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How to spot an ethical dilemma – and what to do about it

Alasdair Ben Dixon

The climate emergency, Grenfell and the exposure of workplace abuses have all led to architects’ behaviours coming under scrutiny. When do you call things out and how can you go about resolving situations? asks the co-author of a new RIBA guide to ethical practice

Architects’ roles can be seen as a series of duties, some like duties to community can be discharged through projects such as the RIBA Stirling Prize winning Hastings Pier, designed by dRMM. Others are harder to grapple with.
Architects’ roles can be seen as a series of duties, some like duties to community can be discharged through projects such as the RIBA Stirling Prize winning Hastings Pier, designed by dRMM. Others are harder to grapple with. Credit: Alasdair Ben Dixon

Seismic shifts in the awareness of our sector’s environmental impacts, social impacts and often problematic workplaces mean that ethical considerations are being repeatedly raised across the built environment sector. The last time behaviours and codes were this heavily scrutinised was in the early 1970s as the profession became aware of the impending ecological crisis. ‘Long life, loose fit, low energy’ was the mantra, and could have altered our perilous path had it been more eagerly embraced.

Today the environmental challenge persists, albeit more clearly understood as a climate and biodiversity emergency. The Black Lives Matter movement, the Grenfell Tower disaster and the exposure of workplace abuses have justifiably led to outrage in the public sphere.

‘Since architecture is about making environments for people, with people, it will always have an ethical dimension,’ writes Flora Samuel in her book Why Architects Matter.

While none of these issues are exclusively architectural, each of them intersects with the work we do and should necessarily lead to changes in how we do that work, our built output, the competencies we develop the cultures we nurture within our workplaces. As practitioners of the most public art the issues with which society is concerned are entangled in our day-to-day work.

It would be, at best, egotistical to suggest that architects can singlehandedly tackle these issues. However, trying to deny that they are connected or to minimise our agency is short-sighted and defeatist. Our fellow professionals are taking on these challenges and looking to us as collaborators. We should be ready to work with them towards a better future and advocate collectively for the change needed to get there. 

In recent years ethical issues have emerged from workplaces coping with Covid-19 and the upset in routine working practices across the world. Removing the physical closeness between employees and their employers gave some the opportunity to flourish, finding more effective ways to focus, and cutting commuting times. But it also left many disadvantaged, with new forms of surveillance emerging, and some being asked to continue working despite being on government furlough schemes.

As workplaces have settled into new hybrid routines, different issues have come to the fore, in part thanks to newly formed communities and pressure groups, such as Future Architects Front, Architects Climate Action Network and Sound Advice, which reached new audiences during the pandemic and have the confidence to publicly whistle-blow on issues facing their own members or the wider profession. 

What is an ethical dilemma and how can I spot it?

While ethical practice will always be subjective, there are certain issues that preoccupy us in this moment. Having discussed ethical practice in lecture halls, practices, and online, these are some of the most common dilemmas:

  • What is the most appropriate architectural response to a climate emergency?
  • Should we work on a project for a repressive regime?
  • How do you acknowledge the work of architects accused of workplace abuses?
  • Whose conception of beauty should we subscribe to?
  • How do we go beyond representation and create truly inclusive workplaces?
  • Is unpaid work ever justifiable?

These examples each deserve an article of their own but for now they help outline the six duties that chartered architects hold: to the wider world, to society, to our clients, to the profession, to those in our workplaces, and to ourselves. These duties form the basis of the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct and create a framework for considering ethics.

It’s important to clarify that ethics and morals are not the same. An individual’s morals will be shaped by their experiences, upbringing, religious or nonreligious beliefs and peer group. Those are an individual’s preferences and may well not align with the ethical codes they’re bound by.

Ethics are the rules that groups set for normalising behaviour, from businesses to religions to governments. They are concerned with how others are treated, from co-workers to clients to the environment. While often based on moral principles, these rules don’t have to be morally pleasing, and in some cases won’t be. In business, those with the most robust ethical compliance tend to be those working in the least ethical sectors.

As Jeremy Till explores in his 2013 book Architecture Depends, following the codes of conduct and meeting clients’ interest can remain unethical. ‘The problem,’ he writes, ‘lies in the assertion that the codes provide “ethical guidance”; they do not, often quite the opposite … Serving the client through fulfilling the code of conduct is not only likely to be incommensurable with the wishes and needs of future users, but may actually work against them. It may in fact be unethical on my terms.’

So while codes may be seen as broadly advancing the cause of ethical practice, they remain controversial and it shouldn’t be assumed that by following the codes you’ll be seen as ethical in the eyes of others.

At times an ethical dilemma will be easy to recognise. The request might sound villainous and be easy to question – someone may say ‘No one will ever know’, or justify an action with ‘oh it’s just part of the culture here’. They may exclaim ‘well it’s not against the law’ when perhaps it should be. These might seem too obvious to mention but it’s these normalised behaviours and offhand comments that allow unethical cultures to thrive.  

Other ethical issues can be more difficult to spot, only revealed when you sense that your morals are in conflict with the ethics of your work. Perhaps what you are being asked to do just doesn’t sit right with you. Or a situation may have escalated over many years. Maybe the project you’re working on, or the practice you’re working for, may have revealed itself to be more problematic than you first anticipated. Situations can be arguably legal and generally accepted practice but still raise alarm bells morally. 

Pyramid of ethical decision making.
Pyramid of ethical decision making. Credit: Alasdair Ben Dixon & Carys Rowlands

Having established that you’re facing an ethical dilemma, how do you go about resolving it?

  • Reflect on the situation and make a mental note of the issues at play.
  • Determine the facts without making assumptions or interpretations.
  • Consider your company's values and your own values to identify what is causing the discomfort.
  • Understand your positionality. How much agency do you have and how might inherent bias be affecting your view?
  • Doing no harm is of course the ideal but often we must recognise that we are in the business of minimising harms and to do that requires balancing various issues.
  • Check your professional code to see if the situation you’re facing is covered.
  • Once you’ve been through those steps, if the dilemma is still unresolved, proceed with care and disclose discreetly, seeking advice from colleagues or managers.
  • If they support your concerns, take further action. Say something, either to a team member, a client, a regulator or an institution.
  • Reflect again. Once the issue is behind you, consider whether your action had an impact. Has the situation been resolved? Are others still affected?
  • Consider what systems or training you could you put in place to prevent others from having the same issue in future.

The key message here is that we won’t solve problems by staying quiet. Advocacy is an important part of our role, and reservations you have are shaped by your experiences and training, which as an architect is longer than most and worth acting upon.

This might eventually mean walking away from difficult situations – and that’s OK. We can often feel compromised or unable to effect change but without raising the issue things are unlikely to change. Beyond that, if advocacy isn’t working and you don’t see an improvement in conditions or progress then perhaps you’ve reached your red line. It may be a client you won’t work with, a typology you can’t support, or a product you no longer wish to specify.

Over the course of your career, these moments of opposition will help you identify your core values and provide perspective, helping you develop an approach that will evolve over time.    

The RIBA has recently restated its ethical principles, which are worth your attention too as discussions of accountability and codes are set to continue. 

Alasdair Ben Dixon is co-founder of Collective Works

RIBA Ethical Practice Guide, by Carys Rowlands and Alasdair Ben Dixon, is published by RIBA Publishing, 2023


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