News Analysis

AIA Ethics Code Now Covers Sustainability in Depth

The AIA Code of Ethics now addresses specific environmental priorities like water, energy, and climate change.

Ignoring sustainability is officially unethical.

That’s according to the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct recently updated by The American Institute of Architects (AIA). New rules in the code require architects to consider environmental impacts, and new standards recommend addressing specific environmental priorities like energy and water conservation. At the same time, AIA updated the code to include new rules on harassment and equity.

Shoulds and shalls

The AIA Code of Ethics is divided into canons, each of which details obligations to a particular entity. New sustainability-related updates fall into two of these sections: Canon II, Obligations to the Public; and Canon VI, Obligations to the Environment.

The code also includes two types of items. Rules use the word “shall” and are “mandatory and enforceable,” according to the AIA website, while standards use the word “should” and “are aspirational and define the tenets of ethical behavior for AIA members.” Violating the rules is a serious professional breach and can mean loss of AIA membership.

There are two new rules relating to sustainability. They require architects to inform clients about potential environmental impacts and to consider with clients the environmental effects of design decisions. 

AIA president Carl Elefante, FAIA, was a driving force behind the changes. “Architects have an opportunity to be visionaries and motivators for designing a sustainable built environment that will in turn make the world a better place,” he said in an email statement to BuildingGreen. “As a profession, we can’t wait. We need to act now. The latest additions to AIA’s Code of Ethics are an important step toward inspiring those changes.”

Behind the scenes

“There was debate involved,” said Michael Davis, FAIA, a member of the steering committee that pushed to have the changes adopted. The steering committee was formed during the 2017 Summit of AIA New England’s Committee on the Environment. (Disclosure: BuildingGreen president Nadav Malin, Hon. AIA, was also a member of the steering committee.)

Although the National Ethics Council, which approved the changes, was in favor of fleshing out how the code addressed sustainability, the details were hard to settle. After receiving an initial, extensive request from the steering committee, the council came back with just 17 words it would agree to change, according to Megan Nedzinski, AIA, chair of the steering committee. “We were really motivated by that letter and circled back with them, saying we’d like to arrange a call,” she recalled. It became clear that “our goals were very much aligned” and that the council’s concerns “were really around enforcement,” she said. After months of back-and-forth, the two groups reached consensus on the now-updated wording.

Avoiding the word “sustainability”

Davis described the prior version of Canon VI, Obligations to the Environment, as “woefully inadequate” and said the steering committee “basically rewrote it with language that we thought was more objective and more measurable.” The committee tried to avoid the word “sustainability” altogether because it was too general, instead focusing on particulars like energy, water, ecosystem health, and climate change. “The Ethics Council took it very seriously,” he said. “They convened a task force and worked long and hard. … They didn’t want to put rules in place that couldn’t be enforced.”

The amendments show a new level of commitment to sustainability on the part of AIA, according to Davis. “The Institute has really stepped its game up around sustainability,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with where we’re going.”

The changes “represent the values of our profession as the effects of climate change continue to increase,” affirmed Elefante. “At a time when the world is feeling the damaging effects of excessive carbon in our atmosphere, AIA will continue to advocate for policies that protect the environment by encouraging the design, renovation, conservation, and construction of high-performing buildings.”

A number of new rules and standards addressing harassment and equity were added at the same time. These require architects to avoid harassment and discrimination, violations of others’ rights, and fraud. They also require AIA members to “treat their associates and employees with mutual respect and provide an equitable working environment.”

For more information:

The American Institute of Architects

Published September 24, 2018

Melton, P. (2018, September 24). AIA Ethics Code Now Covers Sustainability in Depth. Retrieved from

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July 10, 2019 - 2:51 pm

Nicely done, AIA!

With AIA, ASHRAE, UCS, USGBC and so many other organizations rallying for the planet and the people on it, and so many states and municipalities doing the same, hopefully our Federal government will get back into the act, too. 

The requirements for architects to inform clients about the environmental effects of design decisions are certainly needed, but what about informing them of the impacts on their bottom line relative to  decisions that use less energy? These would include not only architectural decisions about building envelope, siting, daylighting, to name only a few, but also involve the MEP engineers and others relative to their decisions that conserve energy or even provide energy back to the grid… Not to mention help make people feel better where they work and live so they can be healthier, happier and more productive - in so many ways.

Even if an owner or developer doesn’t believe in climate change or sustainability, how might they feel about profit - or health and prosperity? ASHRAE has recently formed a committee, of which I am a member, to develop a new chapter in their 2021 Handbook of Fundamentals entitled Climate Change. This committee includes many experts on climate from engineering design teams as well as from the government and other agencies. It will be a chapter to make people think about their design decisions - and help them to make better decisions.