An architecture education should begin with an understanding of the professional’s responsibilities to society, building users, and clients.

Recently, a university seeking a new dean for its college of architecture asked me to review its advertisement for the position. I suggested revising “ … seeking an educator who can perform the following … ” to “ … seeking a professional with both educational and practical experience in his/her field of expertise who can perform the following … .” Within hours, a faculty member responded to the suggestion with the words, “Please, not a professional!” The faculty member’s response implied that a professional was a practitioner. The further implication was that an educator is not a professional.

How people perceive themselves affects the philosophical framework that underlies their approach to life, actions, and relationships. In the opening weeks of a medical education, first-year students are tutored on their responsibility for caring for people’s health and the serious implications of their actions for others. Medical school begins with the Hippocratic Oath and the immense obligations of the doctor to the patient, the patient’s family, and thus the community. These are the keystones in this educational process, and they are addressed immediately. Consequently, the foundation for an individual’s approach to the profession is established, and students formulate the principles for their future professional practice.

Should not architectural education establish the same understanding of the architect’s responsibilities to society, building users, and clients? Do not architects have similar ethical and professional demands placed on themselves for the health, safety, and welfare of the public, especially given the impact that design choices impose on individuals, communities, and the global citizenry? Environmental stability, the wise use of land, the design of public spaces, energy conservation, community improvement, resource allocation, adaptive reuse, building function, aesthetic delight, air quality, safety and security, and so many more of the issues that we address in the course of our professional lives must be approached with an inherent understanding that being an architect carries immense responsibility. Our education must be founded on such an understanding.

In 2004 and 2005, the American Institute of Architects recognized these responsibilities as it rewrote the AIA public policies and position statements. There are only 10 public policies, and they emphasize the power the architect has to affect people and communities, the built environment, and the natural environment. During the development of the 2009 Conditions for Accreditation, the National Architectural Accrediting Board heard repeatedly from educators, traditional and non-traditional practitioners, regulators, and students that like the first days of medical school, architectural education should begin with students developing an understanding of professionalism and ethics. All believed it was critical that developing an understanding of what it means to be a professional must begin at the beginning and not at the end of a professional education.

As a result, the 2009 Conditions seek to expand and strengthen students’ exposure to and growing understanding of the foundational principles that guide and direct architecturally educated individuals throughout their lives. Numerous improvements to the Conditions implement these concepts. The following are but some of the highlights:

  • Knowledge of the diverse needs, values, and behaviors that characterize different cultures and the implications of this diversity on the societal roles and responsibilities of architects.
  • Integration of ethical perspectives with regard to safety and codes, societal stability, air quality, environmental impact, budgets, systems selection, and material use.
  • The role of professional judgment regarding social, political, and cultural issues in design and practice.
  • Responsibilities to the public regarding registration law, building codes, contracts, the environment, preservation, and open spaces.
  • Legal principles and ethical issues in practice.
  • A curricular framework that recognizes the importance of a broad education including general studies, architectural studies, and electives.
  • The expectation that educational institutions provide financial, human, information, and physical resources that are appropriate to the context of the institution, appropriate for the accredited program, and support student learning and achievement.
  • The need for institutions objectively to assess progress against defined objectives as well as the program’s strengths and weaknesses and then use the results of this assessment to design and implement changes that lead to improvements.
  • The expectation that the academy will provide adequate public information regarding accreditation, candidacy, and problems a program may be facing.
  • The need for a program consistently and objectively to look at the single greatest influence on students — the faculty — and to evaluate the specific knowledge and experience of each faculty member in relationship to any student performance criteria to be fulfilled in the course he or she teaches, honestly assessing his or her capacity for facilitating student learning and for transmitting the knowledge inherent in the criteria to the next generation.

In discussing these Conditions, NAAB wished to allow for diversity in academic institutions but at the same time desired to improve on architectural education by asking institutions to accept greater responsibility for self-evaluation of students, procedures, faculty, administration, and institutional behavior. The Board hoped these Conditions would foster the recognition within the educational community that ethical and professional behavior is expected of all persons: from incoming students to currently competent retirees.

