Rogue Architect Sentenced in Death of L.A. Firefighter; AIA|LA Responds

AIA|LA responds to Gerhard Becker's one year involuntary manslaughter sentence in the death of an L.A. firefighter.

Image Courtesy of CurbedLA
Gerhard Becker’s Hollywood Hills home Image Courtesy of CurbedLA

Gerhard Becker received a one year involuntary manslaughter sentence in the death of L.A. firefighter Glen Allen, reported the Los Angeles Times today. He was charged with “recklessly installing a fireplace” in his Hollywood Hills home. The frame of the fireplace was built with “combustible materials” instead of a safer alternative like bricks, and there were no firebreaks built into the walls.

“The fire had rocketed up to the attic. The ceiling eventually collapsed, crushing three firefighters, including Allen, who later died at a hospital due to lack of oxygen to his brain while he was pinned down,” wrote Paresh Dave of the L.A. Times.

Dave also wrote that, “prosecutors allege Becker told a city building inspector that he didn’t plan to build any fireplaces in his three-story, 12,000-square-foot hillside house. But authorities say he did so anyway after the final inspection in November 2010.”

Was Gerhard Becker an outlier in this cavalier breach of building code? DnA asked the L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects and they stated the following:

“The American Institute of Architects Los Angeles (AIA|LA) is deeply saddened by this unfortunate tragedy. Licensed Architects complete a rigorous program of study and training so that their designs meet exacting standards to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public that they serve. It is important to remember that the individual charged was working in an unlicensed capacity. This tragedy underscores the AIA|LA commitment to encouraging the pursuit of full licensure. Licensed AIA members at the national, state and local levels are required to complete annual continuing education to ensure ongoing proficiency in the field and are held to the highest standards of professionalism and ethical behavior.”

In order to practice architecture in California, architects have to pass a stringent licensing exam; Gerhard Becker was not licensed in this state.

  • rkitect

    AIA will unfortunately milk this for all it’s worth to push the agenda of banning all non AIA member designs in the country. The fact that there are plenty of licensed Architects who get away with designing outside the extents of code requirements will never be breached. Any responsible designer, registered, not registered, member of AIA or not will hold human life with higher regard than any code book will. The fact that this designer went around code to satisfy his pocket book instead of holding the occupants of his design’s life dear to his heart has nothing to do with holding a membership to the AIA social club.

    • CocoChanel

      This was Beckers home. So HE didn’t value his own life. Like typical architects, not putting value on themselves.

    • lugray

      The AIA supports licensure and would like to see all building designs in the US done by licensed architects. However, the AIA is not in charge of the licensure process and isn’t trying to force people to become AIA members. I think your anger is misguided. If our government required all buildings to be designed by licensed architects than this individual would not have been able to design and build his own house.

  • Joe

    The preservation of occupants lives or the uses of space cannot be left into the hands of the individual designer That is why we have the AIA or the registration as a measure of competency and the code as a rule of thumb on best practice to protect life

  • a great home, it is my dream and also a lot of people.

  • Ryan

    Why does the author of this post identify Mr. Becker as a “rogue architect” when he’s not an architect? The statement from AIA|LA included in the article and the authors statement at the end of the article shows that the title is not factually correct – it misrepresents what happened and tarnishes the title for those architects who have worked to obtain and maintain their registration.

    • John

      Ryan, the article is unclear as to the profession of the homeowner. Title says “rogue Architect” but article describes a builder of his own home. Who pulled the building permit? Was there a licensed Architect involved? I confess that I don’t know enough about L.A. building permit process.

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  • Clark Gollotte

    Along with the designer, the code official and general contractor deserve some jail time as well for their responsibility to the public.

    I use the word designer because this man was not an architect.

    Architects go to university for a minimum of five years and earn an accredited professional degree, work as an intern under a licensed architect for a minimum of three years. Then sit for and pass a minimum of seven exams to show proficiency in their profession. Only then can they apply for registration in a state. once registered, architects must maintain continuing education credits for every year they practice.

    I would wish that people used the term architect correctly. One would not refer to a nurse or PA as a Doctor, or a paralegal as a Lawyer.

  • Greg

    Interesting how the discussion migrated away from the headlines, and rightly so! The fact that a life was lost because someone made an installation/construction error is fit for regular news. This venue is Architecture based and the fact that the responsible party was not an architect is the real subject for discussion. The politics of the AIA aside, I agree that an individual who did not follow the education, testing, licensing and education maintenance programs should not be referred to as an architect; rogue,
    un-licensed, or otherwise.

    Thank you all for seeing through the smokescreen of the mass media and that poorly written article. I’m proud to be an architect!

