Op-Ed

What I Learned on the Way to Enhancing AIA’s Code of Ethics

Getting stronger sustainability language into the code wasn’t easy, but only because AIA takes these things seriously.

September 24, 2018

Nadav Malin

Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen President.

Photo: BuildingGreen, Inc.
David Pill, AIA, had an inspiration as we were planning the third annual AIA New England Committee on the Environment (COTE) Summit, which took place in Burlington, Vermont, in June 2017. He had recently noticed that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a Code of Ethics and was aghast at how little was being expected of AIA members, ethically speaking, in terms of sustainability.

Sustainability is an ethical obligation

The Code of Ethics is divided into six canons. Each canon lists a member’s ethical obligations to a different third party: Canon I is General Obligations, Canon II Obligations to the Public, Canon III Obligations to the Client, and so on. The code did have a Canon VI, introduced in 2007, called “Obligations to the Environment” with three very general statements about how AIA members should be environmentally responsible and should advocate for sustainable practices.

Notably, Canon VI was the only canon that had only “standards” and no “rules.” That’s significant because standards are purely advisory, while rules are enforceable. Violations of the rules are grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including expulsion from the Institute.

At David’s urging, and with the support of AIA Vermont Chair Megan Nedzinski, AIA, I organized and facilitated a working session on the Code of Ethics at the COTE Summit. Through some animated discussions and team editing, we came up with proposed changes to the code, including both standards and rules about sustainability for four out of the six canons. In our view, sustainability is part of a member’s ethical obligation not only to the environment but also to the public and to the client.

An uphill battle

Other than facilitating that workshop, my most important contribution to this effort was getting Mike Davis, FAIA, involved. Mike is president of Bergmeyer in Boston, and the most effective person I know at working with AIA’s bureaucracy and politics. We also had some wind in our sails thanks to an endorsement from the 2018 president of AIA, Carl Elefante, FAIA, who has made sustainability a primary goal of his tenure.

Carl had warned us, however, that getting new rules into the code wouldn’t be easy. The rules that had already made it into the code were generally the outcome of legal action, or at least the threat of it. And previous efforts at AIA to mandate sustainability had not gone well; AIA has previously required that every member earn continuing education units that specifically address sustainable design, but later rescinded that requirement when it failed to gain traction with membership. So we proceeded with some skepticism about how our proposed changes would be received.

Following the COTE Summit, we refined our proposed changes, and Mike began shepherding them through AIA’s process. With guidance from Carl and AIA senior staff, Mike brought the changes to the National Ethics Council. The council formed a working group, studied our changes, and eventually came back with a very watered-down version that they offered to recommend to the board.

Bring it to the people for a vote?

It’s worth noting that we weren’t the only group eyeing changes to AIA’s Code of Ethics around this time. The #MeToo movement was in full force, and a parallel initiative was demanding stronger language regarding workplace harassment and social diversity. So the Ethics Council was getting demands from multiple directions.

After getting their disappointing response, we considered trying to bypass the council and the AIA Board of Directors by bringing a motion about the Code of Ethics directly to the national AIA Convention for a vote from the floor. Time was tight for that maneuver, however, and we chose to work within the assigned channels instead.

Over the course of a few phone calls and drafts, we eventually came up with language that both we, as representatives of AIA New England COTE, and the Ethics Council found acceptable. The AIA Board adopted that wording as part of a broader revision to the Code of Ethics.

A leader among professional associations

The standards and rules that are now in the code aren’t nearly as strong as we had originally hoped, but I’ve come to appreciate how meaningful they are nevertheless. What I heard from members of the National Ethics Council was that they take their enforcement obligations seriously.

While we were proposing rules we wanted all AIA members to follow, they were thinking about things like: “How would a violation get reported?” and “Was the language specific enough that they could actually enforce it?” Those questions gave me a new respect for the power of the code—at least within the organization—and helped me appreciate the importance of what we were doing. I don’t believe that there is any other mainstream professional organization that mandates an engagement with sustainability for all its members; AIA is actually leading on this one.

One regret

My one regret about this process was that I’m afraid we missed an opportunity to engage with AIA members more broadly. We could have used this campaign to raise awareness of sustainable design, and of the Code of Ethics itself. Many AIA members are only vaguely aware of their ethical obligations as members; if they don’t even know about them, our changes don’t amount to much.

We chose instead to work through internal AIA channels, which turned out to be a good way to achieve our specific goal of revising the code. The more meaningful work of getting the entire profession to advocate for and practice sustainable design remains before us.

P.S.: In addition to those mentioned in this narrative, kudos to Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, of Thornton Tomasetti; Andrea Love, AIA, of Payette; and Angela Brooks, FAIA, National AIA COTE Chair, for helping see this effort through.

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