Landslides and architects


The recent landslide in Washington state recalled several other instances around Asheville, NC, and Colorado Springs, CO. Typically a developer will buy a large plot of land on unstable steep ground and sell expensive lots, usually with killer views, to wealthy buyers. The developer will sometimes put spec homes on the lots or, more likely, have the lot buyer work with an architect to create a custom house on the lot. Sometimes the developer will even have an in-house engineering firm to certify that the land is safe to build on when in fact, it is not. Several homes have been rendered inhabitable when the foundation shifts on the completed homes and in some cases the house does, in fact, slide down the steep embankment. Some of these homes are in the multi-million dollar range. So what is the responsibility of the architect if he suspects the land is unstable?

Apr 6, 14 10:20 am

Ennis House landslide

Apr 6, 14 12:23 pm

Did not realize FLW had a house that was affected by a landslide. One problem in resort areas is that the builders often wield a lot of power and pretty much own the county commissioners. An architect who crosses them could be hurting for business. The safe thing would be to hide behind the house engineers bogus report and string along the homeowner who could easily be financially wiped out if not injured or killed in a slide. The ethical thing is to have a quiet word with the homeowner and let the chips fall. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "mobile home" anyway. 

Apr 6, 14 6:25 pm

Prior to design, the owner/developer should have the sites surveyed and in many municipalities, also require a geotechnical engineer and geologist to review and test the soils for potential problems.  

Many building departments have their own in-house regulations as to the steepest sites and configurations they will allow building on.   

I don't see how the architect would be responsible for factors outside of their control, unless they had some prior knowledge the sites they were building on were duck shit and they decided to proceed with design anyways.  

Other than that, I would say they have no responsibility. 

Apr 7, 14 10:21 am

Best way to protect yourself is to get educated.  Instead of earning LU's going to seminars about 'green'.  Go to a few geotechnical ones so you gain a much larger understanding of sub-surface conditions and how to properly order and read a geotechnical report.  You'll learn lovely terms like Liquefaction factors and risk assessment.  Unfortunately, this is an area our profession that is overlooked but will cause the most significant damages when things go wrong.

Apr 7, 14 10:56 am

The problem in North Carolina and Colorado is that the state defers to the counties for rules and regulations and the county commissioners are often influenced by local politics.There is often a situation where the in-house engineering firm hired by the developer gives a go-ahead while the state agencies are much more cautious in their assessment of a section of land. The state agencies can't stop it. It is interesting that many areas are 'slides in progress' with measurable, if small, movement each year.

Apr 7, 14 12:35 pm

What we do is require a geotechnical investigation be provided by the Owner of the property with specific design recommendations.  We will assist the Owner in acquiring the investigation, but we don't do it.  Thus, the Geotech becomes an Owner consultant, and not our consultant.  Of course, this is larger commercial work, as residential work doesn't generally require an architect's involvement at all in Texas.

Apr 7, 14 1:37 pm

Won't save you jitter...barely compounds it . You, as a design professional, are reviewing the geotechnical report.  As such you do have a duty to inform the owner whether or not the information they provided you is complete and usable prior to using that report.  So you still have to know what you are looking at rather than just skipping to the foundation recommendations.

Apr 7, 14 6:38 pm


Not true.  

I agree with jitter12 - the whole reason that we hire consultants is to give us an expert opinion or analysis where we do not have the expertise to make sound professional judgement.  I agree, if you get a soils report and the geotechnical engineer states outright the project site is unbuildable and you still move forward, you would definitely foot responsibility, but I highly doubt this is the case in these recent land slides.  

As a counter to your statement, if an structural engineer designed a building for your practice and it ended up failing in a seismic event, would the architect be liable for not reviewing the structural calculations and detailing?  I think not.  That shit is greek to architects, same with the technical language of a geotechnical report.  

And just a little FYI, even the structural engineers just skip right to the loading/footing requirements on a report, for the same exact reason (consultant expertise and range of scope), and most of them had to take geotechnical classes in college.  

