Engineers: Why Meeting Building Codes Isn’t Always Enough


Engineers: Why Meeting Building Codes Isn’t Always Enough

July 27, 2023

As an engineer, you’re probably used to dealing with unique demands from clients. Whether it’s budget concerns, timeline constraints, or last-minute requests, it can be quite the balancing act when you’re trying to keep clients happy, all while making sure that your design meets the necessary performance requirements.

You might even face pressure from clients to compromise on the functionality of your design in order to suit their aesthetic preferences, or simply to cut costs. But as long as your final plan satisfies the building code, you’re home-free, right? Not always.

You could still be held liable for professional negligence if the building or component doesn’t perform as expected—even if your design was seemingly up to code. Keep reading to learn more about the risks you could face by only sticking to the building code, and how you can protect yourself.

Disclaimer: Please note the information provided herein offers guidelines only and is presented from a liability-based perspective to help you avoid insurance claims. It is not exhaustive and should not take the place of legal advice, nor will it apply to all businesses, settings, and circumstances. For specialized guidance, please consult a lawyer or a licensed insurance representative.

Why isn’t the building code enough?


If your design meets the building code, you might assume that you’ll be safe from any allegations of negligence if something goes wrong. But the truth is: if there’s an incident, you’ll still be held liable even if you were code compliant. Why? As an engineer, the courts will hold you to a higher standard of duty, especially when it’s a matter of public safety.

Keep in mind: building codes act as guidelines for the minimum standards of construction. They don’t always align with the intended use of the building, and they’re often open to further interpretation based on the project at hand. And according to the courts, it’s the engineer’s responsibility to:

  • Ask all appropriate questions regarding the intended and potential use of a building;
  • Recommend building components or products with a tested track record; and
  • Only release designs that they’re 100% confident will perform as expected for the building use.

That means you’re responsible for using your professional discretion to consider the full environment of the project during the design process and if needed, exceed the building code. Here are some scenarios to help you understand why:

1. Performance vs. Aesthetics



You’re a structural engineer and are subcontracted by an architectural firm to work on a school building. You raise concerns about a window design that, while meeting the building code, has a heightened risk of future leaks due to the width of the window. You offer a modified plan that includes two separate panes of glass with structural support in the centre, instead of one large pane of glass.

The architect pushes back, arguing that your proposed redesign wouldn’t align with the intended aesthetic. To compromise, you stamp and submit two options: one that meets the building code and the architect’s vision, and a “recommended” design that would provide better long-term performance. The architect opts for their preferred design in the final drawing (not your recommended version) and the window is manufactured and installed accordingly.

Three years later, the window starts to leak, causing damage to the building. The school board files a lawsuit, naming both the architect and you as a sub-consultant. During investigations, a third-party engineering firm is called as an expert witness and determines that the window design you submitted was inadequate and prone to failure, despite meeting the building code. Consequently, the court holds you liable for the damages, including the redesign and replacement of the window, mold remediation, repairs, and the provision of a portable classroom for classes to continue in the meantime. The total settlement? $180,000.



You should only release a design that will meet or exceed performance requirements, which often means designing beyond the building code. Even if you face pushback from clients or other parties involved, avoid submitting a subpar design that won’t meet expectations. And if you are providing your client with multiple options to choose from, make sure you’re fully comfortable with any of your submitted designs being used in the final plan.


RELATED: 3 Common Engineering Mistakes—and How You Can Avoid Them

2. Project Requirements



You’re a mechanical engineer, and your firm is contracted by a developer to work on a geared-to-income housing project. The developer wants to integrate a power co-generation system into the building to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the design. But the proposed equipment is relatively new on the market, with only a few existing real-world installations, and no long-term reliability reports.

You have reservations about the equipment due to its relatively unknown track record, as well as the lack of local expertise for installation and maintenance. But after tremendous pressure from various project stakeholders, you create and submit a design that incorporates the desired materials, along with a written statement expressing your concerns about the equipment.

After construction is completed, the power co-generation equipment doesn’t perform to the design specifications despite numerous attempts, including flying in representatives from the manufacturer to assist, and the decision is made to permanently turn it off.

