Focus and Architecture & Design

Architects involved in more than project design

State AIA chapter pursues legislation and tries to catch unlicensed architects.

November 3, 2012
TAGS AIA / Greg Metz
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When someone outside the field thinks of architects, they likely think of design and not of legislation. But architects do think of legislation. Not only do they think about bills, resolutions, conference committees and the rest of the minutia that comprise legislation, they also wade into the waist-deep process that can disappoint and contain unexpected ambushes.

Greg Metz is one of those waders. Metz is a partner with Ted Lott in Lott3Metz Architecture, a past president of American Institute of Architects Grand Valley chapter — now AIA Grand Rapids — and the current AIA Michigan director.

The state chapter invested itself in three pieces of state legislation this session, and the results aren’t exactly what the chapter would have designed: The outlook on one piece of legislation is hazy, while the other two look like no-goes.

Metz said one bill supported by the AIA would have indemnified architects who design a public project from liability issues that exceed a designer’s work on a project. However, the bill came to an unanticipated legislative halt.

The architects’ argued that if, for example, someone slipped and fell at a job site and was injured, architects shouldn’t be held responsible for the injury because they aren’t involved in the building aspect and aren’t responsible for the condition of a job site, or the weather.

The state House agreed and passed the bill, but when it went to the state Senate, Metz said the Associated General Contractors of America asked to be included in the legislation, and the Senate refused to do so. That’s where the bill stopped.

“The AGC killed it. They wanted general contractors to be included, too. (Legislators) were unwilling to bundle all of them together,” said Metz.

As of today, Metz said AIA Michigan isn’t likely to pursue the legislation next year unless the AGC pledges to stay on the sidelines.

Powerful opposition to a second AIA initiative has stopped another piece of legislation it favored. A Senate bill would have given architects, engineers and surveyors a higher pecking order in a lien case because they occasionally start working on a project before a developer finalizes the financing for it. Metz said when a project goes under because the financing went awry, architects often don’t get paid for their work.

“So we’d like to be able to put a lien on a project,” he said.

However, Metz said the Michigan Bankers Association opposed it because lenders wouldn’t be first in the collection line in those situations if the bill became state law.

The fate of the third bill is still to be determined, but the AIA’s position on it appears to be shaky. The Senate passed a bill that would prohibit a public school from borrowing money from the state until all its state-qualified bond debt is repaid, which would mean that a school with that type of bond debt couldn’t build anything, possibly for as long as a few decades, depending on the bond(s) load and term(s), despite having a building in poor physical shape.

AIA opposes the legislation as it could mean less work for its architects. The bill is in a House committee, and the sense is that members are fairly likely to approve it.

“We did oppose it. It is anticipated that the House will vote it into law,” said Metz, who relayed the word he received from the chapter’s lobbyist: Melissa Yutzey of Kelley Cawthorne, a Lansing lobbying firm headed by former longtime Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

If the bill does pass, the damage to the AIA might be limited because most school systems use unqualified bonds for financing purposes and don’t rely on the state’s credit rating to borrow money, as schools that use state-qualified bonding do.

“So, overall, it shouldn’t hurt too badly,” said Metz.

Despite not having a stellar record on legislative matters this session, the AIA plans to go forward with a few more in the future.

One will be to convince lawmakers to institute a single fire code system for construction. Right now, there are two, which makes design more complicated. Other states follow one, which makes design simpler.

“How Kentwood views the code may be different than how Grand Rapids views it, so there’s no consistency,” said Metz. “By going to one code, there is more consistency.”

Metz said the AIA has met with State Fire Marshall Richard Miller, who likes the idea, but no one seems sure which code should be chosen and which should be discarded.

“It sounds like there are a lot of code and fire department people across the state that are sort of goofy about it. So we think it’s going to happen, but it will take several years and we’re going to have to baby-step it along,” he said.

Another bill the AIA wants would let architects submit their seals and signatures electronically; the chapter is angling toward pushing that one in the new session.

State law currently requires the industry to use a wet seal and print on paper, despite the fact that a vast majority of designs are done, sent and viewed electronically. The bill would end the paper prison that architects and those in the state’s code office are locked up in.

“Then we could send in our entire permit package to the code office via e-mail, which saves paper. In our industry we go through a lot of paper, and we’re just trying to make it so we don’t have to do so much of that,” said Metz. “The only time we have to print is when we go in for a building permit.”

Perhaps the meatiest issue AIA will pursue next year isn’t amending a state statute or fostering a new one, but getting an existing one enforced.

Public Act 299 of 1960 requires that architects are licensed, and not all are. A few without architectural degrees are designing, too.

“It’s a huge problem in Michigan,” said Metz.

But as crazy as it may sound, the AIA has been told by state officials that when the law is violated, violators can’t be pursued legally.

“We can only go after licensed practitioners because unlicensed practitioners are not licensed — therefore, we don’t have jurisdiction. They’re only allowed to go after licensed professionals, is what they’re saying,” said Metz.

A few attorneys, though, have told the AIA that stance is blatantly false. The chapter thinks it has received that “we can’t go after them” response because the state is short on cash and Lansing doesn’t want to spend money to chase unlicensed architects.

However, Metz said the state could hire an attorney to pursue this problem and, if he or she caught four or five violators a year who were fined, say, $15,000 each, the revenue from penalties could pay for a lawyer’s time.

“We have a list of 20 to 25 people on it right now — and these are just the ones being reported to us. I’m sure there are more out there,” he said.

So the AIA has decided to do the chasing itself on behalf of the 5,518 architects in Michigan who are licensed.

Metz said the chapter has hired an attorney in southeastern Michigan who has agreed to send letters to and file motions against the unlicensed architects on its list for a small fee.

“If we go to court, then the court would pay for his fees after that point. For really a low fee, he’s willing to do a lot of work,” said Metz. “So we’re hoping by doing that we’re going to get the message out: If you’re going to do this, we’re going to come after you.”

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