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My Worst Project Never Killed Anyone

What’s the worst project you ever worked on? Was it the one with a contractor who drove the project way over budget and always blamed his errors on you? The one with a consultant team who never read your drawings and blew all the schedule milestones? The time the planning commission took an axe to the design? When critics blasted your aesthetic choices out of spite? Or, was it the project with the client who wanted you to help torture and kill?

You read that right: torture and killing, by design. In most American prisons and jails, there is a portion of the space set aside for “segregation,” a polite term for solitary confinement, which the United Nations unequivocally calls a violation of the Convention Against Torture. Once in a great while, a prison will even contain an execution chamber. These spaces are not there by mistake or happenstance or historical precedent: they are designed. The tools and talents you use to design houses, offices, schools, kitchens, bathrooms—these tools can be used to injure or kill people.

So, maybe you participated in some bad projects, but they never hurt anybody on purpose, right? If you’re like the majority of architects and designers, you’ve never worked on these kinds of projects and probably never will. You’ll do your projects, and—nothing against them, but—other architects will do those projects. You don’t want them telling you what or how to design and, really, what’s it to you?

Just as starchitects do not represent the majority of architects, the field of architecture is not simply the sum of all the individuals or firms in the profession. The value of our profession is not just in the total square footage that we produce, but in the role we play in ensuring that the built environment is healthy, humane, beautiful, productive, and sustainable. Our contribution is defined by what we build, where we draw the limits of what we produce, and by what we don’t build.

Our value is not just in the total square footage that we produce, but in the role we play in ensuring that the built environment is healthy, humane, beautiful, productive, and sustainable. Our contribution is defined by what we build, where we draw the limits of what we produce, and by what we don’t build.

Architects set ourselves apart from the other players in the design and construction field by committing to a professional ethic that enshrines public “Health, Safety, and Welfare.” This is the foundation of professional licensure, which gives architects a collective monopoly over many parts of building design. This is why our continuing education tracks “HSW” credits separate from total hours—and why we have continuing education in the first place. And it’s the heart of architecture’s bargain with the public: the public gives architects the exclusive rights to design buildings, and we promise to make sure that the public is safe in those buildings, even under pressure from clients or at the cost of other design objectives. One absolute limit to architecture is this: buildings must not hurt people. So we face a serious problem when we allow members of our profession to do exactly that, whether or not it’s in the name of justice.

This is not an abstract matter; it is an ongoing part of professional ethics in many fields. Medical professionals from doctors to nurses to EMTs have thought long and hard about participation in execution. Their conclusion is that even though they might be able to reduce suffering during an execution, even though the judicial system demands the killing of a condemned prisoner, and even though as private citizens they may favor capital punishment, their duty to patient wellbeing means that as professionals they cannot participate in executions in any way. Just last year, the American Pharmacists Association and the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists told their members not to provide drugs for lethal injections. The same goes for torture: recognizing the toll that solitary confinement takes on people, medical professionals refuse to countenance the practice by certifying whether someone is healthy enough to endure it.

Back in 2012, Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility—the organization I lead—began petitioning the American Institute of Architects to ban the design of execution chambers and spaces intended for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The AIA is already a leader in practice management, with their contract language, project checklists, and other tools. And whatever you think of it, the AIA Code of Ethics is what we have to govern the profession, and so it’s the logical place—really the only place—to draw this limit. Sadly, in 2014, the AIA rejected ADPSR’s proposal. As of now, however, I’m happy to say that they are reconsidering, marking good news for not only architectural ethics, but civil society’s support of basic human rights. (If you’d like to thank AIA for their reconsideration and encourage them to keep at it, go here.

Unfortunately, there is little that the AIA or ADPSR can do to protect architects from crazy clients, bitter contractors, or the other hazards of practice. But for the good of our profession, all architects must prevent hazards to the occupants of the buildings we design, and protecting the most basic human rights for everyone must be at the top of that list. That way we can all say: my worst project never killed anyone.

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