Monday, December 26, 2011

Styles in Ethics

An architect, visiting Cambridge University on business, saw a poster announcing an ethics conference there, and he wondered what relationship the diverse and historic architecture of that university might have to the conversations about ethics at that conference.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell, once a professor at Cambridge University, wrote an essay in 1924 entitled “Styles in Ethics” that now seems almost quaint in questioning whether there exist any absolutes regarding sexual morality and the institution of marriage. Maybe most significant is Russell’s claim near the end of the essay that there is no “such thing as a ‘scientific’ ethics,” which, coming from a philosopher who admired science, shows how relatively little regard he had for ethics. He concludes that ethics is “the business of the mystic, the artist and the poet,” a matter of “style.”

We can dismiss style as something superficial or a matter of personal preference. However, style also tells us a lot about the people who create or work in a particular way, as Cambridge University itself shows, with its rich array of architectural styles ranging from the medieval to the modern. What, if anything, do these styles of architecture have to do with “styles of ethics,” as Russell put it?

Medieval ethics, with its emphasis on virtues such as faith, hope, and charity, may seem far removed from the Gothic architecture of Cambridge colleges like Kings, Queens, and Trinity. But when we see the monstrous gargoyles spouting water during storms or the names or statues of notable thinkers or patrons from the past in such buildings, they do bring to mind the focus of virtue ethics on the development of an individual’s character and on the inculcation of good habits, as Aristotle urged.

Likewise, when we look upon the Classical buildings at Clare College or Wren’s library at Trinity, much of them built during the wars and the political and religious conflicts of the 17th century, we can hear the echo of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They argued for social contracts that would ensure our collective security and offer political checks against the excesses of others – a yearning for order evident in the strict symmetries and balanced proportions of those Classical colleges.

At the same time, we see in the colleges built and added to throughout the 18th century an architectural equivalent of Kant’s ethics, with its categorical imperatives against treating others as means to our own ends and for our acting as if everything were to become universal. Kant’s emphasis on our duty to do the right thing seems clearly evident in the deference that 18th century architects paid to each other’s buildings at Cambridge, continuing the language, materials, and cornice heights from one to the other.

The 19th century’s utilitarianism, with its ethics aimed at doing the greatest good for the greatest number, also has its parallel in Cambridge buildings. The University library, for example, with its vast scale and stripped down Classicism, seems to epitomize the utilitarian urge to bring as much benefit – in the form of books, in this case – to as many people as efficiently as possible.

And the 20th century skepticism of ethics that we hear in Russell’s essay, has its architectural equivalent as well, in Cambridge’s history faculty building, for example. There, floors of offices overlook the glass-ceiling history library in a building as inward looking and self-referential as the ethics of its time. By the late 20th century, architects had become as much mystics, artists, and poets as ethicists. Whether that is good or not is more than a question of style.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Ethics of Design

A designer in a lecture stated that, in addition to the obvious forces that influence a design – the needs of users, the strength of materials, the costs of production – there exist less obvious ethical ones that also affect design decisions. He then urged us to pay more attention to the ethical effects of our designed world.

While we often think of ethics applying to our individual actions, our notions of right and wrong or good and bad relate just as much to the larger economic and political forces that shape and constrain the designed world in which we live. In that sense, designers literally give physical form to the public policies that politicians have put in place, even though many designers rarely think of what we do in this way. We tend to judge a design according to its aesthetics and pragmatics: does it look good, function well, and meet our budget? But we can also assess a design in terms of the ethics of the codes and regulations, taxes and fees, and incentives and inducements that influenced the designer’s decisions and that defined the context within which the design evolved.

We may not talk as much about the latter because public policies can sometimes seem more like a force of nature, something beyond our control, but those policies actually arise out of a kind of design thinking. As designers do every day, elected officials devise policies in order to achieve a desired end or to address an unmet need. And the designed products and environments that literally embed those policies in their form, function, and material, provide one of the best ways of judging the merit of these policies. A design doesn’t have to have a reflective surface in order to offer us a mirror of what we value as individuals and as a political and economic community.

When we look in that mirror, we see a mixture of carrots and sticks. The social contract of most modern countries accepts the use of incentives as well as prohibitions and penalties in order to achieve what at least those in power at any given moment conceive of as good or bad. And the differing degree to which those in power use carrots or sticks depends upon their approach to ethics. Those who favor incentivizing good behavior, for example, implicitly embrace virtue ethics. If we believe almost all people have the capacity to be virtuous – honest, fair, prudent, and so on – then incentivizing people with economic carrots makes total sense.

Meanwhile, decision-makers who have a less sanguine view of human virtue may resort more to the use of sticks. Utilitarian ethics often underpins public policies that use the “stick” of taxation or fees. Such policies rarely prohibit certain behaviors or decisions, but instead focus on spreading resources in order to benefit the greatest number and on nudging people toward seeing their own good in the common good.

Likewise, the categorical imperatives of Kant’s ethics, based on his belief that there exist absolute and universal rights and wrongs, can lead politicians to enact laws that wield a big stick, proscribing certain behaviors or prohibiting the use of certain substances or materials. Drawing such a clear line between the legal and illegal echoes the Kantian advice to not do anything that we wouldn’t accept if universally applied.

Designers do not just respond to these carrots and sticks; we become agents in their enactment through what we design. And the more we attend to the ethics of design, the more conscious we will be of the values our work promotes. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Divided loyalties

An architect represents his wealthy, suburban district in a state legislature as a member of the Republican Party. His architect colleagues have urged him to advocate for issues largely supported by the design professions, such as more compact communities, better public transit, and greater incentives for sustainable development. His Republican colleagues, though, oppose all of those ideas and expect him to vote according to their principles and positions, forcing him to decide where his loyalties lie: with his profession or his party.

The philosopher Josiah Royce argued that loyalty represents the greatest virtue because it embodies our adherence to something larger than ourselves, to an ideal or even a noble or “lost cause.” Royce recognized that evil also seeks our loyalty, as the Nazi Party showed, and he made a distinction between the “true loyalty” of people who seek the good of others, and “predatory loyalty” that destroys the ability of other individuals or communities – the Jewish community during the Nazi era, for example – to remain loyal to their own ideals.

