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Sustainable Design: The Ethical Imperative

Sustainable design is no longer just a desirable expertise, it is a necessity and an integral part of everything we do together. It is no longer an option for designers - it's an ethical imperative.
We’re kicking off our sustainability series with our thoughts on the ethical case for sustainable and resilient design.

Anyone who hires an architect expects to work with a team of creative, empathic, and socially conscious designers. But did you know that members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are required by ethical code to always consider the environmental and societal impacts of our work? And to review those impacts with our clients for evaluation? Read up.

Design professionals are trained to meet the needs of our clients and our clients’ clients – the people who own and then ultimately use and occupy the buildings and spaces we design. The benefits of our design thinking extend to those people. But when it comes to sustainable and resilient design – design that mitigates the environmental burden of building construction and use, and design that anticipates and adapts to the impacts of climate change – the benefits of our design thinking extend beyond our clients and our projects’ end-users. How do we make the case for these extended benefits? What compels us to design sustainably?

A design professional’s license comes with many conditions. First, we must pass a series of exams demonstrating that we have core competencies, and we are then given the right to call ourselves licensed design professionals – on the condition that we observe building codes that are meant to protect public safety and welfare. We must also obey laws that prohibit us from misrepresentation and conflicts of interest. Finally, the contracts we sign with our clients condition our actions and spell out what is expected from us in exchange for payment.

By code, by law, and by agreement, these are the things we must do. Yet, there’s more, because then there’s doing the right thing.

Design professionals also have codes of ethics. Our professional society, the AIA, has a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. It holds AIA members to the “highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and competence.” These standards go beyond the core skills required for licensure. They create an obligation for us to serve the public good beyond what is required by law or contract. And in 2018, the AIA Code of Ethics was amended to define both sustainable and resilient design in actionable, enforceable terms and unambiguously compel us to consider (and discuss with our clients) the environmental impacts of all our design decisions.

Such a code of ethics aside, if meeting the needs of our clients’ clients and serving a greater public good are part of what drives us, consider the matters at hand. It is hard to imagine threats to public safety and welfare greater than a destabilized and unpredictable climate, an ecosystem full of bio-accumulative toxins and carcinogens, loss of biodiversity and habitat, and increased human conflict over diminishing resources. But as design professionals, we are uniquely positioned to make a difference.

  • Because we are decision-makers in the material selection process for the entire construction industry, design professionals have an obligation to push the market to produce viable material choices that don’t contain toxins and carcinogens in order to protect human and environmental health.
  • Because all our built projects use energy, we have an obligation to design them to be as energy-efficient as possible in order to lower carbon emissions.
  • Because we know the extraction, fabrication, and disposal of building products has enormous environmental impacts that are inequitably borne, we have an obligation to support a “closed-loop” economy that turns used materials into new products in order to create a more just and equitable society.

We encourage all our current and future clients to join us in re-thinking sustainable design as not just a desirable expertise, but as a necessity – an integral part of everything we do together. It’s no longer an option for designers – it’s an ethical imperative. To the extent that we make our livings designing built environments that facilitate productive human functions, using our talents to create the greatest public benefit we possibly can is simply the right thing to do.

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