Apr 8, 14 9:23 pm

In Asheville it is not so much a legal issue as an ethical one. The architect has the in-house engineering report to cover his liability, but all he has to do is take a drive up to the developments to see the damaged homes and frequent road-closing landslides to realize the state agencies are probably right in their assessments. The developers are typically sitting on partially built-out projects with only a few homes completed and are now desperate to unload the rest.

Apr 9, 14 8:24 am

@chirura...   It's the 'captain of the ship' thing.  Architects have the education, training and knowledge in all fields of construction as it relates to the design of buildings.   General Contractors are looked at the same way as it relates to the physical construction of buildings.

Your example is what they'd call an 'act of God'.  Your only liability is to make sure your building was designed, per code, for seismic.  A key term to always remember:  Standard of Care.  That is essentially what a reasonable and prudent peer in the same or similar position would do.  Ignoring a geotechinical report's redflags and claiming a "That shit is greek to architects" will not be accepted by the courts as a answer.  You should know... your peers know.  Even GC's get nicked on this because our structural probably references the geotech report too and they should have reviewed it.

A better example might be a general contractor who is building off of your drawings.  Let's say there is a major problem with the cd's.  Doesn't make your work any better, but if the GC plods forward when he should have slammed on the brakes and asked you to clarify or revise, he's taking on liability and risk.

And generally the way this works.  Everyone gets dinged.  Why?  Because construction has multiple series of checks and balances in it and well established processes.  To continue forward when there are significant issues that should have been identified resulted in much greater damage.  So, that geotech at the front end; His argument is simply that he provided exactly what he was contracted to provide and probably going to walk if he can prove it.  He was more than willing to provide additional testing, and probably even has language in there (that you skipped) that should have warned the design professionals and owner of the risk.  By moving forward, YOU (as captain of the design team and coordinator) assume that risk and the liability that goes with it.

Buildings don't fail because of a simple mistake.  They fail because everyone down the line decided to ignore or play the ignorance card.  It's why in my original post on this thread I highly suggest you attend some seminars. 

An example of that risk:  $63 Million awarded for a group litigation case here in CO for a shifting neighborhood.  One of the major issues was shallow bore test, and the cheapest geotech they could find to save a few bucks. Good luck with a "That shit is Greek to me" defense.

Apr 9, 14 10:49 am

Mighty, I should clarify.  I am not advocating abdication of responsibility.  Obviously, we have to lead the team, and have general knowledge in order to coordinate all of the various disciplines.  (Disclaimer: I have no experience with landslide prone areas, as my area of practice does not lie within a region where this is common at all. )

My statement was only meant to illustrate a way to spread/mitigate liability.  If the geotech is in my employ (my consultant), my liability goes up significantly (actually, I don't think my liability carrier allows me to do that).  What I can control is what I design.  I don't control existing conditions such as site or soil conditions.  That is why the survey and geotech is information provided to me by the Owner.  The Owner is responsible for providing me with this information, so that I can do my job for them.  I have to have enough knowledge to use the information given to me in an ethical and professional way, but I am also happy to stand on the shoulders of others when it comes to the provision of that information.

Apr 9, 14 12:15 pm

mighty, that wouldn't be a defense, however, if you (architect or most likely, structural engineer) designed within the given parameters of a geotech recommendations, and that was clear to anybody reviewing the case, how could that possibly fall on the architect? Soils/geological analysis is out of our scope.  It is out of our range of expertise. Again, the whole reason to hire consultants, to fill-in where we don't have the expertise.  

I do agree, that when a project gets tied up in a lawsuit, the blame goes up a and down the line from architect, to any related consultants, to the GC and back.  Its a fucking mess anyway you look at it.

But I do think that a failure based on an independent recommendation from a geotechnical engineer, would be very difficult to pin back on the architect.  Forensic engineers would come in, review the failure, compare that to the recommendations of the soils report and determine whether or not that engineer made a mistake or was negligent in their report or field work, or that it was can act of god and everything they did was correct to their best ability.  

The architect and engineer were just working within the given recommendations.  You can't do much else. 

