Unofficial Opinion U2017-1

January 25, 2017
To: 

President Pro Tempore    

Georgia State Senate                                                                  

Re: 

Changes to Chapter 4, Title 43 of the Official Code of Georgia that were instituted through the passage of HB 231, 2010 Ga. Laws 748, authorize registered interior designers to submit plans under seal to local building authorities for permitting approval of nonstructural interior construction, so long as they do not involve construction that would trigger the restrictions as outlined in O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14(a)(1) (2014).

You have asked for my opinion whether registered interior designers are authorized under 2010 Ga. Laws 748 (hereinafter sometimes referred to as House Bill 231) to submit plans under seal to local building authorities for permitting approval of nonstructural interior construction.  For the reasons outlined below, registered interior designers are authorized to sign and seal documents related to nonstructural interior construction for their submission to building officials or fire marshals for permitting purposes to the extent that it does not conflict with the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14 (2014).

In 2010, the General Assembly enacted legislation amending various sections of Chapter 4, Title 43 of the Official Code of Georgia, which regulates the professions of architecture and interior design.  The amendment provided new guidance on what constitutes interior design:

"Interior design" means the rendering of or the offering to render designs, consultations, studies, planning, drawings, specifications, contract documents, or other technical submissions and the administration of interior construction and contracts relating to nonstructural interior construction of a building by a registered interior designer. Such term includes:

(i)Space planning, finishes, furnishings, and the design for fabrication of nonstructural interior construction within interior spaces of buildings;

(ii)Responsibility for life safety design of proposed or modification of existing nonstructural and nonengineered elements of construction such as partitions, doors, stairways, and paths of egress connecting to exits or exit ways; and

(iii)Modification of existing building construction so as to alter the number of persons for which the egress systems of the building are designed.

O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑1(9)(A).[1]  Under this definition, registered interior designers are authorized to render documents related to nonstructural interior construction, which is further defined as “the construction of elements which do not include a load-bearing wall, a load-bearing column, or other load-bearing elements of a building essential to the structural integrity of the building.”  O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑1(10).  Under O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑1(8), it is expressly contemplated that these documents will be “sealed and signed by a registered interior designer certifying compliance with applicable current building codes, ordinances, laws, and regulations that define the work to be constructed in such form as is required for approval of a construction permit by a building official or fire marshal.”

It appears that the General Assembly, in adopting HB 231, intended to authorize registered interior designers to submit construction documents for purposes of obtaining permitting approval of nonstructural interior construction.  In further evidence of its intent, the General Assembly contemporaneously provided authority for a registered interior designer to maintain a seal separate from the seal of registered architects and mandated that the seal be affixed “to drawings or other documents prepared by or under the responsible control of the registered interior designer.”  O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑33(b).  Finally, HB 231 exempted nonstructural interior construction documents from requiring an architect’s seal as long as a registered interior designer “who by sealing and signing such interior construction documents submits to the responsible building official certification that the plans and specifications as submitted are in compliance with the applicable current building codes and regulations in effect.”  O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑14(b)(5).

However, other laws addressing building permitting requirements were not modified to reflect the changes to the authority granted to registered interior designers.  In one such case, the professional engineering law poses a potential conflict.  O.C.G.A. § 43‑15‑24(a) directs that no entity may “engage in the construction of any work or structures involving professional engineering which by the nature of their function or existence could adversely affect or jeopardize the health, safety, or welfare of the public unless the plans and specifications have been prepared under the direct supervision or review of and bear the seal of, and the construction is executed under the direct supervision of or review by, a registered professional engineer or architect.”  Subsection (c) of this Code section gives further direction to permitting authorities:

Any county, municipality, or other governing body in this state that issues building permits is required to maintain a permanent record of the permit application and issuance thereon, which record shall indicate the name of the professional engineer or architect, if any, that has sealed the plans, specifications, plats, or reports pursuant to which said building permit is issued, said record to include details on the size, type of building or structure, use for said building or structure, and estimated cost of construction.

