Our custom plans resold... is this ethical ?


Hello All ... I am new here, and hoping someone can shed some perspective for me.

Wife and I hired a design firm to redesign and manage a complete renovation for a condo we bought in Florida

Completely new floor plans were developed over several months as a collaboration of ideas between myself and the design team at the firm. Many ideas were theirs, and many ideas were mine.

For this design work we paid $10,000 to this firm.

In Florida drawings must be done by an Architect, so design firm uses an outside Architect to redraw those drawings to satisfy the city.  We paid an additional approximately $3000 for this.

Project turns out very well.

A neighbour in condo building (who happens to have a condo with the same footprint as our) is shown our condo and loves what we had done.  He later emailed me and asked for a copy of our drawings so that he can do the same renovation to his unit.  I decline his request, but refer him to design firm to develop a new plan customized for themselves.  He then asked design firm for free copy of our plans.  They declined because we had paid for those designs.  However the name of the architect is given to the neighbour.

Months later... I run into neighbour, and he mentions he is working with this architect.. and they are copying everything in our plan because they like it so much, and they don't want to change the plan in order to keep the architects fee as low as possible.  Needless to say I am stunned... and very disappointed that this architect has simply sold our plans... which he really did not even play a part in developing. I have never even met or spoken to this architect. I did not make any comment to the neighbour when he told me his plans.

Is this ethical on the part of the architect?  These were not trivial design fees for us.   I dont mind the idea that someone gets inspired by some of our ideas... but an exact copy, with no communication to us!   Perhaps I should just be flattered, but this architects willingness to supply/sell a copy of our plans rubs me the wrong way.

Any thoughts?

Jan 14, 13 7:13 pm

what does your contract say?

typically the design/plans belong to the architect.  the unethical part i see is your neighbor asking for free plans.

Jan 14, 13 8:18 pm
Yep, it's all about the contracts. And not just yours with your designer, but also the designer's agreement with the architect.

Many architects hold the rights to their work. Not that it sounds warranted in this case, but they may be in very safe legal territory.
Jan 14, 13 8:23 pm
Re: ethics (vs legality), since you used that word: Sounds cut and dry from your description, but I'm guessing it would be a lot grayer if we heard everybody's take on the situation...
Jan 14, 13 8:25 pm

Did you have a contract with the architect? If so it should have spelled out that the contract gave you a "one time use" license *and* that the architect would not sell the same design to anyone else.  That second half is what is generally not spelled out clearly in a contract.

Personally, as an architect I would not use a design over again, even in a condo building.  I might the same or very similar plan arrangement, but always with differences.

It's maybe not technically illegal, but it's also not good practice by the architect, as word-of-mouth on this could get back to other potential clients of his.

There was a story here on Archinect about an architect in California who was sued because he used the same design for a house in a different neighborhood while the client thought they were getting a unique design.

Jan 14, 13 9:12 pm

Reusing a design...what about the original client? - bklyntotfc [4 family attached row house in NYC]

Potential copyright infringment - sharkswithlasers [campus dorms - original architect dismissed]

I didn't see the original condo thread mentioned by Donna, but I did find these. Anyone have info on how things turned out? Did bklyntotfc develop those projects on their original plans? Was sharkswithlasers able to get the commission without a legal dispute with the original firm?

Jan 15, 13 1:52 pm

Well the architect might as well sell them, since the non architect "design firm" needed the architect to stamp them. Plan Stamping is illegal to begin with , and the drawings should actually be the property  of the architect and since you had no contract with him/her and never met the architect, you should of just hired a actual architect in the first place to avoid this (the architect would of never resold THEIR plans) and not just a drafting service. But your neighbor is being the cheapskate in all of this. 

Jan 15, 13 8:40 pm

I forget how this works but if the design architect owns the IP, you might both have a case against the architect of record.

However, it sounds like the architect of record knows what they're doing, which is why they are architect's of record and not design architects.


Somewhat relevant.

Jan 15, 13 10:15 pm

Thankyou all for your feedback. I appreciate your input.

FRaC our many page contract with the design firm states that all designs and ideas belong to the design firm and cannot be copied or duplicated without consent from the design firm. This firm was quite explicit that they will never duplicate a design for someone else. They declined the neighbours request for the plans.  I also agree with you that the neighbours request was not something I hold in high regard, even though there is an aspect of compliment.

Steven our agreement with the design firm is very clear about things not being copied, however your point about the contract between the design firm and the architect is one that I cannot shed light on.  I do not know what that contract states. I suspect the contract is similar to ours, but I cannot say for certain.  This architect has a long standing relationship with the design firm, and would be very aware of this firms perspectives on copying a design.  I am not suing anybody, and as you suggest they may be on safe legal territory. I simply feel that the architect used very poor judgement, and very little respect to us in reselling our plans to this neighbour. Our drawings detailed all the final finished etc.. and the neighbour has been making (unsuccesful) calls to the design firm to request the names of suppliers for the materials.... so it sounds to me like they are aiming for a very close copy of our space. Not sure what the "gray" area might be in terms of the ethics of the situation. It eludes me.

