The title of Registered Professional Engineer … what does that really mean? Let us review each of the words that make up the official professional designation. “Registered” is a person with a formal or legal authorization from a government agency or board as permitted under the laws and regulations in-force. “Professional” is a person from a learned profession, a skilled practitioner, or an expert in a specific area of study. “Engineer” is a person who has been educated in the sciences and technologies utilized in the design and construction of structures and equipment. Through the application of science, physics, and mathematics, the engineer can apply this acquired knowledge to advance technology through the practical application of both theoretical and non-theoretical applied sciences for the betterment of the public’s health, safety, and welfare.
The path to becoming a Registered Professional Engineer involves a minimum of the following:
- Obtaining an ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accredited degree or its equivalent
- Successfully passing the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination and the Principles & Practices of Engineering Examination, both developed by NCEES (National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) and administered by the various State Boards of Registration
- Gaining a minimum of four years of practical experience working under the responsible charge of a seasoned Registered Professional Engineer
Upon completion of these requirements, an individual may apply to their State Board of Registration for the privilege of holding the designation of Professional Engineer (PE).
Obligations, Responsibilities, and Liabilities
As everyone knows, or should know, that with the granting of any privilege comes obligations, responsibilities, and liabilities. The first obligation of any PE is the protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other considerations. Additionally, the engineering law contains a strict code of ethics that governs a PE’s actions at all times. In my case, the Ohio Revised Code, Section 4733, and associated Ohio Administrative Rules, address the Code of Ethics for Engineers and Surveyors. This section covers the following topics: integrity, responsibility to the public, public statements and certifications, conflicts of interest, solicitation of employment, improper conduct, other jurisdiction, and records. Every state has similar language within their laws and administrative codes.
It is the duty and obligation of every Professional Engineer to know and comply with the laws and administrative codes in all states that grant them the privilege and title of PE in their practice. Failure to meet these requirements can result in official reprimand, requirement for additional training, fines, suspension, or loss of privilege (revocation). One of the requirements is to self-report to the Board of Registration any violations or suspected violations that you or another Professional Engineer may have committed. Failure to follow these requirements is a violation in and of itself. This is something, in my experience, that many Professional Engineers either do not understand or fail to grasp.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what makes one a Registered Professional Engineer, let us look at how this applies to the construction industry and how the engineer fits into the construction process as the Engineer-of-Record (EOR). The engineer in responsible charge of a design project is required to be knowledgeable of the work being done under their supervision and have expertise relative to that area of design. While others may be involved in the details or graphically placing the design on the Contract Documents, the EOR holds the ultimate responsibility and liability for that work. This is a responsibility that cannot be delegated to another professional.
When the EOR places his or her seal and signature on the documents, they are acknowledging that this is their work—work that, to the best of their knowledge and abilities, represents the client’s intent, serves the public’s health, safety, and welfare, and meets or exceeds the minimum requirements of the code enforced in the jurisdiction of the project. If that is the case, then there should be no reason to modify or alter the design through the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) review/permitting process. Remember that the AHJ’s responsibility is only to review the documents to ensure that they meet the minimum requirement of the code in-force at the time of submittal for plan review. It is not within the AHJ’s area of responsibility to comment outside of their very narrow perspective of code compliance. The AHJ is not the design professional; they are not affixing their seal or signature to the Contract Documents as submitted, so they may not alter the design or make suggestions to modify or improve the design—that responsibility belongs strictly to the EOR.
This is not to say that the EOR cannot error, but it is up to the EOR how to address any comments that an AHJ might have. The AHJ generally communicates through a process of adjudication. The AHJ’s Plans Examiner will provided a written document that clearly calls out any concerns that they might have in regards to code compliance. The AHJ will provide an adjudication letter that spells out each concern, including a reference to the specific section of the code, that they believe is not code-compliant.
This does not mean that there is any real issue; it only means that the AHJ has interpreted the EOR’s documents from their perspective. The EOR now has several options to consider: accept the AHJ’s view and modify the documents or respond to the adjudication letter and document why the design is compliant in meeting the code requirements or exceeds those requirements. We all can have differing perspectives in the interpretation of the code, but this is the EOR’s design. It is the same design that they sealed and signed; and in so doing the EOR attested to the design being code-compliant.
Should the EOR agree with the AHJ that a modification is necessary, then they should update the documents and respond to the adjudication letter as part of the resubmission. After all, both the EOR and the AHJ have the same goal: protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare. It is always better to address any concerns early, preferably before the bidding process.
Remember that the EOR is the design professional and must be prepared to defend their design, not simply change it because someone questioned or incorrectly interpreted the documents. Pick and choose your battles, but never just change something because it is questioned. If you do not have confidence in your design, perhaps you should not be sitting in the position of EOR. You must accept your obligations and defend your expertise through open and clear communication. Never make a change just because an AHJ indicates a concern. It is the EOR, not the AHJ, who holds the ultimate responsibility for the design as well as the liability. The client contracted with you because of your expertise and deserves your protection of their interests.
Now that you have a better understanding of what it takes to be a Registered Professional Engineer and the responsibility that comes with the privilege, be prepared to honor that privilege. It should be a cooperative relationship with the AHJ, but never allow yourself to be compromised in defending your design decisions and how you best serve your client’s needs while protecting the public interest.
Next month I will go further into the construction process and the relationship of the PE with the various code officials and the construction team.
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.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.