View Point – Rory Bergin of HTA Design

In his second article on the subject for ADF, Rory Bergin looks deeper at the facets within ‘the ethics of development’ that architects should consider.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with what are, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

The central question, as I see it, is: ‘Are we being fair to everyone involved in the process?’ Another we need to ask ourselves is: “Does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance is absent?

A check through the two codes of conduct that architects should follow is revealing insofar as it reveals an inadequate response to today’s environmental crisis. The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct states: “Members shall respect the relevant rights and interests of others.” The ARB Architects Code states: “You should treat everyone fairly. You must act in compliance with your legal obligations. You must
not discriminate.”

On the other hand, when it comes to the environment, The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct has this to say: “Members should be aware of the environmental impact of their work.” (Aware! But not asked to do anything.) The ARB Architects Code states: “Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.” The ‘where appropriate’ has me baffled. Where would it not be appropriate, given that every project an architect could be involved in must have an impact?

Impacts over time

In my previous article I set out the four areas within which to consider the ethical implications of any project. The first area looks at the impacts of a building over its design, construction, operation and demolition phases. What are its impacts on people over time, and how does it change? For example, a question we might ask in regeneration projects, or in any design project where an existing use is being terminated or moved to facilitate the new project, is ‘are people being treated fairly to enable the design and construction process to happen?’

This is particularly relevant to regeneration projects where the lives of people who live within the regeneration zone are going to be disrupted to enable the project to happen. Care must be taken to ensure that they are treated fairly and end up being beneficiaries of the project. If they are to suffer the disruption of moving and being rehoused, possibly more than once, then surely they should enjoy a share of the benefits of the project that they are enabling to happen.

Historically, many slum clearances happened without the agreement of residents, work was done ‘to’ them, and not ‘with’ them, and happily we no longer behave this way. But whenever I hear the word ‘decanting’ I feel that while we may have moved on in terms of how we work, but not all of us have moved on it terms of the way we think. Decanting is something you do to wine. Perhaps we should use the word ‘disrupting’ instead?

Another point to consider is whether people on a housing waiting list are being treated fairly? Across England there were 1,183,779 households on social housing waiting lists in 2016. If we take an average household size of 2.3 from the last census, that gives us a figure of 2,722,691 people.

The needs of such people, often housed in substandard and often overcrowded accommodation, at high costs to the country, should be given sufficient weight when deciding what to do in any situation. There may be a temptation to give more weight to people who are already living locally in any planning decision, but surely the need of those not present have equal weight, and if their need is dire, greater weight?


The second area of my investigation was the context for the physical building – the immediate location, the wider context and the global context, and to look at the question of whether we aim for the greatest good or the least damage for the planet.

In recent years we have seen a huge rise in the amount of legislation, guidance and advice related to ‘greening’ the construction sector. Building Regulations, green building standards and policy all pushed the sector to make massive improvements in the performance of buildings. But two issues remain; the policy has become patchy as first the Coalition and then the Conservative Government pulled back on the scope and level of intent of such policies, and the analysis of completed buildings demonstrates that many are not achieving the environmental targets that were originally set.

Should the architectural profession have a set of standards that give guidance and support even when clients or local policies don’t support or actively work towards environmental targets or where national policy vacillates due to political expediency? If we are to have a Coalition where the DUP claim that climate change isn’t real, we need protection against potential further

backsliding at a point where we are leaving the EU and will no longer have its substantial support for environmental protection.

Should the profession refuse to work on projects where there is an unwillingness on the part of clients to meet their environmental obligations? Would this strengthen our position as expert and impartial advisors, or weaken it?

Purpose and effect on users

Third in the key facets within ‘ethics’ I looked at is the question of who is affected by the purpose and use of the building – the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Do we aim for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do we account for this and what do we mean by benefit? Is it financial gain, safety, better services? How do we compare these against each other in terms of the benefits they bring as well as the difficulties they cause?

Some of these effects are covered by law, Building Regulations or a duty of care, but much of it isn’t. As we build at higher densities, issues occur which are new in the UK and poorly considered by our regulations. Other countries with more tall buildings are further advanced than us in some respects.

When more people move into an area, the balance of the community is changed. While some argue that an influx of new people into an area is beneficial as it brings more economic activity, those living in the area previously often feel threatened by new neighbours, rightly or wrongly. Increased levels of traffic is often a bone of contention, but is probably used as a stalking horse for the real objection, which is to new development, regardless of its impact on traffic.

It is important that we are clear about the benefits that new development brings to an area as well as acknowledging the impacts that causes.

User requirements

Last but definitely not least, we need to consider the range of needs of the users, from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here, so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing, before we even start to think about improving matters.

Maslov proposes that our human needs are hierarchical and dependant on each other. Only by fulfilling basic needs of shelter and nourishment can we begin to achieve well-being, good mental health and fulfilment. An ethical view of this would support a designer’s ambition to create buildings that help their occupants to flourish in that hierarchy as far as possible. From shelter on the one hand, to enabling self-actualisation on the other. This makes the basic point that buildings are for people, not for architects, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the people living in our buildings are we fulfilling our own needs as professionals.

Do we know how well we are doing? Mostly not. Post-occupancy study happens in only a tiny fraction of the built environment, even within the part of it that is designed by architects. Without a better evidence base we risk becoming irrelevant as others who lack our design drive are enabled by technology to ‘sample’ the needs and desires of people and to provide it to them through technology that bypasses us. A connection to our audience is essential for the profession to thrive, and our audience is the user of our buildings, not each other.