Ethics in Architectural Practice

As with any learned or licensed profession, ethics are an essential aspect of an architectural practice. The AIA Code of Ethics, State requirements, the standard of care, health safety and welfare considerations, and other factors are all important considerations for architects in their professional conduct. By adhering to these principles, architects can build a reputation for professionalism, competence, and integrity, while designing safe, healthy, and sustainable buildings for generations to come.

The Architect’s Professional Ethics and Responsibility

There are several ethical standards that all professionals should adhere to, regardless of their position within the firm. These criteria apply to architects and other building design professional such as engineers, interior designers, and landscape architects. For simplicity, this article will use the term architect to refer to anyone who designs buildings. 

Some important ethical standards include:

Professionalism: Architects are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times. This includes communicating clearly and effectively with clients and other professionals in the industry and behaving in a respectful and courteous manner toward everyone involved in a project.

Competence: Architects are expected to have the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience to carry out their work competently. This includes staying up to date with the latest industry trends and technologies, and continuing to develop their skills through ongoing education and training.

Honesty and integrity: Architects are expected to be honest and truthful in their dealings with clients and other professionals in the industry. They should avoid misrepresenting their qualifications or experience, and they should be transparent about their fees, scope of work, and any conflicts of interest.

Respect for diversity: Architects should be respectful of cultural and ethnic diversity in their designs, and they should strive to create buildings that are inclusive and welcoming to all. They should create a firm with employees from a wide range of backgrounds so that their designs are well informed and accessible to all kinds of people.

Environmental Sustainability: Architects have a responsibility to design buildings that are environmentally sustainable. This means using materials and construction methods that minimize the impact on the planet, designing buildings that are energy-efficient, and promoting a healthy indoor environment.

Imaging showing the following words balanced" professionalism, integrity, form, honesty, competence, function, clients, diversity, employees, function, sustainability
Maintaining ethics in architectural practice requires balancing various pressures

Professional Standard of Care

As a licensed profession, architects are expected to perform their duties in accordance with accepted professional standards and practices; this is referred to as the standard of care. The standard of care for architects varies depending on factors such as the project’s location, size, complexity, and type.

For example, an architect working on a small residential project may operate under a different standard of care than an architect working on a large commercial development. Similarly, the standard of care may vary depending on the local laws and regulations governing architectural practice in a particular jurisdiction. For example, the standard of care for seismic design in Los Angeles is different than in Cleveland.

For architects, the standard of care is an important aspect of professional practice, because it helps to ensure that they provide high-quality, ethical, and responsible services to their clients and the public. By staying informed about the latest standards and best practices, architects can help to ensure that they meet their obligations and deliver the best possible buildings for their clients.

Unfortunately, the standard of care is often cited in disputes or court cases. In these situations, the standard of care for an architect is generally determined by the prevailing professional standards and practices of the industry at the time of the project, as well as any applicable laws, regulations, and contractual obligations. To establish the standard of care, expert witnesses may be called upon to provide their opinion on whether the architect in question met the standard. Expert witnesses may include other architects, engineers, contractors, or other construction professionals who have expertise about the specific issue. The court will also consider the circumstances of the project and the actions taken by the architect.

For example, if an architect deviated from established standards and practices without a valid reason, this may be seen as a breach of the standard of care. Conversely, if an architect acted in accordance with prevailing professional standards and practices, but unforeseeable circumstances led to an unexpected outcome, this may be seen as meeting the standard of care.

State Licensure

In the United States, each state issues professional licenses to architects. As part of the initial licensure and subsequent renewal processes, architects make a legal representation of their credentials and agree to uphold the standards of the profession. While the specifics in each state vary, it is common for architects to confirm:

  • completion of annual continuing education to stay up to date on evolving practices in the profession
  • that they will protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public
  • claims, court cases, or judgements against them

AIA Code of Ethics

The AIA Code of Ethics provides guidelines for architects to follow in fulfilling their professional obligations. It is arranged in three tiers of statements: Canons, Ethical Standards, and Rules of Conduct. The Canons are broad principles of conduct that define the ethical responsibilities of architects to the environment, society, clients, colleagues, and the profession. The Ethical Standards are more specific goals, within each canon, that an architect should aspire to. Rules of Conduct are mandatory requirements that regulate the conduct of architects in fulfilling their professional responsibilities.

