I am keen to contribute on the subject of architects, ethics and the public interest not because I profess any moral superiority in this area, or any depth of understanding of the philosophical issues that underlie it. Far from it. But I believe the questions raised by recent debates in the pages of the AJ; on issues such as airport construction, fairness in procurement processes, working conditions for middle eastern construction workers, development in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the provision of affordable housing in London reveal that considerable confusion reigns about these issues.
Ideally, the AJ would engage in a proactive and collaborative debate that is also going on elsewhere right now, notably at the RIBA and at The Edge, the object of which would be to clarify these issues for the mutual benefit of architects, our clients and society at large.
The Edge Commission Report: Collaboration for Change, May 2015 by Paul Morrell includes in its first three chapters, 'The case for the professions', Pressures for change' and Ethics and the public interest' and taken together, these are an incredibly helpful primer for anyone participating in this discussion.
At the RIBA, recent papers to its council recognise the requirement for 'redefining the covenant between the profession and society (and that a) successful future profession will need to define, share and communicate clear and transparent ethics appropriate to a changing world. There has undoubtedly been some loss of faith in the professions in general - professionals no longer benefit from an assumed power and authority.'
Of course, there are inevitable questions of definition and clarification that precede any useful discussion. And setting the parameters of the discussion begins to sound like a Michael Buerk trailer for the BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze programme: How do you define the public interest? Is it against the public interest to attempt to do so or would this simply lead to inevitable unintended consequences? To what extent can different political viewpoints be accommodated within the same ethical code? Is it relevant or right to attempt to impose behaviours based on an ethical position in circumstances that are beyond the political or practical reach of the institutions concerned? What do you do when your principles point one way and a client's needs or wants point another? Has any member of a professional institution ever been sanctioned for failing to put the public interest above their own needs or those of their clients? And so on.
In my role as an RIBA councillor I have noted that the confusion existing in this area is not helped by the by the overlapping roles of ARB and RIBA. One or other should have the role of setting, monitoring and policing a code of conduct, not both, and not differently! I believe that the RIBA's purpose is to advance a diverse Architecture and profession of all kinds and callings - provided practice follows an overarching code. Particular issues requiring clarification are our duty to the environment, to act with probity (especially in foreign markets) and not to infringe human rights in the way we deliver services. I have urged that The Edge Commission recommendations on ethics and the public interest should be followed, namely to:
a) Develop and standardise a national code of conduct/ethics across the built environment professions, building on shared experience in the UK and internationally.
b) Make public and clear the procedures for complaint and the institution’s sanctioning process, details of members who have been sanctioned, and the grounds for doing so.
I believe RIBA council should welcome the Edge Commission Report, acknowledging that inter-professional collaboration is essential to secure the future of professionalism generally in the built environment. The RIBA should accordingly fully accept the these final recommendations in a spirit of collaboration, and commit to working with The Edge and the key leading professional institutions on appropriate joint action. Architects need to offer more than simply professional propriety masquerading as an ethical position, which, to quote professor Jeremy Till 'even my hairdresser could meet'. Future requirements might include:
1) Engagement with the public in their work - both on project and to communicate benefits and value in lay terms.
2) Integration with the means of production - design that starts with an understanding of construction process.
3) Commitment to measurable building performance - both prediction and post occupancy evaluation.
4) Involvement in education - recognising life-long learning and the dearth of 'learn as you earn' opportunities.
5) Sustainability - an obligation to point out the relative costs and benefits of appropriate measures to clients.
6) Collaborative research - working with others and communicating new ways of practice and means of production.
7) A declaration of high level principles - recognising the diversity of roles, forms of practice and political affiliations that legitimately exist within any ethical framework.
At HTA we are at least beginning an attempt at all of these and I believe it would become immeasurably easier to do so if such aspirations were to become the cross-industry norm.
In particular, we do not demur from engaging in those parts of the development industry which do not turn in the first instance to architects for the design of their product because we believe in the long term of objective of learning how our knowledge and skills can add value to their business. The profession must diversify, or die.
By the same token, we believe it is appropriate and right to attempt to do so, notwithstanding that we may not agree, or may not be entirely comfortable, with all of the conditions that apply. These might be standards that we believe to be unnecessary, policies that we have not voted for, processes that we think are inappropriate, materials or specifications that we think could be improved. The point is that it is important to be there and attempting to add value by design, acknowledging we may not always succeed and learning from our mistakes.
We do turn away commissions that we believe are in irrevocable conflict, of course. But, for the avoidance of doubt, I can confirm that projects promoted by democratically elected councils, delivered by major housing charities and/or listed developers are not generally among them.
Managing Partner HTA Design LLP
Chair, The Housing Forum.