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Doing the right thing

Jane Duncan

Ethics are at the heart of the Institute’s latest work

Famous US investor Warren Buffet once suggested: ‘If your business decisions and motives were published on the front page of a (broadsheet) newspaper and you still felt comfortable, then do it.’

During our recent discussions on the development of a new strategy for the RIBA, many of you have highlighted the importance of prioritising strong ethical standards.

Ethical behaviour in our profession can be measured by the degree of trustworthiness and integrity with which practices and individuals conduct their business, and make and stick to their decisions. But as our profession changes and becomes increasingly international, so must our approach to developing and reinforcing professional ethics.

Architecture has a direct impact on societies and economies; it shapes and influences the world we live in. For this reason, as architects we have a duty to uphold the highest standards wherever we practice.

Architects face various ethical dilemmas – from which clients to work for and which projects to bid for, to how much to charge and who to consult or what priority to give to minimising the impact of climate change.

What happens when an architect finds out about conduct in tendering that falls short of being unlawful, but can still be regarded as unconscionable – is there an ethical duty to speak out?

In the best procured projects, enlightened clients understand that skills and long term quality should trump base capital cost in delivering the greatest good.

Unfortunately, the suicidal bids that were being made during the recession, encouraged by lowest cost procurement processes, were perhaps too often excused by practices. Similarly, tendering is a process that may be susceptible to unlawful abuse by reputational concerns, workload promises and even financial bribery. What happens when an architect finds out about conduct in tendering that falls short of being unlawful, but can still be regarded as unconscionable – is there an ethical duty to speak out? Should ethical conduct in architecture be better defined and regulated? Should architecture have a strict code of ethics? Does architecture have a primary goal (as clear as medicine’s aim to preserve life) that could inform such a code, or should members of the profession be allowed to choose by themselves what they believe to be moral?

Peter Oborn, RIBA vice president international, and a brilliant team at the Institute deserve our support for their work to create an appropriate and ethical context for practice at home and abroad. The International Task Group proposed the role that the Institute will play in responding to the built environment needs of communities facing human rights violations, civil conflict and/or natural disasters, and a new International Ethics Standard will be ready in early 2016.

I am delighted that the RIBA has signed up to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and committed to support and promote its principles on human rights, labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption with a six point action plan. The RIBA and its members already work within robust standards and codes that promote many of the UN Global Compact’s principles, but we will now be able to provide even greater support for our members in responding to ethical and moral issues. I will also be considering what advice we need from ethics experts outside our profession and I and the RIBA will continue to support the view in Paul Morrell’s Edge Commission report that all the professional institutes should join forces on a code of ethical conduct.

Whatever spin you choose to put on it, there is never a right way to do the wrong thing. I’m so proud of our work and the role that we play in society and I want everyone to value it as we do. Embracing, using and sharing our ethical business values will benefit us as architects, our clients and wider society.

Award for international excellence

Along with our established Regional and National Awards and the Stirling Prize, this year we will launch the inaugural RIBA International Prize and RIBA Awards for International Excellence. These will be open to any architect who has designed a building outside the UK. Only RIBA members and international fellows will be able to enter a building in the UK.

If you have a project that demonstrates design excellence, is fit for purpose and sustainable visit to enter.