ARCHITECTS—ENGINEERS—Authority Of Engineers And Architects To Stamp And Sign Drawings For Submission For Building Permits
Washington law provides no bright line rule for distinguishing between design documents that must be completed by an architect and those that must be completed by an engineer. In general, design work falls within an engineer’s scope of practice when it requires “engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences,” and design work falls within an architect’s scope of practice when it requires “architectural education, training, and experience, in connection with the art and science of building design[.]” It is primarily up to local building officials to determine which types of documents are required or sufficient as part of the local jurisdiction’s building permit processes.
If design work falls within an engineer’s scope of practice, such work does not require an exemption from the practice of architecture to be lawful, even if the work would simultaneously fall within an architect’s scope of practice.
May 24, 2022
The Honorable Jim Honeyford
Dear Senator Honeyford:
By letter previously acknowledged, you have requested our opinion to further clarify when design documents submitted to local building officials may be stamped by engineers as opposed to when they must be stamped by architects. We paraphrase your questions and answer them as follows:
QUESTIONS PRESENTED AND BRIEF ANSWERS
1. When does a complete set of design documents created by an engineer for a non-agricultural and non-residential building that exceeds four thousand square feet amount to the practice of engineering as authorized by RCW 18.43?
There is no bright line rule in Washington law for when design documents are engineering or architectural in nature—both professions may engage in building design as part of their scope of practice. Design work completed by an engineer falls within an engineer’s scope of practice when it requires “engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences[.]” RCW 18.43.020(8)(a). In contrast, design work falls within an architect’s scope of practice when it requires “architectural
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education, training, and experience, in connection with the art and science of building design[.]” RCW 18.08.320(12). These two definitions have the potential for substantial overlap, as both contemplate building design. It is primarily up to the local building officials to determine which types of documents are acceptable for any given project on a case by case basis.
2. If a complete set of design documents is considered the practice of engineering as authorized by RCW 18.43, would those documents fall under the exemption to architectural licensing provided in RCW 18.08.410(1)?
Engineers do not require an exemption from the practice of architecture to practice their profession. RCW 18.08.410(1) states that RCW 18.08, the chapter regulating the practice of architecture, “shall not affect or prevent” the practice of engineering. Thus design documents completed within the scope of an engineer’s practice do not need to fall under an exemption to the practice of architecture to be lawfully submitted by an engineer.
To promote the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants or users, Washington has adopted a state building code that sets minimum requirements and standards for construction. RCW 19.27.020. As its building code, Washington has adopted the International Building Code and International Residential Code, both published by the International Code Council, Inc. RCW 19.27.031(1) (adopting codes); WAC 51-50 (adoption and amendment of the International Building Code); WAC 51-51 (adoption and amendment of International Residential Code). Cities and counties have the authority to amend the state building code within their jurisdiction so long as they do not diminish the code’s minimum performance standards. RCW 19.27.040. The State Building Code Council regularly reviews the state building codes and adopts amendments as appropriate. RCW 19.27.074(1); see WAC Title 51. The Council also approves or denies city and county amendments when the local amendments apply to single-family or multifamily residential buildings. RCW 19.27.074(1)(b).
In order to receive a permit to build or change certain structures, a building owner may be required to submit to local building officials drawings that have been prepared and stamped by either a licensed architect, professional engineer, or both. See, e.g., Residential Garage: Document Submittal Requirements (Kent, WA effective Feb. 2, 2021), https://www.kentwa.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/16969/637829310448270… (specifying documental submittal requirements and minimum requirements for drawings and plans for construction of residential garage). See generally RCW 19.27.095(2) (“The requirements for a fully completed [building permit] application shall be defined by local ordinance[.]”); WAC 51-05-200 (“Building permit shall mean a permit issued by a city or a county to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, or change the occupancy of any building or structure regulated by the International Building Code . . . or by the International Residential Code[.]”). When and how those drawings are prepared, stamped, and submitted is governed by statute and local building codes, but the law is less clear about when a building project will require either engineering or architectural drawings.
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In 1990, this office issued a formal opinion on the issue of when and how a registered professional architect or professional engineer must sign and stamp a drawing being submitted for building permits. AGO 1990 No. 9. The Opinion correctly noted that the stamping and submission of architectural drawings constitutes the practice of architecture which requires registration as an architect, but cited exemptions that allowed engineers to stamp plans and design work created by non-architects. AGO 1990 No. 9. The legislature removed those exemptions in 2010. Laws of 2010, ch. 129, § 8 (amending RCW 18.08.410).
In early 2021, citing ongoing confusion on the matter, Representative Walen requested an opinion about whether engineers may continue to stamp plans submitted to local building officials. In response, this office issued another formal opinion, AGO 2021 No. 2. That Opinion reiterated that the stamping of architectural drawings by non-architects is a violation of the Architect’s Act and possibly the unlicensed practice of architecture. We clarified that to the extent AGO 1990 No. 9 conflicted with current law, building officials may not rely on AGO 1990 No. 9. AGO 2021 No. 2. But our 2021 Opinion did not opine on when drawings are architectural or engineering in nature. Nor did it preclude an engineer from stamping design documents that fall within an engineer’s scope of practice.
Based on your letter, we understand that concerns continue to be raised over when design work constitutes the practice of engineering and when design work constitutes the practice of architecture, and you are seeking clarification.
The scope of practice of engineering and architecture are related yet independent from one another. As the prior opinions and your current request suggest, it is difficult to draw a bright line rule that delineates when design documents created and stamped by an engineer are sufficient, or when a project requires design documents created and stamped by an architect, and vice versa. The best we can say based on the statutes is that engineers may design when that work requires “engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences[.]” RCW 18.43.020(8)(a). Likewise, architects may stamp design documents that require “architectural education, training, and experience, in connection with the art and science of building design[.]” RCW 18.08.320(12). As explained below, we continue to take the position this issue is highly fact-specific and not amenable to a bright line rule.