A paradox, in other words, lies at the very heart of the concept of loyalty: it is a good thing, unless it negates the loyalties of others, in which it becomes a bad thing. The context and consequences of loyalty thus become paramount in determining its value. We literally cannot say whether or not a person’s loyalty to something is good or bad without seeing what it stems from and where it leads to. Blind loyalty to something regardless of its intentions or its effects is, in that sense, no loyalty at all.

For this architect/legislator, or anyone for that matter who has divided loyalties, Royce’s ideas can help sort out what to do. Royce makes the distinction between loyalty to an ideal supported by what he called “genuine communities,” and loyalty to groups that have vicious or destructive intentions akin to the survival of the fittest in nature, which he called “natural communities.”

When we find ourselves with divided loyalties to different groups, Royce’s argument suggests that we need to look carefully at the intentions, methods, and consequences of each community to which we hold allegiance. You could argue that both of the communities in the case of the architect/legislator have genuine features. Both the architectural community and the Republican Party have adherents who no doubt believe that their view of the future will lead to the best outcomes. While architects can make the case that walkable neighborhoods, mass transit, and sustainable development will enhance the physical health, social vitality, and environmental viability of communities, Republican politicians can also portray these as counter to the personal freedoms, economic opportunities, and property rights of individuals.

But Royce makes a distinction that can help us decide between these two world-views. He argued that communities come before individuals and that the very idea of an individual is incoherent unless viewed within the context of a group. Language, for example, only has value if others understand it; a “private language,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, literally makes no sense. The same applies to other human activities as well: those that benefit only individuals at the expense of communities do not deserve our loyalty.

The causes that these architects urged their legislative colleague to support all had community interests and collective benefits in mind, while those advocated by his party had individual rights and personal freedoms as their goal. While both sought the loyalty of this lawmaker, only one deserves it. And while supporting his profession over his party might mean political suicide, it also represents the height of loyalty: to a noble cause.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jevons Paradox

After a lecture on sustainability, in which the lecturer spoke about the much greater energy efficiency of buildings and vehicles in recent decades, a student asked why we continue to consume energy at an ever-greater rate even as we have become more efficient in doing so and if that meant that energy efficiency worked against the goal of reducing energy consumption.

The British economist William Stanley Jevons observed, in the mid-19th Century, that with the greater efficiency in the use of coal, the consumption of coal increased at a greater rate, leading to the paradox that efficiency can increase rather than decrease the use of a resource. We can easily see why Jevons paradox can occur. Greater efficiency in the use of a resource can reduce its price, which prompts more consumption, and it can also increase economic growth, which also fuels greater use as more people can afford to do so. Jevons argued that because of this paradox, we couldn’t rely only on improvements in efficiency to reduce consumption of a fuel source like coal.

This raises a fundamental ethical issue, as well as an environmental one. In an era in which designers have worked very hard to increase the efficiency of energy consuming entities like buildings and vehicles, with the goal of reducing the use of finite supplies of fossil fuel, Jevons paradox poses a particularly challenging problem. Jevons did not say that we should, as a result of his paradox, ignore efficiency. He simply said that we cannot depend upon it alone and that other non-technological changes need to happen as well if we want to reduce consumption.

Some have argued that public policies can counter the paradoxical effects of greater efficiency. We can add a tax on the resource, place quotas on its use, or regulate its availability to keep the price high, even as the efficiency of its use increases. Such tactics, though, have proven to be hard to sell politically, striking some as “social engineering” by tampering with the way in which the marketplace innovates to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of things. That the marketplace is itself a kind of social engineering doesn’t get discussed often enough, but so be it. We seem driven, at least in modern, technological societies, to increase consumption of resources until they become scarce (or damaging) enough that we can no longer afford them or have them available in enough quantity.

Ethics, though, offers another way of looking at this paradox. One of the primary divisions between ancient and modern ethics has to do with being versus doing. The ancients focused on what it meant to be a good person or on the nature of a good society, while we moderns have tended to dwell, instead, on what it means to do the right thing regardless of or because of its consequences. Jevons paradox occurs when we only focus on “doing.” And Jevons seemed to acknowledge that when he said that making a process more efficient alone would not reduce consumption. Doing the right thing also depends upon our being a good person and our living in a good society.

The Stoic philosophers, for example, argued that our freedom and happiness comes not from how much we have, but rather from how much we can do without. This may sound at odds with our consumer-oriented culture, but it simply extends to human behavior the same ethic designers embrace when making things more efficient. The real paradox in Jevons observation has to do with the modern disconnect between what we do and who we are.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A colleague who writes about ethics, Nan DeMars, tells the story of a vendor who, seeking to have his products used, left a large bottle of scotch for the person in the office in charge of vendor selection. That person, unsure of what to do with the bottle, went to see the head of the firm who said: one bottle is a gift, two is a bribe.

Some cultures have what social scientists call a gift economy, in which people give and receive gifts without expectation of return. Such economies differ from the market economies, where goods have prices set by supply and demand, and while such economies have plenty of people who give gifts – indeed, some industries rely heavily on people giving gifts around holidays – this remains a relatively small part of the total economic output.

The key difference in this situation has to do with the intentions behind the gift. In gift economies or as happens in the holiday exchanges among family and friends, the giving occurs without a quid pro quo. We give gifts in these situations as tokens of our affection and appreciation, not to influence someone’s decision or to personally benefit ourselves. When a gift is given with the latter in mind, as in the case of this vendor, the difference between a gift and a bribe becomes unclear.

The receiver of this bottle of scotch did the right thing in asking the opinion of his superior. Ethics requires what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” in which we should not trust our initial instincts or first responses and, instead, seek the counsel of others as we deliberate what to do. Delaying a decision and sharing the responsibility for it can help us arrive at better conclusions, tapping what the writer James Surowiecki has dubbed “the wisdom of crowds.” This is one of the gifts others can give to us.

It isn’t clear, though, that keeping the large bottle of scotch is wise. While the supervisor sees a clear line between a gift and a bribe – one bottle versus two – others might not see it that way. Any “gift” given with even the appearance of influencing a decision in favor of the giver can constitute a bribe in the minds of some, and appearances matter in such situations. Accepting something that looks to some like a bribe calls into question whatever decision gets made, especially if it goes – legitimately or not – to the vendor who gave it.