Apr 9, 14 1:30 pm

A very typical scenario:  Owner, saving a few bucks, orders the cheapest geotechnical report he can get. If a attorney or judge can see a good geotechnical report and hold it side by side with the pos you used, they are going to question why you, Mr. Professional who knows his stuff, is oblivious and accepted what is a piss poor excuse for a geotechnical report.

"You can't do much else"... lol.  Your simple responsibility is to call it out and raise that flag when you see substandard work; Sorry, but that is your contractual duty (usually in your own contract, but if not I yank out the license requirements that require you to protect the public). You could request a real report and guide your client for why it's important.  If they refuse, you might refuse to do the design or make damn sure you document you tried all you could to get real information to use as the basis of design for the foundation.  You make sure the Owner understands and accepts the risks proceeding on partial or non-inclusive information.

And when the building fails.... You pull out that stuff and say "I warned you this could happen!"  It's tough as hell to nail you when it looks like you were doing the right thing and weren't the problem.

Out of your scope... lol.  Physical construction also isn't part of your scope, but I bet you accept or reject work of those under those separate contracts too right?  Don't think you'll get nicked if you were onsite, the GC was doing substandard stuff and you didn't notify someone?

Also keep in mind almost no one is entirely responsible.  It's called allocation of damages.  So you might get nicked for a chunk of it, the geo for a chunk, and the damages reduced for the role the plaintiff (owner) played in it.  Even the GC might get hit for not questioning the structural if he knows in that area everything else is a different kind of foundation and what he normally does for some reason isn't being done on this one.  It should have been caught early.

Apr 9, 14 4:51 pm

And jitter... yes, it helps to have it under the Owner.  The simple reason is most sub-contracts require you defend your consultants against claims against you and the Owner can usually only sue whom he has a contract with directly.  So there's often a fallout lawsuit after the initial lawsuit of all the sub-contractors. 

Some States, like mine though allow it all to be 'joined' into one massive suit to save time in the courts and costs like multiple depositions.  That's also why I say it barely compounds it; They'll still be there pointing their finger at you regardless of whether or not they were under your contract or your status of defendant or plaintiff going after a sub...  As a Owner plaintiff, normally we just point our finger at the top dog, then let the those dogs fight it out with the rest of the pack on who's going to pay what.

Even more convoluted.  YOU aren't doing this fighting.  You pay your deductible and the insurance company attorneys do all this.  So it isn't even between your firm and your sub... it's between your insurance and their insurance.  I get discouraged with Owners who want to extract some sort of vendetta... they just waste time since they'll never get it.  Once the deductible is paid, the company plods onward without serious ramifications.  You won't put them out of business.  The system is jacked up to the point where doing the right thing doesn't get much reward and doing the wrong thing has no severe consequences for you other than potentially becoming uninsurable or paying a lot on your premium; Then you just change names and get a fresh start again ... ugh....   

Owners are also abusing the system.  There's seldom any followup on how the award is spent.  Even know one where they foreclosed.... and since my wife is in that industry, there is zero new buyer disclosure, so you could be buying a jacked up building with zero recourse against the builder/design team (who already got sued and paid out ... double jeopardy laws).  Ugh... and there's politics.  Very large developers have a lot of sway.  That results in limited liability laws, policy and practice adoptions that save their hinny from consequences that might affect their profit line. 

All that is part of why I'm on forums like this.  I'd rather give you reasons and ways to do the right thing and keep you out of that shady world....  Just learn to read a geotech report and know what you are looking at so you can raise that redflag and say WTF is this garbage...

Apr 9, 14 5:18 pm

An architect might well be caught up working for two different classes of owners.The first is the developer who wants to build a few houses on his development as a starter pull for buyers. He knows full well the reason he was able to buy a few thousand 'vertical acres' is that the costs of putting in roads, lots, and basic services will be daunting and that, yes, the whole enterprise could likely slide down the mountain. The trusting lot owner is the second type of owner; he is usually wealthy, but not that knowledgable about mountain property. He might not realize that there is no homeowners insurance available to cover slide damage. It is just not available at any cost, so if he sustains a loss he is almost forced to sue the developer (if he can be found).

Apr 10, 14 4:58 pm

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