A. Who may Create and Stamp Designs is Fact-Specific and Subject to Local Building Codes
Your first question seeks a clear delineation between design work falling within an architect’s scope of practice and design work falling within an engineer’s scope of practice. The statutes, however, do not provide us with any such bright line. Instead, they suggest that there may be some overlap between design work completed by the two professions, dependent on whether the design work falls within the education, training, and experience of either or both
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professions. Additionally, as mentioned above, local building codes may further define the nature of design work required for any given project. Thus, a determination of whether any design document falls within the scope of practice of an architect, engineer, or both will be highly-fact specific.
Each of the statutes defining the scope of practice for architecture and for engineering contemplate that the respective practice includes building design work. The scope of the practice of architecture is defined by statute as:
[T]he rendering of any service or related work requiring architectural education, training, and experience, in connection with the art and science of building design for construction of any structure or grouping of structures and the use of space within and surrounding the structures or the design for construction of alterations or additions to the structures, including but not specifically limited to predesign services, schematic design, design development, preparation of construction contract documents, and administration of the construction contract.
RCW 18.08.320(12) (emphases added). Architects seal and sign (stamp) documents pursuant to RCW 18.08.370(3). Pertinent here, RCW 18.08.410(1) states that the scope of the practice of architecture does not affect or prevent the practice of engineering as authorized by RCW 18.43.
RCW 18.43.020 defines the practice of engineering as:
[A]ny professional service or creative work requiring engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences to such professional services or creative work as consultation, investigation, evaluation, planning, design, and supervision of construction for the purpose of assuring compliance with specifications and design, in connection with any public or private utilities, structures, buildings, machines, equipment, processes, works, or projects.
RCW 18.43.020(8)(a) (emphasis added). Engineers stamp design documents pursuant to RCW 18.43.070. See also WAC 196-23-020 (setting forth requirements for stamp usage on plan sets submitted by engineers). Thus, both of the statutes governing the scope of practice for architecture and engineering contemplate signed and stamped design work. RCW 18.08.320(12); RCW 18.43.020(8)(a).
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We are aware of two statutes that specifically require the design work of an engineer. See RCW 18.43.040(1)(a)(iv); RCW 18.43.020(12). Those statutes clarify that designs of significant structures, which include essential facilities, e.g., hospitals, fire and police stations, water tanks, or aviation control towers, must be performed by structural engineers. Otherwise, there is no bright line rule in statute, case law, or administrative rule generally governing when design work is architectural or engineering in nature.
The primary statutory difference appears to lie in whether the work requires the education of an engineer or that of an architect. Engineers may design when that work “require[s] engineering education, training, and experience and the application of special knowledge of the mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences[.]” RCW 18.43.020(8)(a). An architect may design as a part of “any service or related work requiring architectural education, training, and experience, in connection with the art and science of building design[.]” RCW 18.08.320(12). Thus both engineers and architects create, stamp, and submit design documents for submission to planning offices. Whether a project will require design documents stamped by an architect, engineer, or both will be very fact-specific based on the needs of the project.
The legislature has determined that local building officials have the authority to determine what documents must be submitted for approval according to local building codes. RCW 19.27.095(2) (requirements for fully completed application defined by local ordinance). Local building codes vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the state and we assume that each local jurisdiction has enacted codes responsive to local needs and concerns. Thus, local building officials will be in the best position to evaluate whether design documents submitted in conjunction with a specific project meet building code requirements.
This conclusion is supported by the comment provided by members of the Washington State Board of Registration of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BRPELS) and the Washington State Board of Architects, who put together a joint working group to discuss this opinion request. The overall conclusion of that working group, and the subsequently submitted comment, is that there is no bright line rule because each project has specific needs and requirements; thus the local permitting office is in the best position to understand each project and make a determination of whether a project will require architectural or engineering designs (or both).
B. The Practice of Engineering Does Not Require an Exemption from the Practice of Architecture to be Lawful
Turning to your second question, you ask whether design documents that are considered the practice of engineering under RCW 18.43 would fall under an exemption to architectural licensing. The answer is “no” because engineers do not require an exemption to practice engineering: RCW 18.08.410(1) provides that RCW 18.08, governing architects, “shall not affect or prevent . . . engineering as authorized in chapter 18.43 RCW[.]” Thus, nothing in the law governing architects impedes an engineer from practicing their own profession.
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This conclusion is also supported by the comment submitted by the working group of members from BRPELS and the Washington State Board of Architects. That comment affirms that when an engineer submits design documents, they do so under the authority of RCW 18.43.
In conclusion, there may be differences in projects that might require either architectural or engineering design work or both, but these differences are not easy or practical to define in a general sense. Absent more specific statutes, local planning offices are in the best position to make these determinations based on local building codes and the specifications of each project.
We trust that the foregoing will be useful to you.
ROBERT W. FERGUSON
s/ R. July Simpson
R. JULY SIMPSON
Assistant Attorney General
 RCW 18.08.410 states that the scope of the practice of architecture does not affect or prevent all design related activities. Design related activities that are not defined as the practice of architecture include: design work for residential buildings with four or fewer dwelling units, design work for farm buildings, design work for buildings not exceeding four thousand square feet, and interior design services not affecting public health or safety. RCW 18.08.410(1), (5), (6), (7). You ask specifically about design related activity that would not fall within the exemptions in RCW 18.08.410(6), so I discuss these exemptions no further.