The person who got the bottle could share it with everyone else in the office, which may seem to dilute the impact of it, but that can also implicate everyone else in influence that the giver of the bottle may have intended. A much better course would be to get rid of it. The receiver of the bottle could give it back to the vendor, although that does seem uncharitable. Doing the right thing, ethically, should not lead us to rudeness or to wrecking a relationship.

Giving the bottle to charity or as a gift to someone else makes more sense. In gift economies, the continual passing of gifts often happens since the act of giving matters much more than the gift itself. And even in a market economy, the passing on of a gift not wanted, for whatever reason, also remains the choice of the person who received it initially. In situations where the gift casts doubts about oneself or colors the perceptions of others about you, it is best to give it away. It wasn’t a bottle of scotch; it was a hot potato.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Embarrassing E-mails

A firm moved an architect off a project because of tensions he had created with other members of the team. A colleague in the office then sent e-mails to others in the office protesting his move and urging others to do the same. Her e-mails not only got back to the partners in the firm, but to clients and consultants, embarrassing all involved.

Electronic mail and social media of various sorts have obviously made communications among people not located in the same place much faster and easier. This has enhanced the productivity of workers and the speed with which work gets done, but it also presents risks not often encountered with face-to-face or even written communications that had to be typed and mailed. Electronic communications now makes it too easy for someone to send an intemperate message to a large number of people, any of whom can forward it on to others not meant to see it.

Temperance remains one of the central tenets of virtue ethics. While that word has acquired others connotations, such as abstinence from alcohol, the term originally meant restraint, control, and most importantly, self-control. The temperate person knows when to speak and when to keep quiet, when to act and when not to. And temperance works both ways, not only for the person initiating an action, but also for those who must decide how to respond to it.

Electronic communications requires that we pay attention to temperance as never before. The rising incidence of teenagers bullying each other on social media shows how much we need to teach the value of temperance and to give children the tools to know how to deal with the intemperance of others. The same goes for the workplace. Colleagues and co-workers need to temper the urge to act intemperately and to temper their responses to others who don’t.

As this case suggests, we don’t always know where intemperate behavior begins. Did the person creating tension on the project team act intemperately and so deserve to be reassigned or did the partner in charge of the project act too rashly in making that reassignment? Whatever the specifics of that situation, however, it seems clear that the person who sought to provoke a protest in the office via e-mail did not think through the consequences of her decision before she acted. Would she have sent those messages if she knew that her call for insurrection would get read by the leadership of the firm as well as the client and consultants? Probably not, unless she didn’t care whether or not she kept her job.

That raises the question of what the leadership in the firm should do, given what happened. Should they fire her for insubordination, or would that simply add another intemperate act on top of hers? Temperance becomes more difficult the more intemperate others have been, which makes it all the more important to model self-control in situations like this. The power and persuasiveness of leaders lie in their ability, as Rudyard Kipling put it, to keep their heads when others are losing theirs, and so not reacting rashly becomes a way of demonstrating leadership and showing others where it lies.

Rather than fire the messenger, the head of the firm asked her to apologize to all who had received her e-mail and told her that she must never do such a thing again, to which she agreed. But as so often happens to the intemperate, her colleagues shunned her after that incident; she soon left the firm and is now living in a more temperate clime.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Gift Horses

A colleague, Michael Crosbie, wrote an editorial in the fall 2011 issue of the magazine he edits, Faith & Form ( about a parishioner who wanted to donate a water-intensive irrigation system to his church. While the church wanted to accept the gift, Michael, who is an architect, raised questions about the wisdom of accepting such a gift when better and more efficient alternatives existed. The church had to decide what to do with a gift that it could use, but that may not be in its best interest to accept.

The phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” generally applies to the presents we sometimes receive as individuals that we may not want or like, but that we accept with gratitude because of the giver’s good intentions. Such gifts often get stored or given away, with no harm done to the feelings of those who gave them. It is another matter, though, when we must use and, as in the case here, depend upon the gift in our daily lives, without the ability to pass it on or put it away. This raises the ethical question of what matters more: social harmony or personal integrity? Do we do what we think is right in such a situation, regardless of the possible negative consequences to our relationship with others, or do we do what those relationships demand and not look the gift horse in the mouth?

This becomes particularly problematic in a professional relationship. People commission a professional like an architect in order to have their needs met in the best way possible and have their best interests attended to even if that means facing some disappointment when told that they cannot have all that they had wanted or do all that that they had hoped. Professionals differ from ordinary businesses in this way. The latter often try to please their customers as much as possible within what the law allows in terms of health, safety, and welfare. Profits flow to businesses by giving people what they want, even when that runs against the best interests of the purchasers, as we have seen with producers of tobacco products or the purveyors of high-calorie food.

Professionals have a higher bar to meet. Society expects professionals to do what is in the best interests not only of the individuals seeking professional advice, but also of the larger communities affected by it. That may mean, in situations like this, that professionals have to say or do things that others may not want or like, if that is in the best interest of all those involved. Here, the architect has an obligation to speak the truth to the church about the downsides of accepting and installing the system offered by the donor. The church, of course, can ignore Michael and insist that the system get used, keeping the donor happy but possibly alienating a knowledgeable member of the congregation. Or the church can take Michael’s professional advice to heart and thank the donor offering the gift, but decline to accept it because it does not meet their needs or goals.  

A third way almost always exists for such dilemmas, however, through the use of design. Unlike other professions with a “win-lose” view of conflict, designers seek “win-win” solutions. In this case, there remains the possibility of accepting the gift and installing the system as the donor wishes, while also providing a less costly and more sustainable alternative if it proves too expensive or wasteful to operate in the future. The resiliency that multiple, redundant systems provides can also help keep the peace.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


The chair of a an architecture program needed to move the time of a class taught by a local practitioner in order to make the schedule work better for the students. When the chair asked the practitioner if he could adjust his schedule accordingly, he asked what it was worth to the chair to make this change and that he would do it only if he got paid more money.

