The Ethics of Development (part II)

In the last article ‘The ethics of Development Part I’, I set out the framework within which I think the profession can begin to consider the ethical impact of projects that they are involved in.  This has come about because last year 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?. These articles are the result.

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.

The central question of ethics, as I see it, is ‘are we being fair to everyone involved in the process of design and construction?’

A further question we need to ask ourselves is: 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?  A check through the two codes of conduct that architects should follow is revealing insofar as it reveals an inadequate response to today’s environmental crisis.

The RIBA Professional Code of Conducts states:

Members shall respect the relevant rights and interests of others.

The ARB Architects Code states:

12.1 You should treat everyone fairly. You must act in compliance with your legal obligations. You must not discriminate ……

The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct states:

3.2 Members should be aware of the environmental impact of their work.

Note: Aware! But not asked to do anything.

The ARB Architects Code states:

5.1 Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.

The ‘where appropriate’ has me baffled. Where would it not be appropriate? Given that every project an architect could be involved in must have an impact, how could such advice ever not be appropriate?

In my previous article I set out the four areas within which to consider the ethical implications of any project, here I expand on those with examples of issues to consider, this is not meant to be exhaustive, only indicative.

  1. The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation, and demolition. What are the impacts of the building on people over time? How does it change over time? Are we aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

For example, a question we might ask in regeneration projects, or in any design project where an existing use is being closed or moved to facilitate the new project, ‘Are people being treated fairly to enable the design and construction process to happen?’

This question is particularly relevant to regeneration projects where the lives of people who live within the regeneration zone are going to be disrupted to enable the regeneration project to happen. Care must be taken to ensure that they are treated fairly and end up being beneficiaries of the project. If they are to suffer the disruption of moving and being rehoused, possibly more than once, then surely they should enjoy a share of the benefits of the project that they are enabling to happen.

Historically, many slum clearances happened without the agreement of residents, work was done to them, and not with them, and happily, we no longer behave this way in the UK. Other countries do behave this way, there is plenty of evidence of such clearances happening in China over the last decade. But whenever I hear the word ‘decanting’ (a shorthand term for moving people out of their buildings into other accommodation) I feel that while we may have moved on in terms of how we work, but not all of us have moved on it terms of the way we think. Decanting is something you do to wine. Perhaps we should use the word ‘disrupting’ instead?

At the same time, we must ask ourselves whether people who are on the housing waiting list are being treated fairly.

Across England, there were 1,183,779 households on the social housing waiting lists in 2016. If we take an average household size of 2.3 from the last census, that gives us a figure of 2,722,691 people.

The needs of such people, often housed in substandard accommodation, at high costs to the country, and often overcrowded, should be given sufficient weight when deciding what to do in any situation.  There may be a temptation to give more weight to people who are already living locally in any planning decision, but surely the need of those not present have equal weight, and if their need is dire, greater weight than the incumbents?

  1. The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context. Do we aim for the greatest good or the least damage to the planet?

In recent years we have seen a huge rise in the amount of legislation, guidance, and advice related to greening the construction sector. Building Regulations, green building standards, and policy have all pushed the sector to make massive improvements in the performance of buildings. But two issues remain, the policy has become patchy as first the Coalition and then the Tory Government pulled back on the scope and level of intent of such policies, and the analysis of completed buildings demonstrates that many are not achieving the environmental targets that were originally set.  

Should the architectural profession have a set of core standards that give guidance and support to professionals working on projects where clients or local policies don’t support or actively work against environmental targets or where national policy vacillates due to political expediency? If we are to have a Government propped up by the DUP who claim that climate change isn’t real, we need protection against potential further backsliding. Particularly at a point in time where we are leaving the EU and will no longer have its substantial support for environmental protection.

Should the profession refuse to work on projects where there is an unwillingness on the part of clients to meet their environmental obligations? Would this strengthen our position as expert and impartial advisors, or weaken it?

  1. 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. Do we aim for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do we account for this and what do we mean by benefit? Is it financial gain, safety, better services? How do we compare these against each other in terms of the benefits they bring as well as the difficulties they cause…

Some of these effects are covered by the law, Building Regulations or a duty of care, but much of it isn’t.  As we build at higher densities, issues occur which are new in the UK and poorly considered by our regulations, other countries with more tall buildings are further advanced than us in some respects. When more people move into an area, the balance of the community is changed. While some argue that an influx of new people into an area is beneficial as it brings more economic activity, those living in the area previously often feel threatened by new neighbours, rightly or wrongly. Increased levels of traffic is often a bone of contention but is probably used as a stalking horse for the real objection, which is to any new development, regardless of its impact on traffic.

It is important that we are clear about the benefits that new development brings to an area as well as acknowledging the impacts that it causes.

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslow’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.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well worn, but relevant to the built environment. It proposes that our human needs are hierarchical and dependant on each other. Only by fulfilling basic needs of shelter and nourishment can we begin to achieve well-being, good mental health, and fulfillment. An ethical view of this would support a designers ambition to create buildings that help their occupants in achieving as much of the hierarchy as possible. From shelter on the one hand to enabling self-actualisation on the other. This makes the basic point that buildings are for people, not for architects, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the people living in our buildings are we fulfilling our own needs as professionals.

Do we know how well we are doing? Mostly not. Post-occupancy study happens in a tiny fraction of the built environment, even of the part of it designed by architects. Without a better evidence base, we risk becoming irrelevant as others who lack our design drive are enabled by technology to sample the needs and desires of people and to provide it to them through technology that bypasses us. A connection to our audience is essential for the profession to thrive, and our audience is the user of our buildings, not each other.

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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.