“Starting the New Year with a New Series on the Professional Engineer’s Perspective”

What is the difference between a Registered Architect, an architectural engineer, and a Professional Engineer?

by David Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE

Recently I was asked to begin a new series of articles on the Professional Engineer’s perspective, so with that in mind, this will be my first column on the subject. Let us begin with the appropriate use of titles.

“Engineering” is considered a generic term that can mean different things to different people. In my judgment, most people think of an engineer as a person who has scientific knowledge in the application of mathematics, physics, physical sciences, and sound engineering principles. Engineers apply this knowledge in the design, construction, and maintenance of building structures, engines, and machines along with infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, public utilities, etc. However, some also use the term “engineer” to describe the operator who drives and manages a railroad locomotive or engine, someone who oversees the operation of a steam-generating plant, or custodial staff. While not meaning to take anything away from these individuals, they are not applying the same skills as to what I or, for that matter, the general public would consider an engineer.

Engineering consists of six major branches or disciplines: Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management, and Geotechnical, with literally hundreds of different subcategories or specialties under each branch. Utilizing these major branches along with other considerations, the NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) has established 16 Principles and Practice (PP) examination suites that test for a minimum level of competency in a particular engineering discipline. These exams are Agricultural and Biological, Architectural, Chemical, Civil, Control Systems, Electrical and Computer, Environmental, Fire Protection, Industrial and Systems, Mechanical, Metallurgical and Materials, Mining and Mineral Processing, Naval Architecture and Marine, Nuclear, Petroleum, and Structural. Under some of these exams are separate examination specifications that allow for a more focused exam. For example, the Mechanical Engineering PP exam currently offers three specifications: HVAC and Refrigeration, Machine Design and Materials, and Thermal and Fluid Systems. All of these exams are designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years’ post-college work experience in their chosen engineering discipline.

The Difference Between an Engineer and an Architect

Recently there has been a discussion on NSPE’s Open Forum on using the term “architectural engineering.” The initial discussion was presented by a PE (Professional Engineer) who was questioning if they could use of the term “architectural engineering” (AE) if they specialized in providing such services to their clients, or if that would infringe into the term “architecture,” which is the area of expertise of Registered Architects (RA) and might imply that the firm provides architectural services. So the discussion began.

One of the first comments was from another engineer who felt that it depended on the laws and regulations within each state. In most states, the term “engineer” is in the public domain; however, “architect” is usually a protected term. The term “Professional Engineer,” or offering engineering service to the public, is generally protected in most states. So the responder recommended asking the questioner’s licensing board for their position on the matter. The responder was from a discipline-specific state, which does not recognize the Architectural Engineering Exam offered by NCEES.

The next commenter had a degree in Architectural Engineering and had taken his NCEES Principles & Practice Exam in Architectural Engineering to earn the credential of Professional Engineer, as most states are not discipline-specific. He went on to state: “Architectural engineering is the design of building architecture and engineering systems.” According to him, architectural systems such as acoustics, solar, shell, smart technology, and elevators were the highly technical side of architecture, and engineering systems were things like structural, electrical, and mechanical (HVAC/R, plumbing, fire protection) systems. It was his opinion that architectural engineers should not be performing any design services on commercial buildings.

Yet another commenter questioned the difference in practicing architectural engineering and architecture. As NCEES offers an exam in the architectural engineering discipline, one should therefore be permitted to perform “architectural engineering” services, while not holding one’s self out to be an architect or perform architecture or architectural services. But what is the difference between the two disciplines? After all, aren’t engineers currently allowed, based on their state’s laws and regulations, to design houses, buildings, water treatment plants, evaluations, etc.? It has been a long-standing notion that both disciplines, architecture and engineering, overlap their services to clients. However, one must go back to a basic premise of each profession: we will only practice within our areas of expertise and competency. Architecture is much more involved with the style/aesthetics in which a building is designed and constructed. As a former mentor liked to say, architects are like gods in that they create works of art. However, engineers must take the artwork and make it operate. A more humorous way of stating this is that the architect will ask, “Is it the right color?” while the engineer will ask, “Does it work?”

Yet another commenter reminded us that an architect is not an engineer and an engineer in not an architect. Both have specific areas of expertise and competency, with some of those areas overlapping. Both have differing educational requirements and bring different experiences to the design. It is through collaboration that the owner’s vision is brought to life in a physical form, and each has specific responsibilities within the design process along with the associated liability for their portion in the event of a failure.

Generally it can be said that the architect establishes the location or at least orients the building on the site, sizes rooms, lays out connecting passageways, determines exiting paths and sizes, establishes fire ratings of the assemblies, locates all of the doors and windows, selects finishes and hardware, and sets the aesthetics (art), among other things. Architectural engineers design the structural, mechanical (HVAC/R, plumbing, fire protection), and/or electrical systems that compliment the architectural design. The architectural engineer gets little to no education in architecture and is not tested on such knowledge. Architectural engineers, as well as many other engineers, work with and in coordination with architects to bring a client’s vision to life as a complete building design package.

Another commenter offered an analogy that I felt brought some clarity and insight to the discussion. When it comes to the planning, design, and construction of a building, the architect is the visionary. If this process were compared to a symphony orchestra, the architect would be the composer, the contractor would be the conductor, and the orchestra would consist of the accomplished musicians in special categories such as brass, woodwinds, percussion, etc. The engineers would be the master musicians in their specific field (civil, mechanical, electrical, geotechnical, etc.). The architect is motivated by what the audience would think of their musical creation, not just the first time it is performed, but every time someone had the opportunity to enjoy the performance. The contractors and engineers are there to deliver a performance that will impress the audience and architect. When it comes to designing a bridge, the civil/structural engineer becomes the composer, and the piece highlights the civil/structural instruments. The architect is now another musician in the orchestra, under the direction of the conductor, following the score written by the civil/structural engineer.

And the last commenter, who is a Registered Architect (RA) and Professional Engineer (PE) as well as a PhD, stated that he has no problem with the term “architectural engineer.” Recognizing the expertise that he brings to the table, he would still not claim to have the skills of an architectural engineer as it is a separate specialization deserving of recognition, if not by the state regulators then by the profession.

While the general public may not be able to distinguish the differences between a Registered Architect, architectural engineer, or Professional Engineer, the individual professionals have an obligation to provide clarity in practice.

As you can see from the discussion, there can be much confusion between the various disciplines and how they inter-relate with each other. But it should never be a competition between professionals; it should always be about bringing clarity to the public’s understanding. As professionals, our primary obligation remains to be the protector of the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other interests.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a Registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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