Recent protests in India occurred because of widespread public disgust at the level of corruption in that society, in which, as an Indian colleague of mine describes it, people in both the public and private sectors take bribes in order to perform a service more readily or to step up the response time. My colleague explains that this has become so rampant that people just factor this into the cost of doing business and that those who expect such payments often justify it because so many others do so as well. The rising cost of living, the rapidly growing population, and the over-burdened infrastructure in India all fuel this culture of covert payments. But it violates a basic tenet of civil society: trust that people will do their job well and in a timely manner for the agreed-upon price and for fair compensation.

The expectation of a bribe represents a form of extortion. In the case of India, it sounds like the corruption in that society involves a more passive form of extortion, putting something lower on a list of priorities or performing a service more slowly or after a longer delay unless the person in need pays a little extra to expedite the work. In the case of the practitioner who asks for more money from the program chair in order to move the time of a class, the extortion is more active and obvious and even more objectionable as a result. Extortionists obtain things by threatening others. The question this practitioner asked – what is it worth to the chair to change the time of the class – carried with it the implied threat that he would refuse to make that change without receiving more money to do so.

We can imagine how this person might justify such extortion. Adjunct faculty who teach the occasional course rarely get paid as much as fulltime faculty members would for the same course, when measured as a percentage of their salaries. This practitioner might rightly believe that he should receive more money for the course he teaches and he may have seen the chair’s need to move the course’s time as an opportunity to get what he thought he deserved. But the issue here isn’t whether this practitioner deserves more compensation, but how he went about trying to achieve it. The use of threats to get something – anything – from another person ranges from the unethical to the outright criminal depending upon the nature of the threat and stakes involved.

Here, no crime occurred. The practitioner didn’t physically threaten the chair or demand more money at gunpoint. But the practitioner did try to extort money from the chair, thinking that he had the upper hand, which turned out to be his mistake. The chair, when confronted by his threat, immediately said that the program would find another way to deal with the schedule conflict and thanked him for coming in to discuss it. And the chair never asked that practitioner to teach another course again. Extortion, in other words, may seem like a way to get more money and to take advantage of a situation, but over the long term, it never pays.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Despite their years of experience and depth of knowledge, many mid-career architects, laid off in the 2008 recession, found it almost impossible to find work in the field often because of higher salary expectations and lower computer skills than younger staff. Does the profession have a responsibility to its members in such a situation?

In the American economy, employment for middle-aged workers has lagged behind that of both younger people and retirees willing to work for less. That downward pressure on salaries reflects the fact that wages in the U.S. have not kept up with increasing productivity. Between 1947 and 1979, worker productivity rose 119% and average compensation kept pace, growing 100%, but after 1980 productivity increased 80%, while compensation went up only 7%.

Many explanations exist for that stagnation of wages since 1980: off-shoring American jobs, increasing global competition, and public policies that have mostly benefited the top fifth wage earners. And we have seen the same in the architectural profession. U.S. firms have opened offices overseas and increasingly competed for work globally. And, as a result, the partners of firms that have succeeded in the global marketplace have done relatively well financially, even as many of their mid-career, formerly employed colleagues have not.

History has shown that older people caught in a technological or economic transition, trained in a previous era without new skills, often face higher unemployment. That happened with in the 19th century industrial revolution and it appears to have happened again with the digital revolution and the global economy enabled by it. But while that may be how economics works, ethics does not work that way. The latter shows us why we have a responsibility to help others in a situation like this, even if we have no legal obligation or financial incentive to do so.

The ethical reason to help others is simple: we help others in need because we, too, will be in need of help someday. That reciprocity may not be apparent to those prospering – or simply trying to survive right now – in a rapidly changing economy. And we see how this has played itself out politically. People barely holding on to some semblance of the life they once had have resisted increased taxes to help others who have not, leading to the paradox that with rising economic inequality has come a parallel rise in political polarization at least in the U.S.

That ethics of the jungle, in which people become more vicious when fighting over the last scraps, may serve the interests of disingenuous politicians, who use fear to keep people complacent in the face of inequalities that might otherwise lead to revolution in the streets. The politics of fear did stop people in North African countries from rebelling, revealing the limitations of such a strategy. But do professions have an obligation to their members that transcends such a situation? Are there things professionals can do to help their colleagues caught in this economic transition?

Mentoring out-of-work peers and helping them network with other professionals and prospective employers may be among the most useful actions. Providing training opportunities for little or no cost to bring up skill levels required to compete for jobs can also go a long way toward giving hope to those left behind in a changing economy. But most helpful of all would be to give the unemployed work, even if only part-time. The top fifth wage earners have greatly benefited from globalism and those profits need to translate into more jobs. The fate of elites in North Africa shows what can await us if we don’t.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Women in the Profession

In back-to-back meetings, I heard an institution talk about its admirable efforts to increase opportunities for women-owned businesses and then a female architect discuss her decision to leave the firm that she worked for because of the long hours required, often working for that same institution, making it difficult for her to have enough time to raise her two children.

As John Cary, an insightful critic of the architecture profession’s poor treatment of young people and under-represented groups, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor ( “an estimated 10-12 percent of the 105,000 registered architects in the United States are women,” even though women in architecture schools represent about 40 percent of all students. Also, as many educators will tell you, women in the schools often play leadership roles. The problem occurs after graduation, when women who have excelled in school for various reasons do not make it through the internship process or decide not to get licensed. What happens during that post-graduate period and what can be done about it?

There is no lack of opportunity for women. Many public-sector and even a number of private-sector clients give preference to hiring women- as well as minority owned businesses as part of their design teams, in an effort to encourage such under-represented groups. Many architecture and design firms also actively seek a diverse work force and make concerted efforts to recruit women to their offices. At the same time, women continue to make major contributions to the design world, producing a lot of the very best work.

The problem lies elsewhere: in a profession that is perennially underpaid and overworked in relation to the value it creates and the liability it assumes. And therein lies an irony, highlighted by the conversations mentioned above. The very institutions trying to create opportunities for under-represented groups may also be creating the very conditions that lead women and minorities to leave the profession because of the relatively low pay and the long hours required to do the work. In that sense, the lack of women as licensed architects serves as a warning and a symptom of a larger dilemma that many in the field seem unwilling to talk about, maybe not wanting to antagonize their clients.