It was for this reason that NAAB perspectives were revised to include the following: “That students enrolled in the accredited degree program are prepared: to be active, engaged citizens; to be responsive to the needs of a changing world; to acquire the knowledge needed to address pressing environmental, social, and economic challenges through design, conservation and responsible professional practice; to understand the ethical implications of their decisions; to reconcile differences between the architect’s obligation to his/her client and the public; and to nurture a climate of civic engagement, including a commitment to professional and public service and leadership.”

It is also why the Student Performance Criteria related to professionalism and ethics were grouped together in Realm C of the Conditions for Accreditation and that the aspirational outcomes for Realm C include “knowing societal and professional responsibilities,” and  “integrating community service into the practice of architecture.”

It was telling to the leaders of the professional architectural organizations that at its July 2009 meeting, the Board of the American Institute of Architecture Students asked the presidents of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, the AIA, NAAB, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards to address this topic during their individual presentations. Of all possible topics available for selection, the students wished to address ethics and professionalism. In response to that request, NAAB offered several suggestions:

  • Think of yourselves as professionals. Your behavior and decision making will change if you believe you are a member of a profession with significant responsibilities and power within society.
  • Ethics is about the gray, not the black and white. It is about the difficult decisions that place you in questionable circumstances where any decision will result in difficulties for someone.
  • Understand that your architectural education did not begin when you entered an architectural degree program, nor will it end when you graduate. Architectural education is life-long and will always encompass your understanding of relationships, perspective on diversity, knowledge of theory and design, ability to know materials and how to combine them, and understanding of how nature functions — literally everything about this world and its inhabitants. What matters, ultimately, is how much you understand and how willing you are to couple experience with structured education in order to grow, develop, and finally broaden your perspective to understand the power of architecture. 
  • Question the university when you believe it has made a poor decision or implemented a bad policy. Praise the university when it makes responsible decisions or implements good policy. Always hold it to high ethical standards. It is the university’s ethical obligation to provide a quality education. It receives substantial monies to do so in tuition, gifts, endowment revenue, fees, and in the case of state institutions, appropriations. Is it delivering a level of quality that meets the standards of professionalism and is implied by its history and mission?
  • Question your faculty. Are they practicing as well as teaching? Does their teaching change as a result of research or experimentation? Have they done it or do they just talk about it? Do your professors have real-life examples of how they made tough decisions, both in architectural theory and in practical application? Have they had to choose between two solutions, both of which resulted in outcomes detrimental to someone, even to themselves? Has their understanding been challenged or disputed by others in the design/construction arena so that they are truly tested?
  • Question the practitioners with whom you come into contact. Are they acting ethically? Does your employer participate in community leadership in any way? Do its employment practices reflect ethical methods and build relationships? Do the organization’s leaders continuously seek to grow in knowledge? Do its designs serve clients, users, and society? Is the company a benefit to society?
  • Ask others to give their opinion of your actions. This is tough because you will feel threatened. Honesty in responses is also difficult to achieve. But your growth will be greatly enhanced by honest feedback. Find people who will give it to you straight, then listen to what they say.
  • Constantly re-evaluate yourself. Always set new and revised goals using new experiences to challenge your thinking and direction.

Self-reflection is necessary for your improvement and ethical growth. Are you acting professionally and ethically? Do you seek to grow, expand your horizons, and face the tough personal issues that define who you are? Those who do so become more valuable to themselves, to those around them, to their community, and to the global society in which we all live. In the end it all comes down to this: Be the change you seek in the world.

Given the seismic shift in the economics of the profession of architecture, the ability of students, new graduates, and emerging and mature professionals to understand and act as responsible and ethical individuals is even more critical. Where we stand on this largely depends on where we sit. For NAAB, that means preparing teams to review student work in response to the student performance criteria in Realm C and to evaluate the institution’s planning and self-assessment.

For those in traditional practice, it means considering anew what it means to be ethical beyond the traditional definitions of ethical practice. In addition, practitioners need to realize that part of their own education and continuing growth comes through the mentoring of students and interns. For those in higher education, it means espousing the belief that a broadly educated student with a deep understanding of the professional and ethical obligations of the profession who is capable of making decisions and understanding the implications of those decisions is perhaps the best outcome of any architecture education.

Douglas L Steidl practices architecture in Northeast Ohio. He was the 2009 president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board. He served as president of the American Institute of Architects in 2005 and is a Fellow of the AIA.

For more on architecture and design education, see “America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools 2010.”