The Ethics of Development (Part I)

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noted a gap in my posts.  For various reasons, I have been occupied with other things and I haven’t felt that blogs were what was needed. Among the ‘other things’ is Brexit, which I think is an utter disaster, an unbelievable backward step for us all in the UK, one which we will regret for a generation.

Other ‘other things’ such as the US administrations unconscionable behaviour in relation to climate change makes me put my head in my hands on a regular basis, but the optimist in me thinks(hopes fervently) that it is a short-term problem and that the next administration will reverse the direction of US policy to be more sensible and ethical.

This brings me neatly to where I wanted to get to, as one of the things I have been thinking about, reading about and writing about over the last year is the question of ethics and how we relate ethics to climate change in the world of the built environment. I firmly believe that one of the reasons why the US has back-tracked on the Paris Agreement is that there is no widely agreed ethical position on climate change outside the environmental movement. It is being discussed as a matter of science, and facts, both of which are open to misinterpretation or denial by those who have much to gain by delaying action. If there was a strong ethical position that was commonly agreed in the West, then the discussion about science could continue but against a backdrop of general agreement about what is the ‘right thing to do’ or ‘the right direction’ to take. As Brexit and the US elections have shown, there is a large group in both populations unwilling to listen to reasoned arguments, and unconvinced that action on climate change is the ‘right thing to do’.  Perhaps we can use ethics to look at the problem from another direction?

My aim is to look into the idea of sustainable development in the built environment from an ethical standpoint and help to demonstrate why this is the ‘right thing to do’.

My thoughts on this were partially prompted last year when I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference. I accepted the invitation because I thought that it would force me to confront the question: what does ethics mean in a professional context?   I also thought that I could develop an understanding of the relevance of ethics to the architectural profession in particular. I was half-right, insofar as I am far from achieving a full understanding of the topic, but closer to a view of what the relevance of ethics is to the profession.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

In order to discuss the issue of ethics, I think that we need a framework to describe how it relates to development, even if its only temporary, a scaffold within which to erect our ideas, and then we can remove it if we are satisfied with the result.

There are a number of dimensions to the problem and each has its ethical implications. In the following paragraphs, I try and set out such a framework and to highlight just a few of the ethical issues that arise in each area. In a second blog, I will try and flesh out these four areas of ethical consideration.

1.The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation and demolition.

Much of the early stages of the building’s life is covered by the stages of the Plan of Work and therefore the RIBA code of conduct. But even early-stage design raises ethical issues. If people need to be moved and rehoused to enable a regeneration project, are their needs being balanced by the needs of those who will be housed in the new development? What measure can we use to balance such needs? Do we aim for the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Or do those living on a site deserve special treatment? Are their needs more deserving than people who haven’t arrived yet? If so, why?

Are we designing buildings that will minimise the harm to those who are going to build them? CDM legislation has helped enormously to raise awareness of safety in construction and in the use of buildings, but our traditional construction methods and procurement behaviour impose risks which look less reasonable with every accident.

2.The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context.

Some of the context is covered by planning law and national legislation, other parts, particularly the impact on the global context of material extraction, is not. For example, there has been some recent discussion on the impact of tall buildings on their neighbours, near and far away. How much weight should designers give to such considerations where there is no legislation and little guidance relating to this impact? In the wider context we are faced with the danger of climate change, and while we have some legislation to deal with it in both Building Regulations and planning law, the implementation of it is patchy and the final building would often fail a detailed post-occupancy test of performance. The RIBA Code of Professional Conduct is weak on the subject, do we need a strong Code of Ethics to support us to do the right thing? If local or national Government is going to be weak, can the profession be strong?

3.Those affected by the purpose and use of the building, the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Some of these are covered by Building Regulations or the legal duty of care but many of them are not.   The impact of building low-rise homes on agricultural land is a case in point. Building low-density homes in suburbs that are far removed from services and amenities is already an obviously poor strategy in social and environmental terms, but the majority of new homes in the UK fit into this category. What can the profession do to represent the people who are only being offered a car-dominated environment to live in?

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing before we even start to think about improving matters.

Currently, in practice, the clear priority is to satisfy the needs of the client and provided that this is done within the boundaries of all available legislation, most architects, if questioned, would feel that this would be an adequate result. But is it? Do we have a stronger responsibility to society than this would suggest, given that unlike most other professions our work continues to exist and have an impact long after our expertise has been applied?

Satisfying the needs of the client whilst acting within the boundaries of available legislation is a level of effort expected by everyone, from hairdressers to CEOs. There isn’t anything special about fulfilling that requirement. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance are absent?

My feeling is that we do need this. building a building is not like making spoons or shoes, we help to bring a building or a project to fruition that lasts for generations and often has an impact after we are retired or dead. Our thinking has to be rooted in the long term, even if the thinking of the client and funders is rooted in the short-term. By taking a long-term view particularly an ethical view we ought to be able to determine the ‘right thing to do’ and even if we don’t do it, we will have educated ourselves, our colleagues and our clients in the process.

Some of this article was first published in Architects Datafile Magazine.

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One thought on “The Ethics of Development (Part I)

  1. Interesting thoughts Rory, thanks for sharing.
    Unfortunately as most projects are profit driven, I think the best way to get a mass movement here is via legislation or subsidies. In many places the market doesn’t value buildings that also improve communities, well-being and the environment, so more could also be done to show the merits of designs that promote these things in order to make it profitable for developers to deliver.
    A simple example is that, as a developer, I’ve wanted to install more renewables, but the market in my area doesn’t value it, so not worth me investing in.

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