If the architecture profession wants to attract and keep those who seek a more balanced life – regardless of their gender or ethnicity – it needs to do a better job of aligning its compensation and work hours with the value it creates. This may seem particularly hard to do in one of the worst recessions to hit the profession since the 1930s. In times like these, with so a lot of firms chasing a little work, demanding higher fees may seem foolhardy at best. Many firms are glad to have work of any sort, just to keep their staff busy. The issues of diversity may seem less important and less pressing when a firm’s survival seems at stake.

However, there is also no better time than this to deal with the imbalance – the ridiculously long hours and ruthless fee cutting – that many think is just part of being an architect. With so few "traditional" jobs available in a depressed construction industry, the architecture profession has an opportunity to reassess the value of what it does – which goes way beyond the design of buildings – and to see that what it has to offer is particularly relevant in bad economic times: the knowledge of how to achieve the most with the least. Doing so may be the most effective way to improve the profession’s gender and ethnic balance.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Expanding the Design Professions

Several years in a row after 2008, architects’ average salaries have barely changed. While many attribute that to the “great recession,” some have started to wonder if a fundamental shift had begun to occur in the demand for architectural services and if the time had come to think about the value that designers might bring to clients and communities outside of conventional practice. Other professionals see this as an abandonment of the field and have resisted the idea.

The science writer, Richard Panek, wrote a book published in 2004 entitled, The Invisible Century, Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes, that has a great deal to teach designers. Panek observed that at the end of the 19th century, some scientists thought that we had discovered all there was to know about the physical world and that science had come to an end. That didn’t happen, of course, because with the 20th century came the discovery of “invisible” phenomena, from Freud’s explorations of the human subconscious to Einstein’s revelations about relativity to Max Planck’s descriptions of quarks. That opening up of whole new worlds ripe for scientific investigation made it “the invisible century,” as Panek calls it. While scientists continue to study the physical world, the invisible one has greatly benefited human understanding and opened up whole new areas of study.

The same, it seems, has begun to happen in design at the beginning of the 21st century. At a time when a lot of the job opportunities for designing and constructing physical structures have begun to wane or at least not grow very quickly, work in a number of other areas not directly associated with buildings have begun to open up for the design community. In almost all cases, these opportunities exist in what we might call the “design of the invisible,” be it the design of services and systems, applications and infrastructures, features and flows, products and policies, processes and procedures. This expansion of the design professions into such “invisible” realms comes at an opportune time. Unemployment among architects has reached record levels, and especially young people have begun to vote with their feet, seeking out the unconventional application of their design skills, whether or not traditional practitioners approve. A terrible economy can open up incredible opportunities for those willing to open their minds.

The ethical issue here revolves around that question: is this change good? Some see the good as inseparable from tradition, a perspective that assumes that the world evolves slowly and incrementally, and that rapid change brings more bad than good. That conservative ethic abhors revolutions. Others see the world as something in constant and at times destabilizing flux. For them, the good gets continually redefined as things change and new requirements emerge. Both sides want the good to happen, but how they achieve that could not be more different. While one group seeks to hold back change in order to preserve what they know, the other sees change as the primary way in which good things happen for people in the process of adapting to new conditions.

The conditions we live in, of course, could care less about our ethics. If demand declines for what we have done in the past, we must respond as creatively as possible. We may not yet fully understand what it means to design the “invisible” world, but we will only know by starting to do it. And for those who like such a change, do not despair: plenty of work remains to be done in the visible world, as scientists also discovered. So onward!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Conflict of Commitment

A property manager has a corporate client trying to decide whether to expand in its current leased space or to have a custom building designed and constructed for it. With an architect spouse whose firm is on the development team for the new building, the manager is torn between wanting the best for the client, which would save money by expanding in their existing space, and the best for the spouse’s firm, which would benefit from the commission to do the new building.

Marriage has its challenges as two people learn how to live together and to work together maintaining a household. And successful couples learn that preserving a marriage often entails putting it first, above the demands of work or other pastimes. That can become difficult, though, when spouses have a professional as well as a personal relationship. While the personal relationship would put the marriage first, the professional relationship can cause the opposite to occur or at least, as in the case here, make us feel torn between divided loyalties to a client or a spouse.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. But as sometimes happens in the design community, in which both spouses work in similar occupations or even in the same offices, the potential for conflicts increase. In this situation, there exist two kinds of possible conflicts – a conflict of interest and a conflict of commitment. The former seems more obvious and so easier to address. A conflict of interest would exist if the property manager urges the client to commission his spouse’s firm for the new building, since he would indirectly benefit from the fees the client pays for that work.

In this case, however, the property manager and the architect have taken great pains to avoid any conflict of interest. The manager has advised the client to commission two different firms to look at the implications of the company staying and renovating the existing space versus building anew. That not only gives the client two different perspectives; it also incentivizes the design teams to do the best job they can to win the commission and it avoids biasing the client toward one approach of another if the same firm did both projects.

At the same time, the architect has excused herself from being a part of the project because of her husband’s role as an advisor to the client. And while her firm would benefit from getting the project, she wouldn’t benefit directly from participating in it, nor would the firm’s winning the commission affect her salary one way or the other, with plenty of other work in the office to keep her busy. The best way to handle conflicts of interest, apart from avoiding them altogether, involves acknowledging their potential to occur and taking steps to recuse yourself from any involvement that would lead others to suspect that a possible personal benefit skewed your professional judgment.

Even though this couple has done everything possible to avoid a conflict of interest, there still remains a conflict of commitment. That can prove harder to spot and easier to overlook, since it involves not material benefit, but instead affects the time and energy you put toward one endeavor versus another. Might the property manager, in this case, steer the client to the new-construction option, not for personal financial gain, but simply because it would make his spouse happier if he did? The very possibility of that suggests that, in this case, the architect’s firm should simply not get involved in the project. Sometimes having an in requires that we stay away.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Veil of Ignorance

An architect at a discussion about ethics complained about contracts written in such a way that they hold the architect liable even if not involved or responsible for a particular aspect of a project. A developer in the room asked what is unethical about that, arguing that if the architect is willing to sign such a contract, that is their decision and that it has nothing to do with ethics.

