Sunday, March 27, 2011

Humanitarian Design

A recent architecture-school graduate, who has done a lot of humanitarian-related design during and after school, thought that he needed a real job. And yet almost all of the jobs available to someone with his education were with architectural firms that depend on commissions from the top 5% of the U.S. population, who now control 63.5% of the wealth in the country and whose widespread resistance to social programs prompted the very humanitarian work he had done. What should he do?

The United States has rarely had such economic inequality as it has now, making it the most unequal country among the developed nations and even among many much-less wealthy developing nations. With that rising inequality has a come a widening political polarization in the U.S., with about half the country believing that the wealthy need to pay more taxes in order to support much-needed social programs and the other half, only a minority of whom are actually wealthy, seeing this as theft of their hard-earned money. The polarization has little logic behind it. Some of the strongest advocates for greater equality are themselves wealthy and beneficiaries of the inequality, while many of the loudest opponents to higher taxes come from the ranks of those who would benefit from the social programs they despise.

Architects have become caught in this political endgame. Because of the costliness of buildings, architects have long depended upon commissions from wealthy individuals and organizations as well as from governments and non-profit entities. And yet most architects enter the profession in hopes of improving the quality of life not just of their clients, but also of the myriad people who inhabit or experience their buildings. The political polarization in the country has placed those two realities at odds. Architects’ dependence upon the wealthy for work often means that they must work for those who actively oppose the government’s efforts to improve the quality of life of all of its citizens.

That conflict has become particularly troublesome to young people who, unfettered by the ethical compromises of their elders, see only unappealing options, as in the case of this architectural graduate. He can either act on his ideals and live a life as impoverished as those he seeks to help or make a larger wage and set aside his principles to work for clients who have benefited from the inequality that has contributed to the very problems he wants to address. Some architectural firms, of course, work primarily for governments or non-profits or work in areas like affordable housing and elderly housing, and so he has alternatives to firms that cater mainly to the wealthy. But what about his aspiration to make humanitarian work his career: how might he find a way to support himself doing the work that not only he wants to do, but that millions – and globally, billions – of people need him to do?

Ethics can help when we face situations like this by redefining the terms of what we consider to be a good life. Most ethical traditions recognize that wealth takes many forms and that the personal satisfaction and social recognition that comes with dedicating ourselves to a cause we believe in can more than compensate for the meager monetary returns and material rewards that may result. The architect graduate here, in other words, might be best served by continuing to do the humanitarian work he has done, accepting the lifestyle that comes with it, and counting himself fortunate to be among the relatively few people who allow themselves the freedom to do what they love to do.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


An architect serving on a state board that selects firms for public projects has an architect-spouse whose office can benefit from the board’s decisions. While the architect on the board excuses herself from board deliberations whenever her husband’s firm competes for state work, some architects think that her knowledge of the board and her collegiality with board members gives her husband’s firm an unfair advantage. Is her recusal on specific projects enough or does her very presence on the board represent a conflict of interest?

Recusal or the disqualification of oneself in the face of a possible conflict of interest typically applies to judicial proceedings, in which judges abstain from cases if they cannot render a fair hearing for any reason. Judicial statues outline the types of situations in which recusal should occur: if judges have a personal prejudice against parties in a case, if they have personal knowledge about disputed facts in a case, if they have already rendered an opinion about a case, or if they or their immediate family will gain financially from a case. Ensuring the ability of a judge to make an impartial decision remains common to them all.

That becomes more difficult when a decision involves a group of people, as in the case here, where one person on a board has an on-going conflict of interest related to her husband’s firm competing for work. Her acknowledging the conflict and recusing herself when her husband’s firm interviews for projects help to minimize the possibility that the board’s decisions might unduly favor that firm. But is that enough? Does her very presence on the board and her knowledge of board discussions give her husband’s office an unfair advantage?

Recusal depends on the virtue of the people involved. The ability of this architect to make a prudent decision on a case-by-case basis, weighing the possible unfairness or injustice that can arise from her position on that board, lies at the heart of this case. If she can temper her desire to see her husband’s firm succeed and not try to influence other board members even when she recuses herself, then a situation like this can work. The problem with focusing only the virtue of the person involved, however, is that others may not believe her or may not agree that she has been prudent or fair enough.

The appearance of conflict of interest matters as much as the actual fact in such situations. With a person in a public position of power such as this, the appearance of favoritism can tarnish every opinion of the group, despite her recusal when her husband’s firm interviews. However much other board members bend over backward to ensure that no undue influence has affected their decisions, the public may not believe them, and that, in the end, is all that counts.

Because of that, either the architect in this case needs to step down from the board or her husband’s firm needs to agree not to pursue state work while she sits on the board. While the others in his firm may not like that prohibition, it seems only fair that it remain an option. It also may be the wisest course for the firm, since the appearance of a conflict of interest may so influence the board that its members may hesitate awarding that firm a state project for quite  awhile. Better to end a conflict of interest than to end up in a futile - and financially draining - effort to overcome it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Professional Turf

The architecture profession has opposed the licensure of interior designers in most states, believing that the granting of licenses to interior designers is unnecessary and anti-competitive. Many in the interior design community have argued, instead, that architects’ opposition amounts to little more than turf protection, combined with a degree of condescension and gender bias on the part of a predominantly male profession toward a predominantly female one. Which side is right?