The AIA Code of Ethics has a long history, dating back to the early days of the organization in the late 19th century. The first version of the Code was adopted in 1909, and it has been revised and updated many times over the years to reflect changing ethical standards and professional practices. For instance, the AIA adopted a revised Code of Ethics in 2016 that included new provisions related to environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and global practice.

This code of ethics is worth adhering to even if you are not a member of the AIA or a licensed architect. Everyone involved in designing and constructing buildings will benefit from following the principles laid out in the code.

You can download the 2020 version of the AIA Code of Ethics here, but here is a brief overview of each canon:

Canon I: General Obligations

As you may suspect, the General Obligation canon covers several overall principles touching on the general aspects of the profession. Architects should strive to improve their knowledge and skills, protect human rights, and respect both cultural heritage and the history of the building professions.

Canon II: Obligations to the Public

Canon II requires architects to always act lawfully and to advise their clients to do the same. In addition, architects should volunteer and otherwise be involved in their community. Finally, architects should act in the public’s interest in maintaining equality regarding environmental issues.

Canon III: Obligations to the Client

This canon requires architects to act professionally and competently for their clients, part of which includes hiring expert consultants for areas where the architect may have limited knowledge. Architects must avoid all conflicts of interest, always remain truthful, and shall protect the confidentiality of their clients.

Canon IV: Obligations to the Profession

Canon IV requires architects to uphold the dignity and integrity of the profession. They must also make reasonable efforts to ensure that their colleagues (inside their firm and outside) do the same. This includes reporting violations to the AIA National Ethics Council.

Canon V: Obligations to Colleagues

AIA members shall respect their colleagues and acknowledge their contributions to projects. They should also contribute to, and assist in, the growth of less experienced colleagues to help the profession continue advancing. Firms shall also make help develop their employees and employees shall act professionally toward the firm.

Canon VI: Obligations to the Environment

Canon V is a recent addition to the Code of Ethics that covers an architect’s obligations to the environment. This requires AIA members to promote sustainability and responsible energy use.

Codes of Ethics for Other Architecture Organizations

Most of our readers are in the United States, but we also have readers in other countries around the world. Each of those countries has a professional organization for architects. The following links will take you to the code of ethics for these groups.

Royal Institute of British Architects: Code of Professional Conduct

Royal Architectural Institute of Canada: Professional Conduct and Ethics

International Union of Architects: Recommended International Standards of Professionalism in Architectural Practice Policy on Ethics and Conduct

The Ethics of Aesthetics and Design

The bulk of architectural education focuses on design and aesthetics. No doubt, many architects have dreams of creating strikingly beautiful compositions that end up on the cover of prestigious trade publications. Howard Roark, the iconic architect in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, did not allow anything to get in the way of his vision for the perfect building. Many starchitects create designs that challenge our expectations of what a building can look like in an effort to advance the profession and, sometimes overzealously, society as a whole.

Occasionally, these grandiose efforts focused on design can lead to unhappy occupants, clients, and building officials. Leaky roofs and facades, classrooms with poor acoustics, and unexpectedly high construction costs are some common outcomes when the architect puts design form ahead of function. Architects must balance beauty with functionality, while still generating creative designs that meet the client’s desired outcome.

The past few decades have increased our focus on sustainability and resiliency in the face of a changing climate. Now, design professionals must consider the ethics surrounding form, function, finances, and the future of our planet. Our role as the lead designer is to help our clients and communities to develop projects that ethically serve all four Fs so that everyone comes out ahead. Focusing our attention on the part of the project that excites us without considering other criteria is an unethical way to practice.

While aesthetics is certainly important in architecture, they cannot take precedence over the functionality and user needs of a building. An architect's primary responsibility is to design buildings that serve the needs of their occupants and the public, while also adhering to standards of safety, sustainability, and other ethical considerations. This means that aesthetics must be considered in the context of these larger goals, rather than being the sole focus of the design process.

The Ethics of Managing an Architecture Firm

Working in an architecture firm is different from managing a firm, which is different than owning a firm. Sometimes, these differences put people in tough situations. Financial concerns can cloud the judgement of otherwise ethical people. Tough decisions should be evaluated through the lens of what is ethical to all parties involved, including employees, consultants, clients, the public, the environment, and the profession.

