Architect's Responsibilities with Owner's Consultants and RFIs


A question in Practice Exam #3 Case Study described an interesting situation I’d like to delve into a little further to better understand the nuances of responsibility and communication, or at least have a conversation about it!

In this scenario the owner has contracted directly with a structural engineer, with a seemingly otherwise unedited B101 contract with the architect, meaning the architect must coordinate with structural but is not liable or responsible for their work. In the question, the structural engineer called for an exposed beam to be mounted at 78" AFF, but the architectural drawings called for it to be at 84" AFF to comply with the required ADA clearance of 80" AFF. The contractor submits an RFI to the design team for clarification, which I typically understand to mean the architect and their consultants, whose response is to mount it at 84" AFF. While on site, the owner tells the contractor to mount it at 77" AFF, which the contractor does.

The contractor is liable, for many reasons pointed out in the solution answer. This is against a commonly known code requirement which they were probably aware of, they neglected the documented RFI response, etc.

However, the question also brings up notable nuances along the contract lines for the project, which is what I’m interested in. If an architect is responsible for coordinating with an owner’s consultant, are they therefore responsible for forwarding an RFI to an owner’s consultant which wasn’t included in the distribution list, stamping “See Consultant Comments”, before returning to a contractor? This could be the proper route of communication/coordination, but I could also see that the contractor might be responsible for issuing the RFI to both parties, traveling between professional courts, as this architect contractually assumes no liability for the mounting height of a structural beam. Is there a devil’s advocate case that the owner’s response in field, while not properly documented, better represents the structural engineer’s direction as they can speak for the engineer and the architect cannot?

I think the question itself assumes the structural engineer is included in “the design team,” in which the RFI response came from both the architect and the engineer, making the answer cut and dry. But, for the sake of discussion, I’m interested in the situation if the RFI was only sent to the architect, and maybe not concerning a well known code requirement. Is everyone a little bit liable? Or is it still just the contractor? How would the B101, A101, and A201 help us interpret this?

Thanks for making it this far into the post! Whether the contracts point to a “correct” answer or an “it depends,” I find this an interesting situation… which I hope to never be in.

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Hi @sillscai ,

This is another great question!

I’ve had this exact situation come up a lot in practice, although in relation to civil engineering and landscape being directly contracted to the owner rather than a structural engineer. It is the contractor’s responsibility to issue the RFI directly to the responsible party, in this case, the structural engineer.

The architect may make themselves liable for getting a timely and accurate response from the structural engineer if they take the responsibility of ensuring the RFI’s are delivered to them…

In practice, what I’ve done when I receive an RFI intended for civil is to respond back to the contractor asking them to issue it to the civil engineer as it is not a part of our scope. Then I copy the civil engineer on the email so they know they should be expecting an RFI and can follow up as needed.

In all reality, it’s probably not a huge issue if you forward the RFI on to civil engineer one time with the contractor copied in just to say, ‘hey, I think Contractor should have issued this to you instead of me’. But, unless you put your foot down, the contractor will start to rely on you to get the RFI’s to parties who aren’t your consultants very quickly if you start to do so. I would definitely avoid doing so in practice and for the purposes of the ARE it is definitely something that shouldn’t be done.

The distinction between the architect’s responsibility as a basic service to coordinate with information provided by the owner’s consultants vs. the supplemental service of coordinating the owner’s consultants is very tricky. We had another very similar question to this awhile back. Check out that thread at the link below:

Hope this helps!

Thanks for your detailed response, Darion! This explanation is really helpful and shows how the principles behind the standard contracts carry into a situation which might not be specifically addressed in its language, and how to best navigate it.

It seems as though redirecting an RFI would better fall into the category of coordination of than coordinating with, and could produce a similar result as pointing out a safety issue on site, in that it introduces liability for something allocated to the contractor and outside of the architect’s scope. In the same way, how we might navigate this in the real world to be the best advocate of the project/client, isn’t necessarily the way our contracts intend us to respond. I like the suggestion of returning to the contractor and copying the proper party, still helping the project move forward without adding risk. At the same time, this course of action could then be defended using that with and of distinction as an example of scope creep.

In the situation I described, the contractor would be at fault for misdirecting the RFI and the architect would have assumed risk for directing work outside of their scope. In rereading the question, since the structural engineer had drawn the beam at 78" and the owner instructed it to be at 77", the owner would also have assumed unnecessary risk because standard contracts typically release the contracted professional from liability due to owner-directed work. As such, the potential argument that the owner was acting as conduit for the contracted engineer wouldn’t apply here. Really the only party in the clear is the structural engineer themselves, even though they originally provided the incorrect and non-code compliant information. Despite all of the finger-pointing that could take place, the contractor built work based on information not provided by the responsible party, and I think I would still understand them to be liable for the rework if it came down to a single entity. (Although, in reality, all four might reach some agreement to share the costs instead of engaging in potential arbitration/litigation, as mistakes were all around.)

Thanks again!

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