NSWARB hands out largest-ever fine for architect’s ‘unsatisfactory professional conduct’

The New South Wales Architects Registrations Board (NSWARB) has handed out the largest fine in its history to a registered architect.

Alex Sibir, who acted as the nominated architect for developers Urban Link, Bechara Chan and Associates and Design Cubicle was “found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct” for 12 “serious and sustained” breaches of the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct. Sibir was fined $19,800 ($1,650 for each breach) and banned from acting as a nominated architect for five years.

“This happens to be the largest fine handed out by the board in its 94-year history, so it’s quite a serious one.” NSWARB registrar Tim Horton would not be drawn on what caused the disciplinary action to be taken but told ArchitectureAU, “The architect failed in his duties to ensure the companies for which he was nominated architect complied with the Architects Act.”

The Australian Institute of Architects NSW chapter president Andrew Nimmo told ArchitectureAU, “My understanding is a lot of this comes from misrepresentation in relation to SEPP 65, where a multi-unit development is required to be designed by […] and signed off by a registered architect. That registered architect has to be nominated and their registration number shown on all the documentation.”

SEPP 65, as it’s commonly referred to, is the state environmental planning policy governing residential apartment design. Criteria for adhering to SEPP 65’s design quality principles are laid out in NSW’s Apartment Design Guide (updated in 2015), which requires all residential buildings more than three storeys to be designed by an architect.

“There are design review panels, design excellence panels that are set up in most of the councils and their role is to look at the projects that come under SEPP 65,” Nimmo said.

“It seems fairly clear that there are some architects allowing their registration and their name as an architect to be used as the author of the project, when in fact it appears to have been designed by a non-registered architect or a drafting firm.”

Sibir’s case exposes a “massive blind spot in the profession” and a practice of non-compliance that appears to be much more widespread.

“You can tell when someone comes in [to a design review panel], you start talking about the project and the architect is looking as though it’s all fresh to them. There’s often a person from a drafting firm who’s telling you all about it,” Nimmo said.

“It’s very hard to actually prove, but anecdotally it appears to be happening everywhere.

“If this [case] sends a bit of a warning sign to architects that they can’t do that, then that’s a great thing. That will improve the quality of architecture, the quality of design overall and it’ll also remind architects they are in a privileged position, as in having the Architects Act to back them up.”

Horton said this practice exposes architects to greater risk of breaching the Architects Act and the code of conduct, “We’re finding architects who are happy to be nominated by two or more companies are generally at risk of not being able to do what’s expected of them, which is to ensure that every element of that business that they’re responsible for lives up to those high consumer standards.

“The board is cracking down on those architects who are practising outside of those public interest protections.”

However, Nimmo said architects should not be held solely responsible for acting unprofessionally and unethically. “In almost all these cases, there’s obviously a developer involved as well and there may well be a drafting company involved who are knowingly buying the services of a nominated architect and pretending that that person did the design or has been involved in that design.

“The architect’s a small guy in there, it’s the developer and the larger firms that stand to make all the money and if they’re acting in a deceitful way then, they should be brought to account as well.”

“We would like to see the NSWARB look at how it can also bring to account other parties who are part of that deceit, not just the architect.”

Under the NSW Architects Act 2003, “any company can become an architectural practice if they have a nominated architect,” Horton explained. “An architectural practice has public safeguards consumer protections built into how they operate.

“Businesses that chose to buy in an architect to act as the nominated architect who will sign the form often don’t understand that by having a nominated architect, they immediately become an architectural practice and so all the consumer safeguards kick in.”

Section 83 of the act stipulates, “If a corporation contravenes (whether by act or omission) any provision of this Act or the regulations, each person who is a director of the corporation or who is concerned in the management of the corporation is taken to have contravened the same provision if the person knowingly authorized or permitted the contravention.”

“That means the board has the authority to go to the local court and connect the breach of the architect to the breach by the director,” Horton said.

Sibir was the subject of proceedings by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 1997 for “false, misleading and deceptive promotion of land sales” on a property in Western Australia. The Federal Court granted orders restraining Sibir from promoting the sale of interests in the subject land on 19 May, 1998.

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