Balancing pressure from all of the different parties mentioned above is challenging. Firm management needs to provide the best work environment for their staff to spur creativity and fulfillment, while also making sure they meet the standard of care and professionalism expected by their clients and the community. All the while, they must reinvest back into the firm while earning a profit that makes their efforts worthwhile.

Firm owners and managers should confidently operate with the understanding that always doing the right thing, which is often the most challenging thing, will always pay off in the long run. It is important to keep an eye on the big picture when debating smaller decisions.

Likewise, firms should be able to rely on their staff to perform their duties professionally and ethically. Each employee has a responsibility to their firm and their colleagues. Employees should keep their firm accountable by engaging in conversations about the most ethical way to handle situations that arise during the day-to-day operations of a firm. But employees should also act ethically toward their firm.

No doubt, the discussion of how to manage a firm ethically can fill multiple books and conferences on its own. Within the short confines of this article, we can break this down into:

You know the right thing to do. Always do the right thing.

Case Studies

There are many well-known case studies or court cases that describe how design issues were addressed or how they could have been addressed more ethically. You can review the AIA’s National Ethics Council Decisions to get a sense of how things have gone wrong. 

Below are a few brief examples where architects or the AIA have been accused of breaching their ethical duties.

These cases demonstrate the importance of ethical conduct in the practice of architecture, and the potential consequences of breaching ethical duties. Architects and the AIA must uphold the highest standards of professional conduct and take their ethical responsibilities to clients and the public seriously, to maintain the trust and respect of their clients and the broader community.

The Frank Gehry MIT Stata Center Controversy

Renowned architect Frank Gehry's Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faced numerous problems after completion. The building had structural issues, leaks, and other problems with its unique design. Some critics argued that Gehry prioritized his artistic vision over practical functionality, raising questions about the ethical balance between architectural innovation and the practical needs of the building's occupants.

The Grenfell Tower Fire in London

Although not solely an architectural issue, the Grenfell Tower fire raised ethical concerns about the choice of building materials, construction practices, and regulatory review. The use of flammable cladding and insulation in the renovation of the tower was seen as a breach of safety and ethical standards, ultimately leading to a devastating fire and multiple fatalities.

William LeMessurier and the Citicorp Tower

This case is a striking illustration of ethics in structural engineering. LeMessurier discovered a design flaw in the Citicorp Tower that made it vulnerable to strong winds, potentially leading to a catastrophic failure. Instead of concealing the issue, LeMessurier worked tirelessly to rectify the problem, collaborating with the building's owners and city officials. He emphasized public safety over reputation and financial considerations, even at significant personal cost. This case underscores the importance of transparency, professional integrity, and the ethical duty of engineers and architects to protect human lives and well-being above all else.

United States v. American Institute of Architects

The case United States v. American Institute of Architects (AIA) was filed in 1990 by the Department of Justice, which alleged that the AIA's ethical rules prohibiting competitive bidding violated antitrust laws. The AIA had a rule that prohibited architects from submitting competitive bids for architectural services and required them to negotiate fees with clients individually.

The Department of Justice argued that this rule restrained competition among architects and led to higher prices for architectural services. In 1993, the AIA agreed to settle the case and to amend its ethical rules to allow members to submit competitive bids for architectural services.

As a result of the settlement, the AIA revised its ethical rules to allow members to engage in competitive bidding but retained the requirement for architects to negotiate fees with clients individually. The AIA also established guidelines for competitive bidding, which require architects to provide clients with a detailed description of the scope of services to be provided, the estimated time required for completion, and the architect's proposed fee.

The settlement of this case had a significant impact on the architecture industry because it allowed architects to compete more freely on price for architectural services. It also encouraged architects to provide more detailed information to clients about their services and fees, which has improved the overall transparency and accountability of the architecture profession.

Conclusion – Evolving Ethics

Ethical behavior, in any profession, is a constantly evolving topic. Our understanding of ethics in architecture is complex and constantly changing as new ways of practicing the profession continue to develop. It is important that we constantly evaluate our systems so that we can serve the public, our clients, and ourselves in a manner that is consistent with society overall. 

Our professional organizations, such as the AIA and RIBA, will continue to promote ethical practice, but it falls to every one of us within the profession to do our part so that architects remain well regarded among the general public.

Article Updated: September 21, 2023
  • Michael Noll

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