Better Ethics for Architects

Architecture is not an easy profession to enter.  To become an architect, candidates must obtain specialized advanced education, work their way through an extended mandatory internship process and sit for lengthy state licensing examinations that all serve to create barriers to entry into the profession.  These obstacles are all put in place because architects are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the public in terms of the occupants of the facilities that they design, and the harder it is to become an architect, the greater the appearance of expertise and trustworthiness.  This is by design. Architects have created their market by presenting themselves as highly qualified learned professionals with the exclusive knowledge necessary to design buildings, and by promulgating architectural practice acts across the country.  All this is set in place to enhance the business position of the architectural profession.

This also creates the illusion that architecture is a practice in a vacuum, where by dint of their skills as visionary designers, architects can create whatever they want, and that instead of clients they have patrons, allowing them to exercise their imaginations without restraint.  Obviously, this illusion is just that, and no real architect can exist without clients and real-world projects.  Most architects conduct their practice to serve their clients honestly, using their knowledge and skill on behalf of their clients.

So what's the problem?

The Duty of Professional Service

Architects' first duty is to protect their clients, and to act solely in the interest of their clients. Those interests include the construction cost of the client's facility as well as the long-term costs of operation, maintenance, and market-worthiness of the facility.  The client is assuming risks that extend far into the future after the end of the architect's engagement and that dwarf the fees paid to the architect.  The architect is responsible for managing that risk and ensuring the client fully understands all the implications that any portion of the architect's services has on the risk.  There's an argument that the architect's first duty is to public health, safety and welfare, but those things are encapsulated within the purview of reducing owners' risk.

The problem is that architects' professional ethics is muddled on this point.  In the very first canon of the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, architects are directed to substitute their own preferences for those of their clients. For example, Ethical Standard 1.5 directs architects to "design for human dignity." It's unavoidable that the architect's idea of what comprises human dignity will not align with that of the clients, and the term is so nebulous anyway as to allow architects to believe that gives them carte blanche to do just about anything.

Canon VI - Obligations to the Environment is even worse: it directs architects to advocate their own preferences and interests, this time in the name of "sustainability," despite the fact that the science of sustainable design is still in its infancy and data show that buildings designed to be sustainable are not performing as promised.  By advocating for results that they cannot be sure they can achieve, architects are on ethically shaky ground.

Better Ethics

There are a few things architects must do to improve their ethical position:

  • Understanding that architecture is a professional service means that architects must leave their own beliefs and preferences at the clients' front door. In the context of professional service, what the architect wants doesn't matter. Only providing clients with facilities that meet their needs, goals, and beliefs matters.
  • Architects must always obtain informed consent for any decision that materially impacts the clients' interest in their projects or increases their risk. The informed part is particularly important; in order to make a decision, owners need information that is clear, concise, complete, correct, and not comprised of opinions masquerading as facts.
  • Architects must understand and honor the limits of their knowledge. There's no shame in asking for a specialist's help, as long as the client knows when it's happening.
  • Prioritizing the writing of specifications is a necessity. Specifications that are begun and shared early in the process and describe projects' systems and performance criteria have the best chance of allowing the architect to align the design with the owner's goals and budget and for the owner to follow and understand the decision process.

Even in the simple process of selecting a single product for a project, architects frequently go afoul of all four of these ethical standards:

  • If an architect selects a product that promises a 'green' attribute because the architect is advocating for sustainability, that architect may be replacing his or her own preferences for those of the client.
  • It's trivially easy to specify a product for any reason and not expect to be asked to explain the rationale, especially given the vast number of products that go into every project and that most products are not visible in the completed facility.
  • Products often have conflicting attributes, and increasing one performance metric impacts others. For example, if you increase the wall thickness of a steel stud, you increase its stiffness and ability to span greater distances, but you also worsen its acoustic performance and make it more expensive.  Architects must ask relevant specialists (in this case, structural engineers, acoustical engineers, estimators, and product reps) to help them select products whose attributes most closely match the client's needs and budget.
  • Specifications are frequently not written until CDs and not shared with the client until they are complete. At that point, the product is buried among thousands of others within hundreds pages of text, and the client's ability to request changes is limited.

Given the difficult process that architects go through to enter the profession, it's to their detriment to deliver designs for buildings that fail to perform as promised and also fail to meet client needs.  It can only benefit the profession if architects get serious about eliminating dubious ethical standards and work solely on their clients' behalf.  Eliminating these four basic ethical lapses is a good place to start.

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