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Ethical dimension puts focus on all areas of architects' work

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legal matters

Do you think that there is an ethical dimension to your profession? Professor John Uff CBE QC, in the fourth Michael Brown lecture at King's College, London (19 June 2003), was quite clear that, in his view, there is. Furthermore, that he was careful to distinguish the type of ethics he meant from philosophical or moral questions that might be loosely labelled 'ethical'. An architect struggling to decide whether to accept a commission for an arms factory would be grappling with a personal moral question. An ethical question would be whether an architect who realises that there may be an impending but preventable disaster looming on a site with which they are involved has a public duty to warn of it.

The professor's focus was on the need for a single ethical code for that loose grouping of professionals from many disciplines who work in construction law, and who are, at present, bound by a variety of different professional standards. But he did contemplate the position of several of the construction professions, including architects.

He suggested there are various factors at work that have raised the profile of ethical considerations.

First, there is an increased public awareness of the need for ethical conduct which goes beyond the requirements of established codes of conduct. One example was the Enron scandal, which illustrated the need for auditors to take into account public interest.

Another factor is the Human Rights Act 1998, which means that we are all entitled to a fair hearing in front of an unbiased tribunal. That, in turn, has led to a better understanding of the need for accessible and transparent disciplinary proceedings. The Architects Act 1997 was held up as something of a trailblazer, providing as it does for the PCC to have a majority of lay members, for publication of information about the offence concerned, and for a right of appeal to the High Court from a disciplinary order. The publication of information about professional conduct proceedings provides a body of precedent against which standards may be judged in the future. It is a procedure that has also been adopted by the new Construction Industry Council Independent Appeals Tribunal, which is available to professional bodies in the construction industry.

The professor suggested that there is a range of activities potentially undertaken by architects in which ethical considerations arise.

In the early stages of a project, is it ethical to pass a risk onto a subcontractor or sub-consultant who cannot adequately bear it? What if the placement of that risk inevitably leads to a delay or dispute in, for example, the construction of a badly needed NHS hospital, thereby creating an irrecoverable public loss? Tendering is a process that may be susceptible to unlawful abuse, such as bribery. What about conduct in tendering that falls short of being unlawful, but can still be regarded as unconscionable; is there an ethical duty to blow the whistle?

It is during the construction process that a possible ethical duty to warn of preventable disaster might arise. It is also during this phase that the role of a certifier comes into play - perhaps the most familiar example for architects of the relevance of ethical issues. The certifier needs the confidence of both parties to the building contract that he or she will act ethically. It is arguably the loss of that confidence that has, in part, undermined the traditional role of certifier.

Similarly, this also makes plain the possible benefits to the construction professions of being seen to act ethically, and thereby avoiding further erosion of their roles.

Ethics in construction form a growing area of debate. Consider, for example, statutory provisions to protect 'whistle-blowers', questions about maintenance of public transport facilities and concerns about the accuracy and impartiality of expert medical evidence given in court.

Public expectations about duties to the wider public, and interest in how those obligations are policed and seen to be policed, appear to be on the increase. It seems that ethical conduct, or the lack of it, bolsters or undermines the public's confidence in a particular profession. So should ethical conduct in architecture be defined and regulated? Discuss.

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