Restoration NewsMedia

Our Opinion: Architect required? State should make rules more flexible


Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

In construction and repair work, it’s important to have the right tool for the job. Securing load-bearing beams might call for a cordless drill, while a palm-size Allen wrench is a better choice for fastening delicate plastic parts.

Hiring contractors is a similar exercise in finding the right fit, with project details driving the skill set needed. A backyard birdhouse doesn’t require the Army Corps of Engineers, and the world’s best woodcarver has no business trying to fix a failing dam.

Wilson County Board of Education members Beverly Boyette and Blake Boykin were wise to question the school system’s need for an architect to complete what initially seemed like simple auditorium renovations at Fike, Hunt and Beddingfield high schools. They learned the reason during Monday’s meeting, and the answer produced more questions.

Wilson County Schools maintenance director Mark Letchworth and school board attorney Katie Cornetto explained that a state law — N.C. General Statute 133-1.1 — requires government agencies to hire an architect or engineer for certain projects. A licensed architectural firm’s oversight is often required even when a job doesn’t include new construction or redesign work.

If that sounds like overkill that drives up the price and adds time and complication to boot, your horse sense led you to the same conclusion as Chris Hill, who represents District 6 on the Wilson County Board of Commissioners and works as owner-operator of Hill Building Contractors.

“For certain projects, I think the statute is hampering them and increasing costs — and in this day and age, adding time is adding cost,” Hill said. “I don’t think that was probably the intent of the statute originally.”

Replacing carpet and seats in high school auditoriums doesn’t sound like the kind of job that cries out for detailed architectural plans. State law only considers the scope of work in determining the price point at which the rule takes effect.

An architect or engineer is mandatory when projects reach the following cost thresholds: $300,000 for repairs to public buildings that don’t include major structural changes; $500,000 to fix University of North Carolina buildings without major structural changes; $100,000 for repairs that affect life safety systems; and $135,000 for new construction and additions, along with repairs that do include “ major structural change in framing or foundation support systems.”

The statute says its requirements are “(i)n the interest of public health, safety and economy.” Cathe M. Evans, executive director of the North Carolina Board of Architecture and Registered Interior Designers, offered similar sentiments when asked why architects should oversee ordinary repairs.

“The purpose of an architect is to protect health, safety and welfare — getting you out of the building safely and providing adequate ingress and egress,” Evans said. “It’s about ensuring it’s done properly and designed properly.”

Boykin is less skeptical after reviewing the statute, though he acknowledged the rules could be too rigid in some circumstances. Like Commissioner Hill, the District 6 school board member is a licensed general contractor. His company is B&B Home Builders.

“Although there are many projects that we are capable of doing as a district that don’t require an architect — like painting or laying carpet — when it has to do with safety concerns, having an architect involved is actually a really good thing for our district because it gives us the peace of mind that it’s designed properly, and it takes some liability away from the school district,” he said.

Boykin cited acoustic ceiling panels in the school auditoriums as an example. If contractors install panels too heavy for the ceiling to support, the consequences could be catastrophic. He said an architect is better suited than a builder to select supplies that are compatible with existing infrastructure.

If a job’s worth doing, as the saying goes, it’s worth doing right. No school board member or county commissioner wants to skimp on quality. Wilson County must have safe, sturdy and well-maintained schools.

Perhaps the auditorium renovations warrant an architect’s trained eye and T-square. But for every project that justifies the state law, there’s likely another where hiring architects adds expense without value.

Hill says the General Assembly should revisit G.S. 133-1.1 and give government agencies more flexibility. We agree. When work is done on the taxpayers’ dime, it’s incumbent upon state and local officials to find ways to contain costs without compromising quality.