Donna, we do not have an agreement with the architect. In our case all design was done by the design firm, and we were told from the beginning that an architect would need to do the final drawings for the city. For us, there was no design work for the architect, but he certainly did do the detail work required by the city. This is not a legal issue for me... I am just very upset by the poor judgement of the architect.  We are not in a large condo building.. and this neighbour is two doors away from us.  I think a little creativity in developing a somewhat different plan would have been appropriate.

I know folks generally worry about legal perspectives, but in my case what has really bothered me were the ethical choices made. The neighbour's argument with the designer was that the design work was already done.. and paid for by us... so it was no additional work to simply supply him with the plans.  He managed to accomplish this via the architect.

Jan 16, 13 7:38 am

Legal concerns aside - and it really does seem like you'd have to check your contract for those - I would say that it is unethical for the architect to give your neighbour the exact same designs. Unique design is quite a big selling point, and if your neighbour's home is identical to yours, you could potentially lose out.

Jan 16, 13 7:45 am

instead of looking at this as a thing that happened, look at the relationships.

you have a relationship with a designer and you both agreed that your design would not be copied.

your designer has a relationship with an architect who sold your design to a neighbor.

you don't seem to know much about the relationship between your designer and the architect, but that seems to be an important part.  it is not unethical for an architect to repeat a design they own.  there is a fair possibility that the architect's agreement with your designer was based on ownership of the documents.  so like, you give us $3g plus ownership and we'll stamp your drawings.  in this case their right to repeat the design was part of the consideration for their services.

if that agreement exists, and ownership of the documents (plus the right to use them elsewhere) belong to the architect, it was not unethical for them to repeat the design, but it was probably unethical for your design company to enter into an agreement contrary to what they had agreed to with you.  the design company may have entered into that agreement without knowing it, which would be negligent on their part.  the architect is not at fault if your designer sold them something they didn't have the right to sell.

if the agreement between your designer and the architect did not give the architect the right to the design, then it was probably unethical for the architect to reuse them.

in hindsight, i think you could have worked directly with a real architect from the beginning.  most of us architects think we're competent designers too, and often times we don't really appreciate being thought of as a rubber stamp that's part of the city's bureaucracy.  you said you're not going to sue, but with the above explanation of relationships you should understand that your problem is entirely with the designer, not the architect, because you have a relationship with the designer and you do not have a relationship with the architect.  unless i misunderstood you situation.

good luck.

Jan 16, 13 9:31 am

stop being so possessive and let it go

be happy your neighbor is happy

Jan 16, 13 9:56 am

If your neighbor felt that "the design work is already done, why should I pay for it again?" then your neighbor is happy to download free  music, steal wifi, etc. and will probably nick your newspaper off your doormat, too. Very unethical attitude, there. Not that you can do anything about it. Lock your mailbox.

And it is *very* unethical for an architect to redraw someone else's design, stamp it, and then repeat it in opposition to the contract of origin (yours with the designer).  First off, it's illegal, not just unethical, to "plan stamp" which is stamping another firm's work product.  If the architect performed this service for you, then s/he is in a very murky legal position already. You can check with your state licensure board to find out the specifics of your states' plan stamping laws.

I know you don't want to sue.  But yes, from your description of the arrangement and based on standard Codes of Conduct for registered architects the architect behaved very unethically.

Jan 16, 13 11:39 am

Have you spoken to the design firm?  If the agreement led you to believe that your design would not be resold, then they should be as pissed as you are, and probably might even have a legal beef with the architect.  If they entered into a subcontract that permitted the architect to do something contrary to the design agreement with you, the designers have got a problem both ethically and legally.  The design firm may have acted more unethically than the architect, although the architects certainly have not covered themselves in glory.

You hve a right to be unhappy.  The design changes you paid for should have made the unit more unique and valuable at resale, but now it's not quite so unique.  It would be interesting if a third neighbor did the same thing.  I wonder what your cheapskate neighbor think, then?

Jan 16, 13 11:48 am

Shimmyshaw,   we would have been very content to go directly to an architect for our project, however, this condo was us making a leap into owning a vacation home 2000 miles from where we live (Canada).  We were warned many times that getting major renovations done in FL could be very challenging in terms of reliable/dishonest contractors. As a result we felt we needed to hire a firm that would develop the design, and oversee, and take responsibility for the bidding, and the construction of the project.  We did meet with an architect first, who said he was not equipped to do this.  I am sure there are architects that do this, but we ended up at this design firm. It is a well respected firm that typically does much larger projects than ours.

