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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Arcola Theatre: LED Lights! Fuel Cell Action!

I was invited by my friends at Moixa to come to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston recently to see their new lighting and power installation. This consists of a set of LED lights that illuminate large sections of the foyer, bar and office space. Not just LED lights though, LED lights running off a Direct Current (DC) circuit, a circuit that also has USB power outlets for gadgets. Moixa have been developing technology in this area for some time now and present a very convincing story about the benefits of this approach for a large part of our future power distribution system.

To summarise the argument, a large part of our consumption is now low energy lighting (LED) and computers, TV’s, laptops, tablets, phones, all of which run on low voltage DC power. Our current AC system is not suitable for them and needs to be transformed down to DC power, losing a proportion of its efficiency in the process, usually felt as wasted heat from  transformers.  Running these devices on a DC circuit means that we can be more efficient in our use of power, but also be safer as the DC current runs at 12-24V which isn’t enough to hurt anyone. We could also reduce the need for all those transformers that we carry about to power our laptops.

Putting this system together with a battery pack brings another set of benefits because suddenly the system is resilient and your phones, TV’s, computers will still run in a power outage, or a flood (if the battery is above the flood level), or other power interruption. The battery pack can be charged from the Grid or from some PV panels, or even a fuel cell.

Another benefit derived from the battery pack is that it can be charged when power is cheapest from the grid or when the grid is overproducing, such as when the wind is blowing strongly in the middle of the night, or if it is very sunny in the middle of the day. The battery packs can help to smooth out the peaks and troughs in the Grid demand and supply, neatly answering one of the main criticisms of renewable energy: it is not always available when you want it. Now it can be. This could help to reduce the number of backup power stations we need to keep resilience in our power Grid.

Unexpectedly, Arcola is also home to an energy innovation team in the form of Arcola Energy who specialise in fuel cells. This is because the theatre director has a Ph.D in fuel cells, of course he does, doesn’t everyone? There is an online shop that ‘cells’ their products, so if you are short of a few stocking fillers why not buy yourself a renewable energy education kit? Better still, buy me one! I’m always ready to try out a new toy.

There is so much to describe here that is interesting, and fun, and presented in an enjoyable way, so get yourself down there, watch a show, and learn about the future in the interval over a glass of wine.