Modern Ethics: An interview with the BSA Ethics Committee
We recently sat down with the BSA Ethics Committee to discuss their thoughts on the role of ethics in the profession today.
While they would want us to note that they’re not lawyers and can’t answer legal questions, over the course of our conversation, they revealed a distinct point of view based on their understanding of the AIA Code of Ethics and combined decades of experience in the professional sphere.
(The Ethics Committee is working with the BSA to create a platform for posing regular ethical questions that professionals can ask themselves and discuss within their communities. For updates, follow the BSA on social media and check back on architects.org.)
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your work, and how you got involved with the Ethics Committee?
Calvin Boyd Assoc. AIA: I currently work at Payette. I’ve been working for about a year and a half after grad school. I have a Master’s in architecture, and a BSc in architecture. I’ve sort of been in the profession, or adjacent to it, since I was 18—for ten years. I’ve always tried to be involved in the greater profession. My grad school thesis was related [to ethics] as well. It was a memorial to victims of police brutality. So I’ve always been interested in tying architecture and design to justice, and issues of ethics.
Todd Pollock AIA, Chair: I have 20 years of experience—I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from Calvin. A former colleague of mine nominated me for this position. I’m actually out of working for firms. I worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for two years, and now I work for SmartLabs. I’ve transitioned more to the owners’ side, but I still keep involved with the BSA any way I can.
Ashley Rao AIA: I’m a senior associate at Leers Weinzapfel. I came to architecture via history, and literature as well. One thing that had really interested me about the work the ethics committee does is the idea that there really is an ethical set of guidelines, and how we need to frame our work not just in terms of client relationships and drafting all the details, but really thinking about impact.
There had been a number of people from LW who had been in this committee before, and they always spoke highly about the committee’s work and what they learned through seeing which questions came up. That was what sparked my interest.
What are some of the ethical questions that drive your work? How do you think through these questions?
Boyd: The world is changing very quickly. It’s our goal to make sure that the code of ethics, or at least the way that designers and architects are interpreting it, is changing and evolving as well.
Rao: So much of our work [as architects] is team-based. How do you ensure that credit is given where credit is due, whether that’s recognition or financial compensation? We’ve called that “the ethics of teamwork.”
Boyd: Adjacent to that, there’s the standard of care—issues around how much work a sole practitioner or firm might have at one time, and how much time can be dedicated to each project. We’ve talked about climate change, and how when you’re building new buildings you’re spending carbon—so what are we as a profession spending carbon on? Are we building hospitals, or prisons? In this new world we’re stepping into, how are we spending the resources that we have?
What do you think architects should do when they run into an ethical question over the course of their work?
Rao: I think people have questions they don’t necessarily realize are ethical questions. That’s part of the challenge.
Pollock: People are doing things that are against the code of ethics and don’t even realize it. That’s why a part of our platform is to get people to read it, to understand it, because for example, people will take pictures from their previous employer and put it up on their website as a sole practitioner, saying “This is my work.” Again, there’s the ethics of teamwork. How much do you have to have worked on a project for you to be able to claim ownership over it?
Boyd: There certainly are cases where people know the code of ethics inside and out, just to break it, but I feel like 99 percent of people just don’t realize.
Rao: For example, E.S. 6.2: "Members should optimize water
conservation in each project to
reduce water use and protect
water supply, water quality, and
watershed resources.” For sure, that’s something we probably all kind of do. But did you realize that it's one of our ethical obligations? There’s an information gap here.
Rao: I think it’s meant to serve as common ground. In order to be an active citizen, you have to agree to and engage with the terms of your citizenship, and this feels like the basis for that. This idea that we’ve all agreed to these things and need to think about how we’re in a profession that holds these as true and important—that’s where I really see the value.
Pollock: I’ve always thought of the AIA as progressing and holding things to a higher standard. The AIA is meant to be lobbying and pushing ideas forward so that we don’t just continue to do things as we’ve always done them.
Rao: I think where ethics comes in is for things that are not necessarily cut-and-dry or right and wrong, but are an opportunity for improvement and engagement, and possibly disagreement, too.
Boyd: I don’t see our role as a punitive one. Our position is not to punish, more to remind people that they are a part of an active community with a certain set of guidelines, and we’ve all agreed to act and lift each other up in a certain way. As someone new to the community, I’m hoping that the issues that come up spark productive conversations for learning and justice.
Boyd: I have a question to add on to that. We have obligations to our clients, but we also have obligations to everyone else in the profession, and others. So, Ashley and Todd, you deal with clients more directly. Sometimes you have to rank those obligations, I assume, or decide which one is more important in the moment. How do you do that?
Pollock: It all depends on making a reasonable effort. If you’re pushing too hard on obligations to the public, you might not be obliging your client, who only has limited bandwidth to do something. To me it involves thinking about these things and how they can come together as opposed to being absolute on any one of them.
Rao: We’ve talked about this question of only undertaking professional services when you are qualified, and part of that is a judgment call. It’s challenging. In my personal experience, I’m often called upon to learn new things in the course of a job. But there’s obviously a line—if you didn’t know enough, you can’t possibly learn enough!
What do you think firm leadership can do to ensure that for employees, clients, and beyond, the Code of Ethics is part of the conversation?
Pollock: Ashley, I’m going to steal an idea you had for something else. We were talking about how checking a box and saying “I did this” as part of an awards submission has sparked change. So, is there something in your employment procedure that asks employees to sign on to the code of ethics when they sign on to a job? If firm owners could push that as part of their employment routine, it would hold people accountable.
Rao: Anything we can do to reference the code of ethics and have it be part of something that people want, whether it’s an award or a JUST Certification, gives people a chance to look at it and think about it and talk about it, and know it’s there.
You’ve talked about trying to shift to a more proactive role as a Committee. What are your goals going forward?
Boyd: We’re trying to start disseminating prompts or questions for people to look at and ask themselves. After there have been enough of those, we could host an event or a roundtable and say, hey, now that we’ve taken an inventory of what’s on people’s minds, let’s have a conversation.
Rao: What we’re getting right now is people coming to us when they have a problem or a burning issue. What’s interesting beyond that is what’s simmering in the background—where choices are being made quietly and where the Code and a conversation about that could help guide the practice. Sometimes you need to know that people are talking and thinking and struggling with these questions in order to talk about them publicly. To enable that is one of our goals.
Pollock: The code of ethics isn’t just a book that sits on a shelf. The goal is to open it up to people who might not open it up themselves that much, and get them to ask themselves these ethical questions.