Professional Ethics: Balancing Obligations

The practice of architecture can be extremely rewarding. But like any profession, the practice of architecture must include attention to a host of various business and legal issues. For many architects, dealing with the myriad of requirements and the complexities they impose can be challenging, and there is a related subject that is often overlooked–ethics. In most instances, sound business or legal decisions will also serve to fulfill one’s ethical obligations. However, there are times when general business acumen will not serve to fully address ethical responsibilities or when ethical obligations dictate choices that are completely different than those from the business or legal perspective. It is in these situations that architects will be challenged to identify issues and formulate important yet difficult decisions that may serve to define one’s practice.

In the risk report, LeMessurier Stands Tall: A Case Study in Professional Ethics, the author illustrates the importance of ethical conduct through the story of William LeMessurier, the structural engineer for Citicorp Center in New York City. Capitalizing on good fortune, a disastrous end was avoided and instead, his stature in the design professional community was elevated. Overall, the story demonstrates the need for proper communication, delegation and supervision during the design and construction process and emphasizes the importance of balancing professional and legal responsibilities with ethical obligations.

Ultimately, it was the inquiry of an engineering student raising questions over the calculations for various wind stress on the building that prompted a reevaluation and discovery of the inadequacy of the bolted connections and potential for structural system failure and building collapse. While LeMessurier subsequently calculated the likelihood of a storm that would topple the building to occur only once every sixteen years, and that probability of failure could be reduced to one in fifty-five years assuming the tuned mass damper kept working without disruption during such a storm, he decided his social obligation was to share his findings despite any possible repercussions to his career and his future. LeMessurier proposed an adequate fix, meeting with the client and city officials, and covering a substantial part of the significant cost. Many have viewed the actions of LeMessurier as nearly heroic, and many engineering schools and ethics educators now use LeMessurier’s story as an example of how to act ethically.

As is true for many professionals, rules of ethical conduct have been adopted to define the system of moral principles that architects and engineers are expected to follow. These rules are in addition to the legal obligations imposed by a particular jurisdiction. While LeMessurier, as an engineer, was subject to codes of ethics governing the conduct of engineers, those codes bear a close resemblance to those governing AIA member architects. AIA members are dedicated to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and competence and the AIA Code of Ethics guides members’ conduct in fulfilling those obligations.

The most important point in the engineering code of ethics is the responsibility of each engineer to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” While the AIA code does not specifically describe this obligation in the same way, the concept is fundamental to the profession of architecture and is similarly described in state codes of conduct. Despite the reference in the paper to the 2004 AIA Code of Ethics, the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct addresses similar issues of conduct including a requirement if an architect becomes aware of a decision made by a client that adversely affects the safety of the public, that the architect must not only refuse to consent to the decision, but must also report the issue to public officials. There can be no doubt that safety comes first, and all decisions made by design professionals must be made with safety in mind.

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