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What’s in a name? Misuse of the title ‘architect’

In the first half of 2019 nearly 500 complaints were made to us regarding misuse of the legally protected title ‘architect’.

But what’s in a name? Many people aren’t aware that architects are regulated in the UK, unless they’ve been misfortunate enough to have a bad experience with someone falsely claiming to be one. This can be a hard lesson to learn when dealing with an unregulated individual or business and the only course of action is through the civil courts, which can be costly.

Architects Register

Under the Architects Act 1997 only those who meet the required standards are eligible to join the Architects Register, which enables them to use the title architect. When someone uses the title ‘architect’, anyone can check the Register to make sure they are dealing with a genuine professional. If someone is not on the Register, they are not an architect – it’s as simple as that.

The Act gives us, the Architects Registration Board (ARB), the power to prosecute those who use the title when they have no right in order to protect the public from dishonest individuals who deliberately mislead people by calling themselves something they’re not.

Criminal conviction and fines

The recent prosecution of an individual and their design practice is one such example. The court hearing resulted in fines totaling tens of thousands of pounds for both the business and its owner. The magistrates imposed the maximum fine for each charge as well as further costs and surcharges. Giving the reasoning behind imposing the maximum fines available, the magistrate noted that “the offence has included identity theft and also poses safety concerns to the public”. They also noted the defendant’s reluctance to engage with ARB and their absence from court.

We received a complaint about the company in 2018, following an email campaign it sent out to generate new business. The complainant questioned whether the company employed any registered architects and therefore had the right to use the ARB logo as they had done in their communication. We investigated and both the company website and an individual’s LinkedIn page were found to be in breach of the law.

Our investigation

On their website, the company claimed to employ two architects, one of whom was not on our Register and was found to be misusing the title on their own LinkedIn page. We always try to reduce the harm as swiftly as possible and one of our Investigations Officers contacted the design practice as well as contacting the individual via LinkedIn. We received no response at that time, however following these warnings both the website and the LinkedIn profile were corrected to reflect the fact that the individual concerned was not an architect.

Unfortunately the individual and the company came to our attention again a short while later, triggered by another email campaign. On their website, the company now claimed that an architect was their ‘Architect Director’; however this individual was listed on our Register at a different practice. We contacted the registrant who responded immediately, stating that “[This] is a business I was supposed to collaborate with as an external consultant but the collaboration has never started.”

We initiated a further investigation of the company, including its registration details with Company’s House, the company website and its metadata, social media accounts and business listings. Significant evidence was gathered that clearly demonstrated the business was misusing the title ‘architect’ and therefore breaching the Architects Act. In light of this evidence and the previous case, the matter was referred to a solicitor.

In filing the case, it was noted that:

  • The company claimed to employ an architect who had in fact not worked with or for it. The design practice therefore employed no architects
  • Multiple pages of the website misused the title, with statements such as “our architects”, “we have architects” and “Our team features all necessary architects and designers – we… do not sub-contract any job”
  • The website made multiple references to the Architects Registration Board, including stating that “our architects are ARB registered”, “our architectural services are fully ARB registered” and “our membership implies that the title of our architects is bona fide”. The website also used the ARB logo to legitimise the company’s claims
  • The website’s metadata used ’architect’ in content, keywords and headings across multiple pages
  • Numerous customer testimonials featured on the website described the design practice as “architects” suggesting customers had likely been misled
  • The company’s listing with an online business directory also used the ARB logo

Protecting the public

Our Investigations Officer for the case explains how prosecution could have been avoided but also how such cases can help protect the public by raising awareness of the issue: “The breaches committed by this business and the inidivudal responsible for it were wide-ranging across multiple online platforms and media but our attempts to make contact and resolve the matter before taking it to court were ignored. We hope criminal convictions, fines and the negative publicity associated with such cases act as a deterrent and useful insight for others who may otherwise have used the title illegally”.

On hearing of the conviction, Paula Higgins of the HomeOwners Alliance said “This is very good news for homeowners, who are at serious risk of being misled by individuals and companies that claim to be something they are not. For most people, a home is likely to be the most valuable and important asset they own – Homeowners need reliable and trustworthy information to help them make informed choices about who they hire to undertake work on their property.”

In regulating misuse of the title ‘architect’ our objective is to limit the harm as swiftly and effectively as possible. We hope this is the indivdual’s last offence but we will continue to monitor the design practice’s trading style and take further appropriate action as necessary.

For a complete list of all UK architects and to check whether someone is genuine, search the Architects Register: architects-register.org.uk