Architects and interior designers both determine the location of walls, and while that activity unites these two fields, it has also become a metaphor for what divides these two professions in their battle over licensure. Because it remains difficult to sort out the differences between what architects and interior designers do in terms of the design and detailing of building interiors, architects have claimed that any effort to define that difference – to build a clear separation between their respective responsibilities - becomes impossible. Further, architects have argued that since they already have legal responsibility for the entire building, inside and out, licensing interior designers becomes unnecessary and redundant.

Walls look different, though, depending upon which side you are on. What may look, to architects, like an attack on the wall around their profession often looks, to interior designers, like an effort to keep them out and to monopolize an area of activity over which architects have never had complete control. Electrical, mechanical, and structural engineers, for example, often work extensively on the inside of buildings and architects have not questioned the legitimacy of engineers’ licenses. Why then do architects question the expertise of interior designers whose knowledge of furniture, fixtures, and finishes often extends far beyond that of most architects?

This dispute has become more heated as the global economy has increased competition between the two fields. As design services have become readily available from almost anywhere around the world, the urge to protect one’s turf becomes ever stronger as free-trade fervor seeks to override all such protections. This has led, in the case of interior design licensure, to the decidedly odd situation of libertarian groups opposed to professional licensure altogether joining licensed architects trying to prevent their interiors colleagues from becoming so. How long will it take before these same libertarian groups to turn on architects? As Aesop famously said, “we often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.”

While politics has dominated the battle over interior design licensure, ethics may offer more help in sorting out which of the antagonists in this situation have right on their side. Duty ethics has certainly played a major role in this dispute. Both architects and interior designers claim to have the best interests of the public in mind and we have no reason to doubt their well-intentioned desire to do what they believe to be right. However, duty ethics hasn’t helped us resolve this conflict, since both groups have pointed to their duty to protect public health, safety, and welfare as the reason why they have taken opposite positions.

Utilitarian ethics may provide more useful path forward. When we look at this situation in terms of what would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, it becomes hard to support either side, for internecine war between two professions does a lot of damage to the reputation of both and very little to help anyone else. If anything, the growing belief that the greatest good comes from a much more integrated form of practice, in which architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors work more closely together, makes this dispute over licensure seem like a battle left over from the last century. A more creative solution, and one that would allow both sides to transcend this self-defeating fight, might involve the licensing of the integrated teams that will increasingly create our built environment. We can become so intent on protecting our turf that we don’t notice that the ground has shifted and that the turf we have so long protected may no longer matter. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Organizational ethics

A national organization had reserved a hotel’s conference facilities in Arizona prior to the passing of legislation in that state targeting undocumented people of color. One member of its board objected to the organization going ahead with the conference in Arizona, despite the financial penalty it would have to pay for canceling the reservation, but a majority of the board voted to proceed with their meeting plans. What should those opposed this decision do?

Professional organizations have ethical responsibilities like individuals. We expect organizations to be honest in their dealings, prudent in their decision, and fair in their treatment of others. We also want the leaders of organizations to carry out their roles dutifully and to assess the consequences of decisions with the greatest good in mind. Organizations get held to the same ethical standards as people because such entities remain nothing but collections of individuals. What we expect of one member of a group, we should expect of all.

That, however, discounts the effect that interpersonal dynamics can have on the individuals in a group. As we saw with the often-ordinary German citizens engaging in heinous behavior under the Nazi regime during World War II, actions that many would likely have found objectionable prior to the war began to seem normal and socially acceptable in the perverse psychology practiced by the Nazi’s. The ethics of the group, in this case, veered far from what most people would consider ethical. While most Nazis carried out their duties faithfully, their actions toward the Jews and other minority groups represented an almost complete lack of virtue – dishonest, imprudent, intemperate, and unfair – and an almost complete blindness to the dire and ultimately self-destructive consequences of such behavior.

The Nazi example can make all other ethical dilemmas pale by comparison, bit it does highlight an important aspect of organizational ethics. How should an individual member of a group respond to actions taken by the whole that the person finds ethically objectionable? Does a member of a group have a duty to accept the will of the majority or does that person have a stronger duty to follow his or her own conscience and to refuse to follow objectionable actions by others?

It depends. In a democracy, citizens not only have the right to vote for those who we want to represent us, but also the responsibility to obey the law, even when we disagree with it. We saw that in Arizona when, in response to that state’s enacting of a law that allows police to target immigrants, people protested for a while, but the real action will come in the next election when those same opponents have a chance to elect new representatives willing to change the law.

That same duty, though, does not apply to those in other states or nations. They did not elect the leadership in Arizona who passed this legislation and so non-residents who object to the Arizona law have a right and, ethically, an obligation to put conscience before convenience and to refuse to participate. The extent to which a person takes that refusal remains up to them. In this case, one member of the board decided to resign rather than continue to take part in the organization, while others decided to remain involved in the group, but to skip the Arizona meeting.

Some might argue that refusing to take part in an organization or to go to a meeting does little to change things, but that depends upon what we mean by change. Groups may not care about isolated protests and individual acts of conscience not sizable enough to disrupt the whole, but the individuals taking these actions do care and that is all that matters ethically. The most powerful force on earth remains our refusal to go along with something that we see as wrong. No amount of social pressure or physical coercion can match the power of a committed will.