I am not sure if "plan stamping" does or does not apply in our case.  He was not involved in any design work, and he was given the design plan drawings and supplied with detailed measurements. He in turn took those drawings and redrew them and added whatever details are required by the city.  There was certainly more work than just stamping some plans, even though he was not involved in the design aspect.  No doubt it is not very interesting work for him, but we did pay fees to him.

Our contract with the design firm was very very clear that the design belongs to them. If they have a contract with the architect that is in conflict with the spirit of our contract.. (which I doubt)  I suppose one could claim they are then free to sell the plans again.

Anyway I guess I just came here to vent, and to see if I was being off-base in being perturbed about the way things went.  As it stands, I am not going to harass anyone over this (designer, architect, or neighbour) so yes jk3hl.. I will get over it.

Jan 16, 13 11:57 am

Consider yourself vented!

Jan 16, 13 12:08 pm

geezerfect, you bring up an interesting point.  I did in fact drop in on the designer while visiting FL last week to gain some understanding on how all of this happened. I think they were quite shocked to hear about the plans being copied exactly (although they tried to put on a brave face).  I suspect the architect may get a call about it, but the two firms do have a long standing relationship, so who knows.

The interesting point that you made is that one of the comments that the neighbour made to me was that a third neighbour with the same condo is planning on renovating, and was very interested in seeing out unit after hearing about it.   This could be a snow ball that is just going to keep on rolling...

Jan 16, 13 12:09 pm

That's the danger of being first on your block, I guess.   You got to pay for all the designers' time while everyone else piggy backs on you.  The designers and architects BOTH blew it ethically, from what you've said.  It's unfortunate.

Jan 16, 13 12:21 pm

donna, i don't think architect has any relation at all to the original contract.  no matter what the original contract said, if they bought a plan to cookie cutter and the design firm either didn't realize that, didn't understand it, or were complicit, i don't think the architect has any responsibility.  there is no reason to assume the architect had any notion of what was included in the original contract or what the design firm's intentions were.  their roll in plan stamping could be suspect, though, but i would consider that a separate issue.

Jan 16, 13 1:03 pm

Might try to confirm that your neighbor did in fact copy your design. Seems like it was just talking in passing. You don't really have any idea without having seen their space. It may be an exact copy, it may be that the finishes are slightly changed, it might be that they moved some pieces of the plan around, or this person may be pulling your leg. 

You should try to get invited over! ---spy mission---

Jan 16, 13 1:53 pm

Exactly, curt.  Two separate issues: plan stamping, and contract applicability.  If the architect had no idea the designer had a contract that told their (the designer's) client that the design would be unique, then the architect didn't break that contract - he wasn't party to it to break it anyway. 

But then even if the architect didn't break the law by ignoring the contract, I still think it's highly unethical to use someone else's design IP - the designer's - and copy it for another client.  Not illegal, but definitely unethical.

And if the architect's contract with the designer gave the rights to the design to the architect (against the contract the designer had with the client, meaning the designer made a huge legal mistake), I *still* think it's unethical to use someone else's design for a new project.  Both parties tho that contract know by whom the design was really created.

Jan 16, 13 2:10 pm

Heavymetalarchitecture... You are correct that it was only him telling me that they were copying everything "because they wanted to keep the costs down". I would be pretty surprised if they actually copied all the final finishes also. No question it will look different with different furnishings etc..

I will go visit once they get going.  I don't think he is pulling my leg... given that the designer stopped taking his calls because he was calling so many times to ask questions about material suppliers. I guess it will be interesting to see what their version of doing the same as us looks like.

Donna I think you have captured exactly the issue I had with this scenario.

Jan 16, 13 2:35 pm

As an aside... I do have a great deal of respect for the work of architects, and I am grateful that each of you have taken time to offer your perspectives.

Jan 16, 13 2:41 pm

Most likely your neighbors project will turn out to be a "TURD"  my experience is this is what happens 99 percent of the time.  Cheap never ever wins unless the creator is very creative.

Jan 16, 13 2:45 pm
vado retro

this has the making of a schiff hardin lecture.

Jan 16, 13 2:57 pm

Quite frankly, as an architect, I feel that OP is also flirting with an ethical boundary.  He could have saved a great deal of money by hiring an architect directly, and also had more control over the intellectual property.  At the least, there are absolutely ZERO grounds to complain about the extra $3000 as that is all money that he could have saved while also securing his intellectual property.  Architects are licensed only after years of school, apprenticeship and testing, hence the laws that require their stamp before many construction projects.

All that being said, it seems that someone breached a contract (or signed an impossible one); either the design team by allowing the architecture firm control over the plans, or the architect depending upon his contract.  You should certainly make the design team aware of your feelings and concerns, as they may decide that this architect is no longer worthy of their business.

