A decades-long battle in Texas over whether engineers can provide architectural services has moved from the courts to the state Legislature.
Under Texas law, engineers can perform design work on projects that fall below certain thresholds: 20,000 square feet for commercial structures, $100,000 for new public buildings. But that isn’t enough for the engineers, who have persuaded allies in the Legislature—including two with engineering backgrounds—to propose laws that would allow engineers to engage in what they call “comprehensive building design.”
The fight has been brewing ever since the Texas Legislature passed a “practice act,” restricting architecture work to architects, in 1990. But some engineers continued doing architecture, and in 2005 and 2006 the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners began enforcement actions. In 2008, the board issued cease-and-desist orders to three engineers it found to be practicing architecture.
The engineers retaliated: The Texas Society of Professional Engineers sued the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners, in part over the architecture board’s jurisdiction. In 2009, a district court ruled in the case, finding that the board had erred in publishing a brochure that said that “engineers may not engage in the same activities as architects” because it did not take the exemptions into account.
But on the larger issue, the court handed the architectural board a victory, finding that the state’s practice act was valid and that engineers “are not categorically exempt” from its requirements.
The case is on appeal, but meanwhile, according to Yvonne Castillo, general counsel for the state’s AIA chapter, the Texas Society of Architects, “It’s not looking good for the engineers in the court, so they’ve shifted their focus to the Legislature.”
Several bills have been introduced in the current legislative session. HB 2284—the most “blatant,” as Castillo put it—would amend the definition of engineering to include building design. Another, less direct, proposal, HB 2522, would allow the Texas Board of Professional Engineers to decide what design services engineers can perform.
Castillo said it’s too soon to know what chances the bills have of passing—but, just in case, AIA Texas has asked its members to call and write their legislators. In the meantime, said Paul Mendelsohn, vice president for government and community relations for the AIA, the institute’s position is clear: “Any structure that’s for human habitation or use should be designed by an architect as opposed to an engineer.”
Mendelsohn said that, in most states, good communication between architecture and engineering boards “has led to an understanding on the proper roles of each profession.” But given how heated the issue has become in Texas, he added, “It’s always something we are concerned about.”