ethics in architecture via rtf

What Would a Code of Ethics Look Like for Architecture Schools?

The practice of architecture is inherently future-oriented. Even the most shoddily built structure can last years, while the best-built works of architecture can last millennia. It is beyond frustrating, then, that an inherently progressive, future-oriented field is seemingly stuck in a quagmire of old habits and outdated thinking.

Why is change in our profession needed? Some obvious truths: This March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest and most alarming report to date on the state of the climate (in summary, the planet is on fire); in late 2021, the AIA issued a long-awaited report on bias in the architecture profession (it is still rampant); and last year’s brouhaha at SCI-Arc brought to the forefront exploitive behavior in the profession and the academy. As these stories and others suggest, our profession is not living up to its potential concerning any of the three factors—planet, people, and profit—that compose the Triple Bottom Line (TBL).

Given the scale of the problems we face, what can one solitary person do? Specific to my situation, what can I, as an architectural educator, do? I teach in a program of which I am very proud to be a part, but one that occupies what I call the Outer Rim of Academe—a small pre-professional architecture program at a regional state university, far from the orbit of the GSDs, Columbias, and MITs of the world.

The last three academic years, I have overseen my department’s lecture series. At the beginning of this year, I was thinking about the issues discussed above and decided that a major change was necessary. Thus I wrote a statement of ethics, which my department approved. That statement is as follows:

The Architecture and Facility Management Department … takes the ethical implications of professional practice very seriously. We see [our] lecture series as an opportunity to show students not only exceptional work but also a humane and ethical approach to the planet, to people, and to making a profit.

To these ends, we ask all potential speakers if they are comfortable with the following statements:

Our/my firm understands that human-caused climate change is one of the foremost challenges of the 21st century and, thus, our/my practice shows a commitment to authentic, measurable sustainability through LEED and/or Living Building Challenge compliance; energy efficient design; net-zero energy or net-zero energy ready designs; and/or projects which reduce embodied carbon, including adaptive re-use, historic preservation, and other retrofit-based designs.

Our/my firm respects intellectual diversity and does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, genetic information (including family medical history), and/or veteran status.

Our/my firm respects our employees by providing fair compensation and by discouraging excessive, unwanted overtime from our employees.

Given that my university’s home, west Michigan, is not exactly a hotbed of climate and social activism, and given the general animus in our body politic, I was nervous that the new statement of ethics would doom our lecture series. Would potential speakers react angrily to a statement of ethics? Would they be turned off and decline to speak? Would our statement somehow unleash a barrage of angry emails and hateful social media posts?

Since issuing our statement of ethics, we have held two lectures and have a third scheduled for this fall. To date, our potential speakers have certainly reacted to our statement of ethics—but in the most positive way imaginable. Each speaker reflected on our statement and then used it as a framework to thoughtfully discuss their firm’s culture and work, both the successes and the opportunities for improvement. Rather than being an afterthought, planet, people, and profit were front and center. This was particularly true for environmental sustainability (planet), which had previously been AWOL from many of our lectures, an embarrassing situation for a program whose degree is labeled “Architecture and Sustainability.”

You may be wondering if the discussion of TBL issues detracted from the discussion of capital “A” architecture. Opinions varied, but in my mind, the answer was a resounding no—the projects, the architectural design, and the professional photography was there. The lectures to date were architecture lectures in the traditional sense, but they were also clearly situated in the 21st century, directly addressing contemporary environmental, social, and economic concerns rather than blithely pretending they do not exist.

I am pleased with what we have done at my institution, but could you imagine if similar stances were taken beyond a regional state university? What would be the impact if every architecture program—and every major architecture award and media outlet—adopted a similar statement of ethics? And, given the clout of the most elite programs, awards, and media outlets, the requirements could be much stouter. (Are you listening, GSD, Architectural Record?)

Here are some examples of potential requirements: No Energy Use Intensity (EUI) calculation, no guest lecture invitation, award, or published project. Better yet: EUI exceeds the required benchmark, no guest lecture invitation, award, or published project. Even better still: no net-zero or net-zero-ready projects being presented, entered, or submitted for publication, no guest lecture invitation, award, or published project.

What about people and profit? In her summary of the 2021 AIA report on bias in the profession, Cathleen McGuigan, then editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, pointed out that “people who worked at the relatively few firms where ‘good design’ is considered the product of a ‘solitary genius’—rather than a team—reported much higher levels of bias and sexual harassment.” The rotten core of so many problems in architecture—the so-called “starchitect” system—rears its ugly head again.

Knowing that architects, especially well-known ones, love to talk about their work, collect awards, and see themselves in the press, a statement of ethics might just prod some of them to reconsider their boorish behavior and toxic work environments. Can you imagine the power of, say, Yale University disinviting Julian Jackhole from speaking, making a powerful statement that, even though Julian’s transmogrified discombobulations of tortured steel and glass may transfix the senses and confound the critics, he’s a complete ass and the institution would rather not hear him blather on about his greatness when everyone knows it is built on the backs of a workforce crushed by severe, unrelenting overtime?

Our profession is guilty of a severe case of cognitive dissonance, paying lip service to critical environmental, social, and economic issues while being perfectly content with attending lectures given by architects who think “net zero” is a diet soda, handing out awards to firms that blatantly discriminate against their own employees, and publishing work that was designed in a digital sweatshop. Architecture programs, award committees, and media outlets can—and must—do better. A good starting point would be establishing a 21st century–appropriate statement of ethics and sticking to it.

Featured image via Rethinking the Future.


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