Jan 16, 13 4:57 pm

okin15... Well that's interesting. Respectfully,  I have no idea what you are referring to in terms of me (OP) flirting with an ethical boundary. Please clarify because I would honestly like to understand what you feel I am doing in this regard.  

As far as the fees go that I paid, I have never complained about any of them. All fees were explained to me up front by the design firm and we agreed to them.  In retrospect I guess we could have searched more thoroughly for an architect that was willing and able to design and then manage our entire project.  Since we were including the interior design aspects as part of our project, we thought we were best served by a design firm that took responsibility and care for all aspects of the job.  This is a well established design firm, and they did do a good job of managing the project (additional fees were obviously also paid for this.  Overall it was quite expensive for us, but we agreed to them, and I have not complained about them).  Clearly we did not understand the nuances of who may own the IP of the design, but it was repeatedly stressed that our plan would not be repeated, mostly because the designer personally took offence when his firms design ideas were copied.

Jan 16, 13 6:44 pm

I think okin is suggesting you should have hired a licensed architect instead of a "designer", who I guess by implication is a fake architect of some flavor in his/her mind.  I don't think that point of view is realistic about the state of the profession myself.

as for IP, there are no real guarantees in the end.  Even Zaha Hadid's design for SOHO is being copied.  I have worked in offices where large buildings were copied as well.  We would find them a year or two later, built with same drawings apparently by the client.  My boss  was not happy but he had other projects with same client and more to come in the future so he let it go for the sake of his business.  architecture can suck sometimes.

Jan 16, 13 7:30 pm

Your behavior was not unethical from what I've read here.  It is unrealistic to expect a normal average civilian client to appreciate all the distinctions between licensed architects, non-licensed interns, designers, etc. 

Jan 17, 13 11:12 am

maybe okin was suggesting kivi should have held control of the process.  (s)he lost control at the designer->architect part then i assume picked it up again once a contractor was on board.  not unethical, but maybe a lesson to be learned.

Jan 17, 13 2:23 pm

Plan stamping is illegal.  But it is defined, in my state, as stamping drawings for which the architect did not have "direct supervisory control".  The way around the illegality is to re-draw everything and through that process assume direct control for all of the information contained therein.  If that's what kivi's architect did, then by the *letter* of the law there was nothing illegal on the part of the architect or the designer and certainly nothing unethical on kivi's part at all.  It's all about crossing the t's and dotting the i's to make it a legal way of letting one person design a project and someone else stamp it.  In this case the architect could be acting perfectly legally as a consultant to the designer.

In some earlier posts I, and other people, were implying that if what the architect did was just stamp a drawing the designer had done, that is way illegal and unethical too.  Sometimes clients will draw up their own plans and look for an architect to just apply a stamp so the permit can be pulled.  *That* would be a case of unethical behavior on the part of the client.

Jan 17, 13 4:01 pm

And Will, to the whole designer-architect thing, some states require a registered architect's stamp for any project requiring a building permit, so  there is a definitive legal distinction between architects and designers. Also IP laws in the US are very clear *when* they are invoked in a contract.

I love this stuff.  I should have gone to law school after Cranbrook.  Heaven knows I'd be making more money now!

Jan 17, 13 4:10 pm

Donna in our case the architect did re-draw everything.  Sorry if I did not make that distinction clearly enough when I said the architect would need to do the final drawings for the city.  I suspect you are exactly correct in describing the relationship between the design firm and our architect, and he was consulted during minor changes to the plan.

Curt... it certainly never crossed my mind to question the ownership of the designers IP in terms of the contract between the designer and the architect. That is certainly a nuance that I learned about here. This designer is so detail oriented and careful about crossing T and dotting i's that I would be surprised to learn that he did not protect his IP in the contract with the architect.

I do understand why architects or designers would want to protect their IP, but clearly it is an issue that comes up pretty often based on what I have read here.

With this in mind, I am still mystified why this architect would have shared the plans, but perhaps there really is a flaw in the designer/architect contract between them that allows wrinkles like this to emerge.  Aside from the contract I am surprised that he would risk his relationship with the designer, or be completely unconcerned that I as the original guy that paid for the designs might not appreciate the duplication.

No question I have learned some things here...and I thank you all for your insight.

I will keep you posted if there are any interesting updates.

Jan 17, 13 4:51 pm

Yeah I understand that Donna.  Very interesting.  i liked law class too.  i suppose I am less inclined to see the ethical issues of a designer working with an architect as long as the law is followed.  a license is important but i am not on the side of protectionist point of view that seems to assume only architects should be allowed to design things.  not that that is what was being said exactly, but i think it was implied.

Jan 17, 13 7:12 pm

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