We have previously discussed the interesting case of German architect Gerhard Becker, 49, who was criminally charged for his negligent designs at a Hollywood Hills mansion, particularly a fireplace that was designed for exterior use only. The case raised the question of where we draw the line between civil and criminal liability. It now appears that that line will be drawn with Becker on the criminal side. He has reportedly decided to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. It is a case that will likely be discussed among architects and builders for years to come. However, Becker’s conduct is sufficiently extreme that it should not be taken as a criminalization of negligence in design. Yet, there is likely to be other cases where victims will demand the same criminal charges against architects in the aftermath of fires or collapses or other problems.
The plea will usually secure a sentence below the maximum for the defendant. However, this negligence resulted in the death of Los Angeles city firefighter, Glenn Allen (right above).
There was a time when such criminal charges were more common. However, they declined in the aftermath of municipal codes that specified standards and materials. This type of ad hoc or improvised design is a relic of the past.
Becker’s conduct was clearly extreme. He told a building inspector that no fireplaces would be included in the three-story, 12,000-square-foot hillside house. After the final inspection however he put in such a fireplace. He chose however a natural gas fire pit designed for outdoor use despite a sales person’s warning to him personally not to use the fireplace indoor. He also used combustible materials for the fireplace and reduced the required clearance area.
The result is that the fire spread quickly and resulted in a cave in. Three firefighters were crushed and Allen was killed.
Becker later fixed up the house and sold it for $7.55 million.
One of his defenses was that he personally stayed in the house and would not have done so if he thought the design was dangerous. This does make it different from other cases where architects simply disregard the safety of others. Here Becker clearly did not believe that there was a danger to himself.
This could be for architects a hard case making bad law if it results in greater criminalization of negligent designs. This was a pretty damning record of utter contempt for the building codes, knowing circumvention of inspectors, and the arrogant dismissal of warnings.
23 thoughts on “German Architect To Plead Guilty In Fatal Fire”
A traditional fireplace needs a steady supply of wood that must be hauled inside for each fire, and the ashes need to be hauled outside and disposed of. A modern natural gas fireplace can be turned on and off with the flip of a switch or a remote control.
What king of joist/rafters were used on that house? Solid wood, TJI Trusses as shown below or Iron?
Seems I recall firemen falling through TJI trusses 20 some years ago as they burn faster. (Used to anyway)
Becker was not an architect – not a *registered* architect in the State of California. He is an architect in Germany, where one only needs an architecture degree to use the title “architect”. In the US one must get a professional degree, do an internship, and pass a many-part (I think it’s 9-part now?) exam to be able to legally use the title architect. If you don’t have that registration you’re not allowed to use the term architect – and California has traditionally been one of the tougher states when it comes to mis-use of the term, what with their earthquakes and all.
What Becker *did* do was write an email in response to the firepit manufacturer’s warning not to use this unit indoors in which he said he didn’t see what the difference was whether he used it indoors or out AND if it didn’t have a UL label (a safety certification required on various appliances and fixtures to be legally used in the US) he would have to install it after the inspection. He stated this, very plainly, in a seized email.
I’m not a lawyer – actually I’m an archiect ha! a registered one – but I’m really curious as to which is a worse situation in terms of law-breaking for Becker: the email seems to show intentional deception. Would the charges be worse if he *was* a registered architect because not only would he be deceiving the code official but also doing so as someone who is registered/certified by the State as having expertise knowledge? If a lawyer – registered or whatever term is used by lawyers – writes an illegal contract that harms his/her client is s/he in worse trouble than if a non-lawyer does?
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