The boundary between laissez-faire and unfair competition can appear fuzzy at times. If an architectural firm willingly signs a contract that holds them liable for more than what they have responsibility for, that may not be wise, but it also doesn’t seem unethical, especially if the firm made the decision freely and fully knowledgeable of its implications. The firm did not have to sign the contract or it could have negotiated a better deal for itself, and if it didn’t, then it has to pay the price should something go wrong.

Such a view, voiced by the developer in the discussion, implies a reduction of ethics to just a few obvious wrongs, such as murder, theft, or other violations of the law. Almost everything else, from this perspective, constitutes healthy competition in the marketplace: caveat emptor, let the buyer – or in this case, the signatory of the contract – beware.

That reductive view of ethics misses its point. Ethics does not just help us determine right and wrong; it can also help us see obligations and the implications of our actions that we often overlook, often to our detriment. In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that in any situation involving the allocation of benefits, we should act as if there exists what he calls a “veil of ignorance” that prevents us from knowing our “original position” – whether or not we have more or less power or money, say, than anyone else. Not knowing that, Rawls observed, we would always act in ways that ensured that the least advantaged – which might be any one of us – benefit as much as possible.

The “veil of ignorance” may sound like a nice theory, but one that has no bearing in reality. In real life, people do know their position vis-à-vis others and who has the upper hand and who doesn’t or who would benefit the most from a law or contract and who would not. But Rawls’s theory is anything but theoretical. It turns out that we are always operating behind a “veil of ignorance” and that our not recognizing that fact leads to a lot of unintended and self-inflicted harm to ourselves as well as others.

For example, that developer may see no harm in demanding contracts with consultants that unduly shifts his risks and responsibilities onto them. If they want the work, they have to sign the agreement or he will find someone else who would. The developer may see himself as a tough competitor and may pride himself in his negotiating skill, but he seems also profoundly ignorant of his true position.

He might be at the top of his game now, but what if the market sinks and he finds himself – like many developers these days – underwater financially, with too much unsold product and way more debt than he has revenue to cover? All of sudden, he would find himself, in Rawls’s example, not the most advantaged, but among the least advantaged person at the table, having to rely on others to help him out or perhaps even to ask others to share in his losses through foreclosure or bankruptcy.

At that moment, his reputation for unfairly shifting his responsibilities onto others comes back to bite him: who wants to help someone who did so little to help others? Which is precisely Rawls’s point. In addition to literal contracts, we have a “social contract” with others based on fairness and justice. Someone can uphold a literal contract, but violate the social contract and find themselves bereft of the very benefits that accrue to those who have recognized and respected our collective compact.

The irony of the veil of ignorance is that those most ignorant of it remain most veiled from it, and – as we can see in the case of this developer who sees nothing wrong with unfair contracts – potentially the most harmed by ignoring it.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


A city acquired a vacant industrial building as part of its development of a nature sanctuary, and many nearby residents wanted the city to tear down the graffiti-covered former factory, which they saw as an eyesore. However the four-story brick building remained structurally solid and large enough to accommodate a number of nature-related activities, including a charter school, a natural history center, and offices for nature organizations. The city had to decide whether to bend to the political pressure or find someone to rehabilitate the building.

In a famous article on the ethics of abortion, the philosopher Don Marquis argued that we don’t allow murder because it causes its victims to lose all of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they would have had. “What make killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future,” wrote Marquis.

We can extend that same argument to the premature ending of the life of a perfectly good building, as in the case here. While the word “life” has a different meaning when we apply it to a living being as opposed to an inanimate object like a building, the ethics related to terminating a life appear as relevant to buildings as much as bodies. Demolishing something that still has a promising future raises the same kind of objections we have when we see someone negligently or intentionally killing someone else. It deprives people of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they might have had in that building.

Drawing a parallel between killing a person and demolishing a building may seem extreme. Buildings have no political rights, no feeling of pain, no interpersonal relationships or any of the other characteristics of a human life that make murder so immoral. Nor, since the abolition of slavery, do we allow one person to own another, the way we do buildings. The private-property rights that accrue to the owner of a building gives that person relatively free reign to tear it down except in those few instances where historic designations or other contractual agreements prohibit it.

Law and ethics, though, almost never perfectly align. What the law allows us to do does not necessarily make it ethical, which Marquis’s argument highlights. We can legally engage in war, for example, but that does not make the killing of other people ethical because, as Marquis observes, it deprives them of their future, which we have no right to take. At the same time, Marquis argues for the ethics of mercy killing, of ending the life a terminally ill person who wants to die because of the pain and suffering that their foreshortened future holds for them, even though this remains illegal.

This gives us criteria of when to save a building and when not to. If a structure still has “life” in it, with enough structural integrity and physical capacity to accommodate a variety of new uses, we should do all we can to preserve and rehabilitate it. And if not – if its deterioration has so shortened its life and made its reuse almost impossible without a nearly complete rebuilding – we should not hesitate demolishing it unless there is some extraordinary historical value attached to the structure to merit its reconstruction.

In the case of the solid industrial building in that nature preserve, the city needs to do whatever possible to find a new owner or developer willing to rehabilitate the structure. While the city has no political advantage or legal requirement to do so, it does have an ethical responsibility, and for many people, that’s reason enough.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


A university faced with a growing crime problem involving the theft of electronic devices wanted to install a number of surveillance cameras on buildings. Some on campus argued that the university, instead, should design public spaces with enough activity and “eyes on the street” that surveillance cameras would not be necessary, while others objected to the cameras as a violation of their privacy.

The philosopher Peter Singer has written an insightful essay in Harpers* looking at some of the ethical dilemmas raised in our media-saturated world, where between the widespread use of cameras and the apparent urge of people to tell all on their Facebook pages, privacy has almost completely disappeared. Singer makes his point by an architectural analogy: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Imagined by Bentham as the perfect surveillance device, the Panopticon was a radial building in which one person could stand at the center and observe the activities of everyone at the perimeter.

