Architects, engineers and contractors are all vulnerable to lawsuits. Stakes are high and a lot can go wrong. When it does, the design professional is often blamed.
Here’s a look at seven notable projects that resulted in architecture lawsuits, plus what can be learned from them and how to protect yourself.
Frank and Berta Gehry Residence – Santa Monica, California
Architect Frank Gehry is famous for his unusual material choices and deconstructed forms. But when he first tried out this approach on a home he bought in 1978, multiple neighbors complained to him about the project. Unhappy with Gehry’s use of galvanized metal siding and chain link fencing to extend the living space of the original traditionally constructed home, one neighbor even complained to the city and filed a lawsuit. According to Gehry, the suit didn’t go anywhere, and the frustrated neighbor eventually remodeled her own home by copying some of Gehry’s ideas.
Ponte della Costituzione Bridge – Venice, Italy
Slip-and-fall accidents are a common source of insurance claims for brick-and-mortar businesses, but they can also impact architects. Architect Santiago Calatrava was commissioned by Venice authorities to build the first new bridge over the city’s Grand Canal since the 16th century. Opened in 2008, the original steel structure featured tempered glass pavers with a special traction coating. However, pedestrian falls were reported almost daily. In 2019, a local court fined Calatrava €78,000 for professional negligence. Calatrava paid the fine and offered to work with authorities on a plan to add trachyte stone over the glass for better traction.
Millennium Tower Condos – San Francisco, California
The more variables, the trickier things can get for a geotechnical engineer, and San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is the perfect example. Ice Age mud, a Gold Rush landfill, heavy concrete and neighboring construction all combined to produce unexpected and excessive sinking and tilting of the new 58-story, 419-unit residential skyscraper in 2009. By 2016, condo residents had filed a class action lawsuit against DeSimone Consulting Engineers, the developer and the other parties involved in the $350 million project, with solutions estimated to cost as much as $500 million. A cheaper fix was found, but those repairs were delayed after more sinking occurred in 2021.
Make It Right Housing – New Orleans, Louisiana
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, actor Brad Pitt helped co-found the Make It Right Foundation to provide new housing to residents of New Orlean’s Lower 9th Ward. The 150-house project has involved numerous well-known architects, including David Adjaye, Frank Gehry, Morphosis and Shigeru Ban. Residents moved into the first homes in 2009, but soon reported defects, including water intrusion, black mold and foundation issues. Legal proceedings opened in 2018, and Pitt’s charity agreed to a $20.5 million settlement to pay owners for repairs in 2022.
Harmon Tower Hotel – Las Vegas, Nevada
Mistakes during construction can lead to significant losses for all involved. Despite its demolition in 2015, the Harmon Tower hotel remains a cautionary tale. Designed by Foster + Partners and built by Tutor Perini, the MGM Resorts property was intended to be part of an $8.5 billion casino and hotel complex on the Las Vegas Strip. But when improperly installed rebar was discovered on 15 floors, construction for the 49-story project was capped at 28 stories. More defects were discovered, and the building was only used as an unoccupied billboard. Claims for $400 million in damages followed and floor-by-floor disassembly cost $11.5 million.
Philharmonie de Paris Concert Hall – Paris, France
Design professionals know that lawsuits are likely when projects are late and over budget. Even so, Architect Jean Nouvel did not expect the €170.6 million fine demanded by the French government in 2019 over the construction of the Philharmonie de Paris. Featuring aluminum interlocking tiles in the shape of birds, the new concert hall had opened two years late and three times over budget back in 2015. At the time, Nouvel tried to get a court to disassociate his firm from what he considered to be an unfinished project that deviated from his vision, but the bid was unsuccessful. Arguing that the fine would be the end of his studio, Nouvel countersued, and a settlement was reached in 2021.
Farnsworth House – Plano, Illinois
Design professionals know that even a simple project can result in costly litigation. Occasionally, it can also result in a major motion picture. A movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges is said to be in the works about the famed Farnsworth House. The story goes that Dr. Edith Farnsworth hired architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build her summer home after meeting him at a dinner party in 1946. Conflicts arose over Mies’ minimalist glass-wrapped design, with Mies suing Farnsworth for $30,673.09 in outstanding construction costs and fees, and Farnsworth countersuing for the $33,872.10 she paid over the initial estimate. Mies eventually won the protracted litigation and Farnsworth sold the home and moved to Italy.
What to Learn From These Architecture Lawsuits
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this collection of architecture lawsuit examples is that anything is possible. An architect working on his own home like Gehry, or the home of a friend like Mies, can end up in a lawsuit just as easily as one working on a billion-dollar project like the Tutor Perini firm.
A lawsuit doesn’t have to involve an enclosed building, a bridge will do, as the case of Calatrava illustrates. Professional work done for a good cause, such as Make It Right, can still pose a risk to your career, and even formally quitting a project, as in the case of Nouvel, doesn’t mean you won’t be blamed for its problems.
In the end, these cases illustrate the importance of protecting yourself and your design firm from the outset with the proper insurance. Professional Liability coverage from Lockton Affinity Architect + Engineer can help.
Coverage from Lockton Affinity Architect + Engineer includes important benefits to aid risk management, including complimentary contract reviews for policyholders to help mitigate lawsuit risks, plus coverage for legal defense, settlements and judgements.
To find out what our coverage will look like for your firm, request your indication online and one of our insurance experts will reach out to discuss your needs.