Cameron to fill distinctive role, help architects meet public safety charge



John G. Cameron, Jr., attorney at Dickinson Wright and new director on the board of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards,

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

An important thing to know about Dickinson Wright attorney John Cameron’s appointment as public director for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) is that there is only one non-architect chosen from the entire nation to serve in that role.

The remainder of the 14-member governing body comes from the state (and U.S. entities such as Puerto Rico and Guam) architectural registration boards which compose the membership of NCARB.

Cameron’s predecessor, also an attorney though that is not a requirement, nominated him as she was finishing up her public director term —the public member serves for one year, renewable up to three times. Cameron underwent a fairly stringent selection process, including an interview in unseasonably cold New Orleans earlier this year.

“I guess I did OK,” he says with a smile. “It’s an important effort, so it’s a privilege to be the one guy in the whole country who gets to do this.”

Cameron goes on to explain that the function of NCARB is to assist the architecture boards with their charge of regulating the practice of architecture, including development of testing and standards. In this way, as NCARB’s website explains, “NCARB protects the public health, safety, and welfare...”

“Even though it’s a quiet profession, architecture is very important to public safety,” Cameron says. “As just one example, a few years ago this massive high rise office building in Boston started  having its windows fall out onto the sidewalk. Fortunately no one was hurt. Or, take another example: I’ve seen a plan that called for ordinary wall board in a chimney lining rather than metal, which could catch fire. So to ensure that the public is protected, the practice of architecture has to be regulated, to make sure those who are becoming architects are qualified to make such decisions.”
The guidelines NCARB develops for its member boards cover not only individual applicants to be certified as architects, but also overall standards for the practice of architecture.

A committee structure allows for full utilization of different areas of expertise, and Cameron will serve on some of those committees. “The reason the national and some of the state boards have a public member is that if you’re an architect regulating architects, you may be completely ethical and making your best effort, but someone outside the profession with enough expertise to understand the field can ask questions that might not have occurred to the architects or give them ideas on how things might work better. That’s my function.”

The Michigan Board of Architects, created by PA 29 of 1980, has two “public” members, along with five architects, one professional engineer, and one professional surveyor, and is run out of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, staffed by Andrew D. Brisbo.

The state defines architecture as “professional services, such as consultation, investigation, evaluation, planning, design, review of materials and completed phases of work in construction, alteration or repair in connection with a public or private structure, building, equipment, works or project, when the professional service requires the application of a principle of architecture or architectural design.”

Cameron, who met some of the Michigan members when they served as delegates to the NCARB five-day annual meeting in Philadelphia,  comments, “I was impressed by their qualifications and diligence,” though he notes that Michigan is not as active in NCARB as some other states.

As an example of one of the policy questions the NCARB board considers, Cameron explained, “Let’s say you didn’t attend an accredited school of architecture, but you’ve been doing this for many years and you want to take the exam. We discuss that and develop a policy about what sort of experience is required to overcome not attending the accredited school.”

Many think of the AIA, or American Institute of Architects, when they think of that profession, but AIA?is more of a promotional trade organization whereas NCARB is an association of governmental regulatory bodies. Cameron notes that when he was first starting out as a lawyer in Chicago, AIA?was one of his clients.

Since that time, he has amassed a great deal of experience in, and knowledge about, construction law. He has been with Dickinson Wright since 1978. Cameron attended the United States Naval Academy, Albion College, and Wayne State University Law School, from which he graduated cum laude.

Cameron recalls his brief stint in Chicago as immensely interesting. He was involved as a junior lawyer with an important Illinois case involving architectural malpractice. “We actually ended up having the building code of the city of Hinsdale declared unconstitutional,” he says. “But when I moved here, the thrust of my practice became working for owners.” He counts among his clients Whirlpool Corporation, the University of Michigan, and the Hillshire Brands Company.

He has had many successes in court regarding real estate and construction matters, and is also broadly expert in commercial transactions. He is the author of a widely-consulted national treatise, A Practitioner’s Guide to Construction Law. “That treatise includes two chapters on architectural issues,” he notes.

Cameron currently serves as chair of the State Bar of Michigan Professional Ethics Committee, and has participated in public discussions and presentations, even a TV show, on ethics, in addition to teaching locally and lecturing widely. He is a Top 100 Michigan Super Lawyer, and was designated Grand Rapids Real Estate Lawyer of the Year in 2009, and 2011 Construction Lawyer of the Year, along with being an elected member of the American Law Institute and of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

His extensive community activities include several roles in conjunction with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, being on the board of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, and co-leading several political campaigns.

Personally, Cameron has always had a fascination for architecture. When he worked in Chicago, known as a national hub for design, he would take long walks just to look at the buildings; as a Grand Rapids resident, he continues to do so. “The Chicago architecture is magnificent and diverse,” he says. “But I’ll tell you a secret, I travel a lot, and the city I think I’d say has the second most diversity is right here. Just walk around and look at all the different styles.”

About his latest position at NCARB, Cameron comments, “It’s a breath of fresh air for me. I love what I do, I love my job and thoroughly enjoy working for the clients I have, but this is something totally different, and it’s fun.”