Singer then observes that “The modern Panopticon is not a physical building … With surveillance technology like closed-circuit television cameras and digital cameras now linked to the Internet, we have the means to implement Bentham’s inspection principle on a much vaster scale. What’s more, we have helped construct this new Panopticon, voluntarily giving up troves of personal information. We blog, tweet, and post what we are doing, thinking and feeling.”

Key to the ethics of our “modern Panopticon” is the question of whether we participate in it voluntarily or not. When we choose to go into public places, we give up a degree of privacy in order to be with or interact with other people. In our era, that also means our acceptance of being monitored by surveillance cameras. That fact invalidates the claim by some, in this case, that the additional security cameras on campus would violate their privacy. Their being in public means that they have already relinquished a degree of privacy, whether observed by cameras or by other people.

That claim, though, does reflect a widespread misunderstanding of and indeed an unfortunate decline in public life and the public realm. Busy streets, full of pedestrians able to watch for possible criminal behavior, can make cameras irrelevant, which is what those who argued for an enlivened campus in lieu of cameras had in mind. Meanwhile the lack of such crowds has not only prompted the electronic surveillance of public spaces, but also perhaps the growing use of social media, which in some sense moves “public” visibility to the Internet.

Social contract theory has some relevance here. Thomas Hobbes argued that we need a strong central authority to keep people from harming each other, as he believed we would do without such restraint. He would likely have supported the use of surveillance cameras on campus for that reason. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in contrast, had a suspicion of central authority and believed people to be naturally good apart from the corrupting influence of society. Rousseau would probably have argued: the fewer cameras, the better.

Between those two extreme views stood John Locke, who recognized the value of central authority, but argued that its legitimacy rests with the consent of the governed. Locke might have urged the university to find a balance between deploying cameras where absolutely necessary and doing whatever possible to encourage people to assemble in public. Singer’s essay echoes Locke. Singer observes that electronic devices now allow those surveyed to watch their surveyors as well as the other way around. Such two-way surveillance becomes analogous to democracy, in which we, the governed, watch our representatives – protecting not only our security, but also our liberty.

* Singer, Peter. “Visible Man, Ethics in a World without Secrets,” Harpers, August 2011, p. 32-36.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Altering an Award Winner

An architectural firm received a commission by a university to install new energy efficient lighting in a series of lecture halls, including one in a building that had won a number of design awards. The university had a standard fixture it wanted to use and when the firm raised a question about its appropriateness in the award-winning space, it was told to focus on energy saving and light output, not aesthetics.

In an understandable sense of urgency on the part of many clients to save energy and reduce operating costs, some have acted as if other values, like historic integrity or award-winning design, matter less than the green imperative. That thinking has created problems before. In the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, well-intentioned designs sometimes had decidedly ugly results, which led skeptics to dismiss the energy movement as extremist. The inability of some true believers to balance energy conservation with other factors in a project, like history, context, or aesthetics, ended up working against the energy movement’s goals.

By the 1980s and 1990s, while the need to saving energy in buildings remained as important as ever, the public’s interest in it and the political support for it diminished dramatically. That arose, in part, from the rightward tilt in politics during that period, but it also came from people reacting negatively to inappropriate or unsightly alterations to buildings in name of conservation. Advocates of historic preservation even distanced themselves from energy conservation, even though saving and reusing an old building remains among one of the most energy conserving actions we can take.

In the situation described here, the overly narrow focus on energy conservation came not from the architect, but from the client. The university in this case wanted a standard solution of hanging, indirect fixtures to replace incandescent lighting in several auditoriums, looking to the architect mainly to do the drawings and specifications for the pre-determined solution to the problem. The architects raised the issue of the suitability of that solution in the award-winning building, where entry high up in the space led the original architects to recess the lighting to prevent glare in the eyes of people entering the hall. The client, however, seemed not to care about such niceties and insisted that the architects do what they had been commissioned to do.

The ethics here involves the question: how do we resolve conflicting values that all have validity and often equal importance? If ethics is to be more than just a pastime of the philosophically inclined, it should give us tools to address conflicts like this and to know what course of action to take. At the core of ethics lies conversation, and typically the best way to resolve conflicts of values entails having as many conversations with people of as many different viewpoints as possible in order not only to understand the full extent of the issues involves, but also to listen for possible solutions in the comments of others.

The architects in this case should use their professional prerogative to talk with their peers about the situation as well as with the original architects of the building. Getting as much background on the project, understanding the reasoning behind the design, and seeking out advice on how to achieve the clients’ goals without diminishing the aesthetic qualities of the space all help in making the right decision. A good general rule to follow, as Aristotle said, involves finding the mean between two extremes. The architects should insist on an alternative energy saving scheme that also preserves the integrity of the award-winning hall. Period.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Insider Information

An architect who worked for a governmental agency that reviewed and approved architectural projects left to become a consultant to clients seeking approvals from the very same agency. While the architect violated no policy or law in using his inside information about the agency on behalf of his clients, some of his former colleagues in government thought that his actions violated the confidentiality of his previous employer.

Professional ethics often revolves around the tension between society’s assumption that professionals will keep the public interest uppermost in mind and clients’ expectation that we will look after their needs first. In many cases, these divided loyalties align and professionals meet the desired outcomes of both their clients and the community. However, when a conflict arises, professionals have to decide where to draw the line and to seek a reasonable resolution.

An example of that occurs in this case, where an architect with inside knowledge of how a public agency works uses that information to benefit clients seeking the agency’s approval. On the positive side, the architect’s knowledge can make the approval process go more smoothly for both sides, making sure that the agency has the information they need in order to make a timely decision, which of course also benefits the client. However, there also exists the possibility that the architect will use that knowledge to help clients push to the limit what the agency will accept and even skirt requirements for which there remains room for interpretation.

The AIA’s code of ethics alludes to this possibility with rules such as: “A Member shall not render professional services if the Member's professional judgment could be affected by responsibilities to another project or person, or by the Member's own interests, unless all those who rely on the Member's judgment consent after full disclosure.” In this case, the architect has fully disclosed his former government employment to clients, who no doubt commissioned him in part because of it. But this situation does raise questions about the architect’s divided loyalties. Does he retain a sense of responsibility to his former employer, which might disadvantage his clients, or feel responsible to his clients and so possibly do a disservice to the public interest that the governmental agency seeks to protect?

