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Engineer vs. Architect: What's the Difference?

By Stephen Varone, AIA and Peter Varsalona, PE

I'm the president of a Queens co-op, and several apartments and common areas in our building have suffered serious water damage caused by long-standing leaks from the roof and parapets. An engineer we hired said the roofing system that was installed about five years ago was inferior (and probably not properly installed), and the parapet walls needed to be rebuilt. We have received proposals from this engineer and several other firms for the repair work, but the board is divided over whether an architectural firm or an engineering firm would be better suited for the project. Some members argue that because the underlying roof deck may be damaged we need a structural engineer, while another member says that "architects are for the outside of the building, engineers are for the inside." Is there such a distinction that comes into play with this type of project? We may seek damages against the roofing manufacturer and/or contractor who installed the roof, so if we need to litigate, we want to have the right professional testifying about the previous work.


Exterior repair projects can be handled by either an engineer or architect depending on his or her training and experience.

A commonly held view shared by not only your board but also much of the general public is that architects are primarily concerned with the design, style, and appearance of a building, while engineers attend to the nitty-gritty details of the building's function. In other words, the thinking goes, the architect cares how the building looks; the engineer cares how it works.

While there may be an element of truth to the stereotypes of the two professions—the abstract, artistic architect with the trendy eyeglasses and stylish clothes versus the practical, hands-on engineer with pocket protector and dirt under his fingernails—the reality is more complicated. There are, after all, many engineers who are conceptually and aesthetically oriented and many architects adept at mechanical disciplines.

The differences between engineers and architects, while they do exist, are not as great as what the two professions share—the expertise to evaluate, design, and maintain buildings and building systems and provide aesthetically pleasing, safe, well-functioning spaces to work and live. The question is, then, which one is better suited for the particular project at hand?

Education and Licensing

Engineers and architects receive different degrees in college and each must pass different professional examinations to be licensed. To become a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) in New York State, an engineer has to pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering examination, which is offered in a number of fields, such as civil, electrical, mechanical, and structural engineering. To become a Registered Architect, one must pass the Architect Registration Examination, which covers seven areas, such as Site Planning & Design, Building Systems, and Construction Documentation & Services.

New York State does not specify any engineering or architectural specialty in its licensure: A licensed engineer is simply a PE, not a Structural PE or a Mechanical PE. The same holds true for Registered Architects: An architect who specializes in new building design as opposed to one who is an historic preservation expert both have the same RA title. (The one exception is a landscape architect, which has its own RA designation.)

Other than certain restrictions in specialized disciplines or areas, once PE's and RA's are issued their licenses, they are entrusted by the state with the responsibility to determine which disciplines and projects they can administer.

Practical  Experience

While education and licensing are an important part of an engineer's and architect's qualifications, over time the professional's real-world work experience becomes the most significant factor in determining who is the right person for your building's projects. After engineering and architectural students graduate and begin practicing in their disciplines, they typically receive training in the services their individual firms offer, and ideally they begin to pursue the types of projects that most closely align with their interests and skill set. As they carry out the day-to-day tasks of their work and start to become knowledgeable in their field, their experience and expertise eventually matter more than whether they are PE's or RA's.

It's not that the license doesn't matter—far from it. The PE and RA credentials signify that the professional has acquired the necessary knowledge and training required to competently perform his or her work. New York State also has ongoing educational requirements to make sure PE's and RA's stay up to date on the latest products, technologies, and regulations affecting their practices. And, of course, New York State and City allow only licensed engineers or registered architects to perform certain tasks, such as signing and sealing design plans filed with the Buildings Department or filing New York City Local Law 11/98 facade inspection reports. But when deciding who's the best qualified person for a particular project at your building, the professional's first-hand knowledge and on-the-job experience probably outweigh whether the initials after his or her name are PE or RA.

This is not to say that certain projects don't call for specific skill sets that an engineer is more likely to have than an architect, or vice-versa. For example, upgrading a heating plant or re-piping a domestic water system would almost certainly be better handled by a mechanical engineer than by an architect—or for that matter, than by a structural engineer. Designing the aesthetics elements of a lobby renovation or an apartment combination, on the other hand, is much more of an assignment for an interior design-oriented architect than for an engineer—or an architect who specializes in exterior work.

Other types of projects, however, such as roofing replacement, window replacement, facade restoration, leakage investigation, or exterior repair in general could be handled by either an engineer or an architect with the right background. Engineers and architects, after all, don't acquire degrees in roofing, or in concrete repairs, or in finding the source of leaks.

But while all engineers and architects have a general knowledge of roofing systems, building construction, and construction materials, not all of them have worked extensively on those types of projects. In deciding which company to engage on your roofing replacement project, your board should consider not only each firm's experience on similar jobs, but also the project manager who would be assigned to the project and his or her familiarity with the particular roofing system at your building. Also keep in mind that a firm with a staff of professionals with expertise in multiple disciplines will have the ability to handle different aspects of the project if required—for example, after ripping up the existing roof and finding the underlying roof deck has structural damage.

Expert Witness Testimony

Should your Board take legal action against the manufacturer of your previous roof or the contractor who installed it, you will want to hire the most qualified person for the job—both in practice and on paper—in case he or she has to testify on behalf of the Cooperative. Specifically, the person should be a licensed Professional Engineer or Registered Architect in New York State and have extensive experience with roofing systems, especially the kind installed at your building. If the roof suffered structural damage, it's best that the person also be a practicing structural engineer in addition to a roofing expert.

A Registered Architect could very well be qualified to make a structural assessment of a roof, but given the misconception (as expressed even by some on your board) that architects are not suited for structural work, it's best to play it safe and have an engineer testify to maximize the Cooperative's chances for a favorable legal outcome.

Whether you engage an engineer or an architect for this or other projects, the main thing to keep in mind is that the person's (and his or her firm's) skills and expertise should match what's needed for the job. So interview the candidates, ask for references, and select the professional—PE or RA—with your building's best interests in mind. 

Stephen Varone, AIA is president and Peter Varsalona, PE is principal of RAND Engineering & Architecture, DPC. This column was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Habitat Magazine.

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