How Long Should You Keep Your Project Files?

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How Long Should I Keep My Project Files?
Guest Post: David N. Garst, B.Arch, J.D.
Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C.

One of the most common questions addressed by construction lawyers for is “how long should I keep my project files?” There are number of important considerations relating to document retention. While the Tennessee statute of repose for defective improvement of real property limits a design professional’s potential liability for private work to a maximum of five years, architects and engineers should not assume this protection always will be available. The statute of repose does not apply to State or Federal work. Many States have no statute of repose or have a statute that allows suits many years following substantial completion. In addition, statutes of repose can be repealed or modified. It is imperative that project records be properly maintained.

At the conclusion of each project, the files should be properly organized for
storage. Duplicates and general trash should be discarded. We recommend the bulk of the organized project file, including correspondence, emails, minutes, memoranda, field reports, financial and billing information, photographs, and shop drawings and other submittals, be retained for at least seven years following completion of the project.

We recommend that design professionals archive in perpetuity:

  1.  A copy of all sealed instruments of professional service, including the
    original issued plans and specifications, reports, addenda, ASIs, ASDs,
    reissued plans, and all other documents that demonstrate a change in the
    design. The instruments of service can be electronically archived in the
    .pdf format. They should not be archived in the Word or CADD formats that are subject to modification. Such documents are essential to the defense of a design professional in the event that issues ever arise concerning the design. The ability to prove the original design can be vital, as in the case of litigation arising from a code violation, additions or modifications to a building, or replacement materials.
  2. Copies of all professional services agreements. Of course, they must be
    fully executed.
  3. Copies of the fully executed certificates of substantial completion from
    each project. Because the Tennessee statute of repose commences to
    run on the date of substantial completion, these certificates can act as
    delayed-action releases. The architect should have no difficulty
    obtaining a copy of the certificate for each project and should have no
    problem sharing copies with all subconsultants.
  4. Engineering calculations.
  5. Any other legal document pertaining to the design professional’s
    liability on the project, such as releases or settlement agreements.

Finally, in the event you become aware that a lawsuit may be filed against you or
your firm related to your professional services, you may have an affirmative duty to preserve your documents, including electronically stored information, related to the subject of the lawsuit. In such event, you should act quickly to segregate and preserve the relevant documents and computer files. Your insurance company and attorney can assist in the event this becomes necessary.