O.C.G.A. § 43‑15‑24(c).  The role of registered interior designers is not reflected in this statute, last amended in 1994.  However, O.C.G.A. § 43‑15‑29(e) directs that the provisions in Chapter 15, Title 43 of the Official Code of Georgia are not to be “construed to affect the lawful practice of a person acting within the scope of a license granted by the state under any other law.”

In reading these engineering statutes carefully, they ultimately do not pose a problem to the goals intended by the passage of HB 231.   “‘It is an elementary rule of statutory construction that a statute must be construed in relation to other statutes of which it is a part, and all statutes relating to the same subject-matter . . . are construed together and harmonized wherever possible so as to ascertain the legislative intendment and give effect thereto.’ Ryan v. Commissioners of Chatham County et al., 203 Ga. 730, 731-732 (1948).” 1990 Op. Att'y Gen. 90‑13.  Moreover, “in the event of conflicting provisions, the statute later in time would govern as the last expression of the General Assembly's intent.” Foster v. Brown, 199 Ga. 444, 451 (1945); Carroll & Co. v. Langford Construction Co., 182 Ga. App. 258, 260 (1987)." 2014 Op. Att'y Gen. 14‑3.  The later in time passage and the General Assembly’s specific grant of authority to interior designers operating in the limited arena of nonstructural interior construction allows for the conclusion that the amendments contained in HB 231 can be read in harmony with the language in O.C.G.A. § 43‑15‑24 to allow registered interior designers to sign and seal documents regarding nonstructural interior construction for permitting purposes.

Another concern is the language contained in O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14(a)(1) (2014).  This Code section, last amended in 2006, mandates that, prior to the issuance of a state, county or municipal building permit, the seal and registration number of a drafting architect or engineer must be on plans or specifications for proposed buildings or any substantial renovations[2] to existing buildings that present special hazards to persons or property, as described in O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑13(b)(1) (Supp. 2016).   This class of buildings includes larger occupancy buildings and certain specialty buildings such as schools, hospitals, theaters, department stores, day-care homes, and assisted living facilities.  The General Assembly’s specific designation of certain buildings as those presenting special hazards to persons or property must be given due weight and it necessarily controls over the general authority given to interior designers to submit plans and specifications for nonstructural interior construction. [3]  “For purposes of statutory interpretation, a specific statute will prevail over a general statute, absent any indication of a contrary legislative intent.” Goldberg v. State, 282 Ga. 542, 544 (2007).  To the extent that the work or construction is connected to proposed buildings or any substantial renovations to existing buildings that present special hazards to persons or property, a permitting authority shall require the plans and specifications to be sealed by an architect or engineer.  But for work or construction that falls outside the dictates of O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14(a)(1) (2014), there is no conflict and a permitting authority may issue a permit upon submission of plans rendered by an interior designer for nonstructural interior construction.

Therefore, it is my unofficial opinion that the changes to Chapter 4, Title 43 of the Official Code of Georgia that were instituted through the passage of HB 231, 2010 Ga. Laws 748, do authorize registered interior designers to submit plans under seal to local building authorities for permitting approval of nonstructural interior construction, so long as they do not involve construction that would trigger the restrictions as outlined in O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14(a)(1) (2014).

[1] All citations to Title 43 herein are to the 2016 edition of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.

[2] “‘Substantial renovation’ means any construction project involving exits or internal features of such building or structure costing more than the building’s or structure’s assessed value according to county tax records at the time of such renovation.”   O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14(d) (2014).

[3] This office previously addressed the relationship between O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14 (2014) and O.C.G.A. § 43‑4‑15, another architectural profession-related statute.  In that opinion, the Attorney General highlighted the supremacy of O.C.G.A. § 25‑2‑14 (2014) in the permitting context to the extent that the provisions there were in conflict.  1987 Op. Att’y Gen. 87‑8.  

Prepared by:

MAXIMILLIAN J. CHANGUS

Assistant Attorney General