  • Richard Balkins

    As a building designer in Oregon myself. First, the education and the ARE is fiction not based on reality. It is a smoke screen and an illusion of competence in its own right. If it were me, I’d require architects to pass ALL of the PE exams for the following engineering disciplines: structural, electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering… and in addition pass all the exams for plan examination and other exams required for a certified building official, plan examiner and building inspector in addition to the exams in the ARE.

    That aside, in Oregon law, licensed or not, you are held accountable. Licensed or not, you are held to the same standard of care. If we use our legal history and context… case law would place any person engaged in designing buildings as an “architect”. There are case law predating architectural licensing in California involving architects. It is also to remember that the definition used by the architectural licensing board as defined in Oregon revised statutes ONLY apply to the interpretation of the architectural title, practice and licensing laws. It is not the definition of the word “architect”. Basically, there is the “statutory” definition and the “dictionary” / “common” / “academic” definition of the word architect. The latter is by far broader than the ‘statutory’. By law, you’re not an architect even if you are licensed in ever other state than the one you are in and in every country in the world as well. You are not an “Architect” by statutes. In fact, the official title granted to you is not “Architect” but “____________ licensed/registered Architect” such as “Oregon registered Architect” is the official title or “Registered Architect” / “Licensed Architect”. Look at your stamp and license/registration certificate. That is your official title.

    Regardless, it is good to know in this case, people (licensed or not) are held accountable. As a building designer serving my clients in Oregon, a law in Oregon law clearly states that I could be sued for negligence, tort, contraction or any other legal action for my services. That law is ORS 12.135 (OREGON REVISED STATUTES). California may have something similar. Bottom line: Licensed or not, you have a duty of care to your clients. When you are serving clients as part of commercial activity (all professional activities in which you serve others especially for remuneration is commercial activities) places you in a position of responsibility and trust.

    In addition, every person is required by law to conduct every activity or decision they make in ANYTHING to “standard of reasonable care”. There is no such thing in statutes of “professional standard of care”. It is that a professional (licensed or not) would be expected to adhere to the standard of care more so than a non-professional. In other words, if you are a professional (licensed or not) and education & experience that is customary of your profession would indicate that you should know better means that in the facts of the case, you would need to adhere to what a reasonable prudent person under same or similar circumstances would do. For professionals (licensed or not), what would your peers and colleagues do. Since architects and building designers are often doing same or similar work when it comes to “exempted” buildings such as single family residential dwellings, we define that standard. As customary, we would know to comply with building codes.

    Gerhard Becker was already familiar with the codes as it is. He already knew about the permit and regulatory processes and inspection requirements. Even in Germany, they have agencies/departments that checks the plans against a set of building codes and do inspection in their permit process. He failed to comply which even in Germany would have caused him to lose his license. He chose not to comply thinking his foreign status would make him immune to the legal requirements here. He made decisions that violated the reasonable standard of care that would apply to anyone. The main difference between his case and in cases of us serving clients is he doesn’t have a duty of care to a third-party client.

    However, everyone has a general duty of care to not harm another person through our actions or inactions. As professionals with a body of knowledge of the subject matter would be expected to achieve that in the subject matter of our professions. As such, architects and building designers (licensed and non-licensed) has a professional degree of expectation to identify and know what is going to be safe and what is not. We would know this because of our education and experience. Although paths of learning and gaining experience doesn’t matter. We learn the subject matter as it is customary to the subject of what we do. Whether you learned it in a class room or taught it yourself and your body of work demonstrates what you learned… it doesn’t matter the method but that you possess the knowledge or otherwise would have customarily known or if you didn’t would have known what the next proper steps would be to do.

    What do you do if you don’t know something that you would need to know in order to do something?

    The baseline is, Gerhard failed to exercise prudence which you need not be licensed to do.

    At the end of the day, if you fail to exercise prudent and reasonable judgment that is negligence.

    As for whether or not Gerhard had violated the licensing law in California maybe evaluated on whether or not the house is wood frame or not.

    I don’t believe there is so much a size rule as there is a construction type rule for the exemption in California. Did he violate that? I am suspecting he has but it is hard to tell. In Oregon, I can design houses of that size in any material because of no size rule or construction type rule as it pertains to single family dwellings. I think it doesn’t matter. There are competent licensed architects and competent unlicensed designers. Then there are incompetent. Unfortunately, Gerhard Becker was incompetent perhaps voluntarily. It may have been involuntary manslaughter as he had no voluntary intent but it is voluntary negligence on his part.

    However, he won’t be the subject of the California architectural licensing board for whether he was negligent or not. He could be subject to sanctions if his house does not meet the exemption criteria.