A related rule in the AIA Code of Ethics suggests another potential problem with this situation. “Members shall not knowingly disclose information that would adversely affect their client or that they have been asked to maintain in confidence.” Here, the architect has confidential information about how the agency works and makes decisions as well as confidential information about what his clients intend in terms of meeting – or not meeting – the requirements the agency tries to enforce. The non-disclosure rule in the AIA Code of Ethics, however, expects architects to reveal something held in confidence that might be unlawful or a violation of a legislated policy or judicial ruling. Knowing what the law allows or doesn’t allow remains the competitive advantage of this architect, although he treads a fine line between the government seeking to enforce the law and clients who might try to shirk it.

The American Bar Association specifically prohibits attorneys from “represent(ing) a client in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a public officer or employee, unless the appropriate government agency gives its informed consent, confirmed in writing, to the representation.” The architectural profession would do well to institute a similar rule. At stake is the public’s faith in our ability to keep the public interest in mind, without which we cease being a profession.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ethics and Politics

An architect from a wealthy suburb got elected to the state legislature, eventually letting his architectural license lapse as he rose in the ranks of conservative politics. This led some to wonder if architecture has bipartisan appeal or if the issues that seem to matter most to architects invariably lean the profession toward the political left.

The design of buildings, landscapes, and communities remains, fundamentally, an apolitical activity. All people need shelter – places in which to live, work, shop, study, and play – and it should not matter where one stands on a range of other political issues. Seen in that way, architecture represents a technical field, more involved in keeping the rain out than in worrying about which political party reigns.

Still, the design and construction industry involves large investments, both public and private, and it invariably gets entangled in politics. Politicians make decisions that directly affect the amount of construction that occurs, either through appropriations of public money or through monetary and tax policies that influence private investments in buildings. And the industry, like all major sectors of the economy, has lobbyists who try to sway the opinions of politicians, left and right, about issues of concern.

Politics, though, remains as fluid a field as design and in recent decades, the political spectrum has become more like a barbell, with two opposing sides and almost no one in the middle. Many analysts have tried to explain this political polarization, attributing it to everything from radio talk shows and factional media to the growing disparity between a super-rich minority and everyone else. Whatever the cause, however, the implications for architects have become clear.

Architects, as individuals, no doubt have a wide range of political opinions. But architecture, as a discipline, does have commitments to improving the quality of life and enhancing the public realm that, at least in our current climate, seems to place the field, politically, toward one end of the barbell and not the other.

That may say more about the changing nature of politics than it does about architecture. The political left and right used to debate how best to finance public education, public healthcare, public transportation, and the like. However, the debate has become more about whether we should have a public realm at all. The skepticism – and in some quarters, outright hatred – of the government has led some conservatives to call for the drastic shrinkage of the public sector in order to grow private sector jobs.

This, in turn, has led to efforts to “privatize” a lot of what people formerly assumed to be the government’s role, with public funds providing vouchers for people to go to private schools, with public healthcare viewed as a government takeover of the private market, and with public transportation seen as an unnecessary expenditure that benefits only a few.

Architects, of course, work for both public and private clients and so benefit regardless of whether public or private investments dominate. But the discipline’s long tradition of advocacy of the public realm does place the field at odds with political conservative and does suggest that we have a duty, ethically, to oppose extreme efforts to privatize everything we once thought of as public.

Just as doctors advocate for health and lawyers, for justice, architects need to advocate for that which improves people’s lives, their physical surroundings, and the public realm generally. Some, like that architect-turned-legislator, may not agree. But our ethical duty as a discipline trumps our political self-interest as individuals, and for those who don’t see it that way, they can always let their licenses lapse.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Exploiting Student Labor

The new director of an architecture program discovered that some faculty members had used their own residences as the sites for students’ design/build studios. The director said that this practice had to stop because it constituted a conflict of interest, with faculty members using student labor to increase the value of their property, although the professors involved claimed that the use of their own homes enabled their students to make mistakes and to take risks that they could not otherwise do.

A central issue in the ethics of economics involves the proper use of human labor. Adam Smith saw the division of labor as a way of increasing people’s productivity and with it, their wealth. Through this collective activity, Smith believed, the material conditions of everyone would improve. Karl Marx agreed, although he argued that since workers “own” their labor, they should control the process and benefits the most from it. In Marx’s view, capitalists exploited other people’s labor by making them work more than they needed to in order to meet their needs and that of their communities.

Architecture, of course, has long had a division of labor at its core. Architects design a building, engineers size the elements necessary to make it stand and operate, and contractors build from the detailed drawings and specifications. And much of the tension in the construction industry arises from the ethical conflict identified by Smith and Marx. Who should benefit the most from the division of construction-industry labor: the architects and engineers who determine what contractors build without actually doing the work or the contractors whose labor is essential to realizing the building?

A whole system of contracts, codes and regulations has arisen to ensure some degree of fairness in this industry and to prevent the exploitation of people in the process. Contracts ensure that the design team gets paid for their work, codes ensure that the safety of people gets protected, and regulations ensure that, at least in public work, trades get paid the prevailing wage.

Almost none of these protections exist, however, for the design/build projects students engage in during school. In most cases, students work for credit rather than for pay and create structures as part of a class that rarely get inspected by code officials. On top of that, the faculty members involved often end up serving in the role of the client, determining the nature and location of the project and deciding upon the grades that individual students will get as a result of their effort.

While design/build projects can offer invaluable lessons for aspiring architects, such exercises also leave open the possibility of real abuse, as in the case here. However much it may give students greater freedom in what they build and more latitude to make mistakes, using student labor to improve professors’ own property constitutes the very exploitation that Marx cautioned us about. The faculty members involved not only control the application and extent of the students’ labor, but also benefit inordinately from the product of that effort.

The professors’ protests echo those of capitalists in Marx’s era. Smart people can always find reasons, whether economic or educational, to justify unethical behavior. That becomes particularly ironic in institutions of higher education when faculty, who often lean to the left politically, end up engaging in activities that characterize the most repressive, right wing regimes.

The new director has no choice but to demand that the faculty members cease and desist. Should they refuse, the director needs to report them, regardless of the personal consequences. Might, in this case, must make things right.