Architects are understandably leery about admitting mistakes; we also avoid sharing our hard-learned lessons with other practitioners. This is to the detriment of our clients, the general public, and our own practices because it keeps hidden the very information that would help us improve individually and as a profession.
One of the first lessons of contract administration is to not admit fault or liability, lest we provide an easy case for a claim or compromise our insurance coverage. In this time, place, and industry where litigation is as important as budget and gravity, careful wording can be a valuable skill.
Yet forums for sharing our experiences with missteps in building design are so limited, the lack poses an ethical hazard for our profession. As the American Institute of Architect’s Code of Ethics states, we should contribute to the growth of the art and science of architecture; we are responsible in our designs for the health, safety, and welfare of the public; we should also serve the public interest in our professional activities. Keeping a secret of lessons learned is not in the spirit of any of these aspirations.
For example, the industry may benefit from knowing why the San Francisco Millennium Tower has sunk 17 inches (and counting) since it opened in 2008. What technical errors, missing link in the quality-assurance/quality-control chain, or series of oversights should we avoid on future projects — within our offices, in correspondence with our consultants, or during contract administration? Unfortunately, we may never know, as the project is in the midst of a legal battle that will likely end with a confidentiality agreement. With legal technicalities effectively placing a gag order on the parties involved, how do those involved ensure similar mistakes are not repeated and pass along related knowledge in light of our ethical obligations to improve the profession?
The current demographics of the industry exacerbate our problem. During the Great Recession, unemployment for architects aged 22–26 was 4 percent higher than for older professionals. Many of these unemployed emerging practitioners left architecture. Were they working today, they would be the ones still junior enough to be directly involved in the technical details of projects but with enough experience to understand circumstances that may lead to bigger problems.
While this critical link for passage of knowledge from senior to junior staff is frequently missing, there are only sporadic alternative forums for sharing critical technical information. Conference presentations on lessons learned are effective only if firms are willing to air their dirty laundry. More frequent is information received from product representatives, a firm’s lawyer, or consultants willing to speak of their experiences on other projects. But this information is shared only informally and occasionally.
An exceptional example of such shared knowledge comes from an article in Architect magazine’s November 2017 issue, which described Kieran Timberlake’s attempts to design its new studio without air-conditioning. The article is frank about the firm’s failure to create a comfortable working environment, and the results are instructive for us all. Of course, Kieran Timberlake experimented on themselves, perhaps the most ethical way for architects to try new technologies.
Finally, there is also at least one insurance company, XL Catlin, that runs a risk-control organization called Design Professionals Risk Control Group (DPRCG). Membership in the group provides access to workshops, an annual convocation, and case studies. However, DPRCG works because it is open only to a select group of architectural and engineering firms deemed by the insurance company as being “high quality” and “well managed.” In other words, the participating firms’ reputations are shielded despite their willingness to share missteps with others in the industry. But this does little for those firms that are not currently deemed “high quality” or those using a different insurance carrier.
What can change? Local AIA chapters could regularly convene select groups of firms to share stories and anonymously publish lessons learned. Insurers or law firms serving the profession should make a point of collecting and distributing best practices with their clients’ permission, while preserving confidentiality. Finally, the AIA has started an important, but as of yet little-known, Risk Management Program dedicated to creating educational materials for firms without the resources of a full-fledged risk management team or in-house legal counsel. The program should outline the parameters of errors and oversights most likely to have an effect on public health, thus being worthy of case studies. Member firms of the AIA could agree to have such cases published, with all telling details obscured, as the AIA National Ethics Council does with its own decisions.
We all hate to admit mistakes. However, as a vocation given the exclusive right to design buildings in such a way that they promote health, safety, and welfare, we owe it to our profession, our clients, and the general public to allow others to learn from our missteps.
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.