The developer sues all contractors and designers involved in the power co-generation portion of the project. However, your written statement about the equipment is not considered valid because you still submitted a stamped design that included the specifications for the equipment used. According to the courts, that means that the developer had every reason to expect that the mechanical systems would perform to the design specifications. The overall settlement of this lawsuit ends up costing millions of dollars.



Don’t compromise the safety and integrity of your design for the sake of pleasing stakeholders. Try to only recommend building products that you are 100% confident will perform as expected. This means exercising extra caution when recommending new or experimental products that have an ambiguous or nonexistent track record. And remember: you can’t always trust the performance data provided by the manufacturer, so be sure to conduct additional testing to assess performance, either internally or by a third-party if needed.


RELATED: 3 Things Every Engineering Proposal Should Include

3. Code Compliance vs. Actual End Use



You’re a structural engineer at a medium-sized engineering firm, typically juggling multiple projects at once. Your team is contracted by a developer to design a new multi-use commercial building with office space on the upper floors and commercial retail space on the lower floors.

You’ve designed similar commercial buildings in the past and are familiar with the requirements for such a design. You quickly draft up a design in line with the building code, and prepare to submit it to the developer. However, when looking over the project notes, you realize that you’ve overlooked one crucial detail: the retail space on the lower floors will be occupied by an auto dealership. Unfortunately, because your original plans were designed to code, the recommended floor joists might be too weak to support the weight of the cars, potentially causing major issues down the line.



Public safety should always be your top priority as an engineer. Even when you’re under pressure, it’s important to remember that the nature of your profession means that if something goes wrong, people could get hurt.

When you take on a project, it’s your duty to make sure that you understand all potential end-uses of the building and the expected performance of the design. Take the time to ask the right questions and make sure all your bases are covered, and only submit designs that you are certain will function well for the intended use of the building. If needed, adjust your design accordingly to add stronger supports and re-submit to the developer. If they’re reluctant to accept a new design, don’t give up; explain your reasoning and make sure they understand the risks involved.


RELATED: Why Engineers Might Get Sued and What You Can Do About It

How can you protect yourself?


Things don’t always go according to plan, even for the most careful engineers. That’s why it’s important to have a risk management strategy in place to protect yourself and your business. This includes always doing your due diligence: having good contract management, documenting everything (including all major decisions and communications), implementing quality control procedures to check your work, and of course, strengthening your insurance coverage.

In the event of a lawsuit, Professional Liability Insurance will defend you from allegations of errors, omissions, or negligence relating to your professional services. It’ll take care of your damages, like legal expenses, administrative fees, court settlements, and more, even if the claims are groundless. Additionally, consider Commercial General Liability (CGL) Insurance; if a building product or component that you recommended fails and causes harm, CGL Insurance will protect you from third-party claims of bodily injury, property damage, reputational harm and more.

We know, it’s an extra cost, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and lose a few thousand every year for insurance than potentially millions in a claim. The right policy will help you avoid financial strain and ensure that legal action won’t jeopardize your business or your reputation.


RELATED: 3 Reasons Engineers Shouldn’t Forgo Professional Liability Insurance

How can PROLINK help you?


For maximum protection, be sure to consult with a risk advisor that specializes in the engineering sector. With over 40 years of experience, a licensed broker like PROLINK can help you navigate industry trends and adopt a proactive approach to risk management to control your costs long-term. Our dedicated team of risk advisors will:

  • Navigate industry trends and identify exposures based on your business operations;
  • Share what steps others in your industry are taking and advise you accordingly;
  • Conduct a full analysis of your existing insurance policies to detect any coverage gaps;
  • Secure a comprehensive solution that aligns with your unique needs and strategic objectives (Plus, if you go through PROLINK, your policy will also include coverage for disciplinary hearings, so you’ll be protected if you’re dealing with a public complaint).

Connect with PROLINK today to learn more!

PROLINK’s blog posts are general in nature. They do not take into account your personal objectives or financial situation and are not a substitute for professional advice. The specific terms of your policy will always apply. We bear no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or timeliness of any external content.

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