Newsletter Article / The Ethics of Project Delivery 
August 1998

The last time you worked on an existing structure may well be the most recent time you broke the law!  Whether for historic preservation or a simple addition, when we work on existing buildings we frequently use whatever existing drawings are available.  The drawings may be provided by the owner who tells us they are paid for and his property or they may even be documents on file with the local building department.  If the drawings are on file with the building department, they are public property, right?  Wrong.  All documents produced by architects are copyrighted material and require that any subsequent user get clearance from the original architect before using those drawings as a basis for new work.

“But we do this all the time!”  True.  It is a standard of practice which most of us would consider ethical.  And until recently, it was.  The recent, major overhaul of the AIA’s Code of Ethics was approved at last year’s national convention.  Part of those revisions included deleting the portion of the code relative to the use of copyrighted materials.  You can see the problem.  The common practice of using existing drawings is illegal which, of course, is covered by another part of the Code.  And there were other changes affecting how we practice.

A seminar on ethics was held in July by the Dallas/Ft. Worth Chapter of the AIA.  This three-hour meeting explored three separate scenarios; ethical dilemmas which, too often, confront architects.  The Manitoba Association of Architects in Winnipeg held a similar program this past November.  Attended by about 130 architects, the Winnipeg conference was a daylong investigation into specific ethical issues, ethics in professional practice and, specifically, the AIA’s Code of Ethics.  AIA Arizona and Houston AIA are currently planning similar meetings.

Why this sudden interest in ethics?  There are a number of reasons.  First, times are good.  A good economy allows us to stand back and look at how we practice and how we relate to our clients and our fellow architects.  And for the first time, our Code addresses how we are to relate to the environment, an issue, until recently, beyond the scope of any code of ethics.

A second and more troubling reason for an interest in ethics is a more widespread concern about our ethical and moral state.  In March, Time magazine reported a current survey that declared that the main problem facing this country was a "lack of morals and values".  This problem rated above crime, drugs and the federal deficit as the issue of biggest concern to most Americans.  The increasing concern about ethics may have more to do with who we are as individuals than who we are as professionals.

At the recent symposia in New York, Robert Geddes, FAIA, organizer of the event noted that it was unfortunate architects spend so little time discussing the "structure, logic, language and meaning of ethics in architecture" and that, generally, "We lack an ethical discourse".  But, as you can see, that is beginning to change.

Phillip H. Gerou, FAIA
National Ethics Council