The Last Word - A Matter of Ethics 
AIArchitect / January 1996

     A young architect with real design creativity joins an architecture firm. While employed there, she designs a number of projects, but, not having strong project management talents, she hands each project off to another architect, who produces the construction documents. Yet another staff member produces a colored rendering of each design. And when the building is completed, the firm hires a professional photographer to shoot the buildings for their promotional materials.
     Some years later, the young architect leaves the firm to become a partner with another firm.  She requests copies of her work from her former firm, including her preliminary sketches, the working drawings, and the renderings.  She also approaches the photographer to get duplicates, because he has the negatives and the copyright on all the photos.
Now the questions begin.  Does our young architect have the right to copies of the documents (assuming she is willing to pay the reproduction costs)?  What rights does her former firm have in protecting its property – they paid her an equitable salary and, in fact, gave her bonuses each year for her work.  Don’t they have the right to protect what they have paid good money for?  On the other hand, doesn’t our young architect have the right of access to her work?  And how much of the documentation is really “her work”?

Ethical obligations
    These are not questions of basic right and wrong, which are addressed by the AIA Code of Ethics and therefore easily resolved and rarely disputed.  They are questions of right versus right, and they are the type of issue that often becomes the purview of the Institute’s National Ethics Council.  In the case of our example above, it is right that the firm retain control over property they have paid for, just as it is right that the employee have copies of her work and the ability to market her services.
     Our code of ethics is organized into five canons:

General obligations
Obligations to the public
Obligations to the client
Obligations to the profession
Obligations to colleagues

     The general obligations and those to the public have been addressed very directly by the AIA Board through the governance policies.  Obligations to our clients, the professions, and colleagues are covered in the code of ethics.  They address the basic questions of right and wrong mentioned earlier – questions of competence, candor, truthfulness, honesty, fairness, dignity, or integrity.  There’s not much to argue about there.
     What is open to debate is a matter of weight.  Should violations of fairness, for instance, carry the same weight and require the same attention of the Ethics Council as violations of life safety?  Shouldn’t we reestablish and prioritize the core values of the Institute and the profession before we consider disciplining members for their infractions?

Keep the code; streamline the process
To address these questions, the Ethics Council (with the endorsement of the board) currently is engaged in a yearlong examination of our code of ethics and the policies and procedures connected to it.  A number of recommendations for administrative and procedural improvements already have been adopted and referred to staff for implementation.  Current discussions involve as assessment of core values and a prioritization of the code of ethics to focus on those values.  

The work of the Ethics Council is vital to the Institute and the profession.