Observations vs. Inspections

Several years ago the construction design profession (architects and engineers), probably conscious of liability exposure, attempted to shed the word "inspection" from its vocabulary and practice. Those professions adopted the term "observations" instead.

As a result, architects and engineers now make observations, not inspections. Whether this metamorphosis has resulted in limiting the activities of architects or engineers or of limiting their exposure to malpractice Suits is debatable.

The American Institute of Architects form for owner-architect agreements (AIA Document B141) reads that the architect will perform "periodic observations" which are something less than continuous on-site inspections (unless additional compensation is paid for expanded services). Since the same document also provides that the architect will endeavor to guard the owner against defects and deficiencies in the contractor's work, are "periodic observations" sufficient?

Also, the same AIA contract form requires the architect to make "inspections" before issuing his certificates of substantial and final completion. And the same contract form says that the architect is not to be liable for the failure of the contractor to complete his work in accordance with the plans and specifications.

To this apparent confusion is added the AIA substantial completion form and the application and certificate for payment forms under which the architect certifies that work has been completed in accordance with the contract documents.

All this means is that the architect must use his skilled eyes and senses. The attempted inspections-observations distinction actually does a disservice to competent members of the design and engineering professions.

The uselessness of making these distinctions is best illustrated by examples. No one would expect an architect to measure every stud in every wall of a building under construction to check whether they are spaced 16 inches on center. However, whether you call it observation or inspection, every responsible professional would certainly be expected to use reasonable means, under the circumstances, to determine that grade beams are properly centered on caissons (within allowable tolerances), that required compaction testing was performed, and that the specified masonry wall - reinforcement was in place.

Whether those determinations require daily or less frequent jobsite visits depends upon a number of circumstances, including how critical the particular element is to the integrity of the structure, how difficult it may be to execute the work involved, how competent and diligent the superintendents and craftsmen are, and a number of other factors which should be apparent to a trained professional's senses.

One is almost forced to wonder whether the downgrading from inspections to observations was in an effort to lower the standards of care of architects and engineers. If so, it is doubtful that the judicial system would excuse an architect or engineer from liability simply because his profession changed its vocabulary or-more important-because he did not exercise professional care in assuring that the project was completed "per plans and specs."