney. A design professional guaranteeing his design is analogous to a surgeon guaranteeing that a surgical procedure will unequivocally cure his patient; or an attorney guaranteeing that he will win a case for his client. Of course, you wouldn’t expect a guarantee that surgery would totally cure you or that you would win your case. What you would expect, however, is that your surgeon or attorney would perform to the best of his or her ability: that is, to the standards as practiced by his or her peers. The same holds true for design professionals. By law, a design professional is only accountable for conformance to the standards of care as practiced by his peers. Furthermore, any guarantee of perfection is uninsurable!
So how can General Motors guarantee a car? A car is tangible – it is a physical product, unlike an intangible professional service. When GM develops a car, they spend years working on it. It took Saturn the better part of a decade to get off the ground! A tangible product can be designed and redesigned. It can be tested in controlled conditions. Deficiencies can be detected, a solution derived, and the problem eliminated. All this happens before the product reaches the consumer. Additionally, GM can have total control over the construction of their cars. They make the cars themselves. Certainly they rely on suppliers for parts, but they are able to test and inspect these parts prior to their product reaching the market.
Professional services are on the other end of the spectrum. Each and every building is unique. No two, no matter how similar, can be alike, even if the same building is being constructed in two different locations. In this case, the sites will be different; thus the subsurface characteristics may be different, or the atmospheric conditions. A different contractor may be involved, or if the same contractor, perhaps different workers. Even vendors may change due to the competitive environment. And these dissimilarities are for two buildings that are allegedly “identical!” Now factor in the unknowns when the project is not “identical” to some other project. While the engineers at GM have years to research, develop, engineer, test, re-engineer, etc. their product, a design professional does not have that luxury. Each building is unique, no matter how similar it is to another. No test model can be developed and refined. Furthermore, the design professional doesn’t actually construct the building…someone else does. Even if the design professional is on site continually throughout the life of the project, s/he cannot observe every minor detail as it happens. And how often is the design professional on site throughout the life of a project? Now imagine if the design architect, design structural engineer, design civil engineer, design HVAC engineer, design electrical engineer, design plumbing engineer, etc. were on site continually to observe construction. Not only could there still be no unequivocal guarantee of compliance with drawings and specifications, but the cost would be formidable!
Fortunately, the law differentiates between products and services, and does not expect perfection. As mentioned earlier, a design professional that guarantees a perfect building is doing so without the ability to guarantee it. There are too many external factors that preclude guarantees. Furthermore, a guarantee would be merely lip service, because it is uninsurable and thus the consumer has no protection through professional liability insurance. (The consumer does have protection under tort law.)
So what does this mean to you, the consumer of design services? Does it mean that you should be happy with the end product, regardless of the design, since the design professional cannot guarantee perfection? Of course not. It means that you should understand that perfection probably cannot exist… even if you are totally happy with your building and cannot find one small negative detail, there are still too many unknown variables (e.g., has all rebar been correctly placed in the concrete?). But it also means that you have every right to expect a quality design which, if constructed in accordance with the drawings and specifications, should meet your standards of satisfaction and industry “standards of care.” By selecting competent, registered professionals with proven track records on similar projects, you are further enhancing the reliability that the design will meet your expectations and the project requirements. Expect your design professional to conform to the standards of his peers, much as you would expect your physician or attorney to do so.