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Buildings That Kill

Raphael Sperry, president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), has written a passionate plea to architects not to design spaces used for torture or execution: “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.” Sperry leads ADPSR’s campaign petitioning the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct “to prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” including execution chambers and “super-maximum” security facilities where solitary confinement is considered cruel and intolerable.

Make no mistake: prison construction is big business, and the moral implications for architects are important. According to the ACLU, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but more than 20% of its prison population. Private corporations now operate 5% of the 5,000 prisons and jails in the U.S. but house nearly half of the nation’s immigrant detainees, and private prisons are growing at a rate of 30% per year. Yet, last year, prison architecture represented only about 2% of all non-residential construction.

What of the other 98%?

Everyday construction could be deadlier. Amnesty International reports that from 2007-2012 nine countries with capital punishment (excluding China, which puts to death thousands annually) executed a total of 6,221 people. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2012 alone buildings contributed to the deaths of 4.3 million people. All of these were due to a single cause: indoor air pollution.

Which is worse: buildings that are the setting for thousands of deaths, or buildings that are the cause of millions of deaths?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health and estimates that unhealthy indoor environments cause thousands of cancer deaths and hundreds of thousands of respiratory health problems every year. Many fatalities are due to smoke inhalation, but the more common problems are poor air quality and exposure to mold or harmful chemicals contained in building materials. The WHO once estimated that “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS), illness due to spending time in buildings, could occur in nearly a third of all new and remodeled structures. While architects are not necessarily liable for the health impact of our buildings, that doesn’t make us any less responsible for promoting better design.

“So, maybe you participated in some bad projects,” Sperry writes, “but they never hurt anybody on purpose, right?” Maybe not on purpose, but arguably the unintended consequences of indoor air pollution are significantly more harmful. Which is worse: buildings that are the setting for thousands of deaths, or buildings that are the cause of millions of deaths? To paraphrase the dreaded NRA, buildings don’t kill people; people kill people. Except some buildings do.

The good news is that the AIA is doing something about the more ubiquitous problem: “The AIA recognizes that building materials impact the environment and human health before, during, and after their use,” the AIA Board of Directors acknowledged in a 2014 Position Statement. “Knowledge of the lifecycle impacts of building materials is integral to improving the craft, science, and art of architecture. The AIA encourages architects to promote transparency in materials’ contents and in their environmental and human health impacts.” Two of the AIA’s priority initiatives around sustainability are “Design and Health” and “Materials Matter,” both of which give architects guidance on how to develop safer buildings.

In the meantime, Sperry says, “My worst building never killed anyone.” Can we be so sure?


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