Opinions

THRICE ETHICAL

Has a client ever lodged a complaint about you to the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP)? If not, this might just be because your client knows even less about the codes of ethics for architects than you do.

BY EUGENE BARNARD

Your clients might not be as knowledgeable or bold as Prince Charles who is purported to have said: ‘Most architects think by the inch, talk by the yard and should be kicked by the foot.’ Beware – you might not be exempt for much longer. Every professional architect has a moral and legal obligation to be au fait with the codes to which he or she is duty bound.

The majority of architects in South Africa are subject to three codes of ethical conduct. The codes can be categorised as follows: those that define the conduct that the profession has imposed on itself – what architects expect architects to do – and those that describe the conduct that society demands of the profession to which every registered architect is legally bound.

So, on the one hand, architects are subject to two non-statutory codes which describe ethical, professional behaviour: the SAIA Code of Ethics (to which local architects bind themselves by virtue of their voluntary membership of the South African Institute of Architects) and the lesser-known UIA Accord Policy on Ethics and Conduct developed by the International Union of Architects (to which SAIA members are bound by virtue of SAIA’s membership of the UIA.) Both these codes place an onerous obligation on members to maintain the very highest standard of professionalism, integrity and competency. On the other hand, society’s expectation regarding the conduct of architects is described in the mandatory Code of Professional Conduct issued by SACAP, the profession’s registration body. Every registered architect has no option but to adhere to this statutory code or face sanction, even expulsion from the profession.

Apart from general overarching obligations, the SAIA and UIA codes define the architect’s obligation to the public, clients, fellow colleagues, the profession, and, in the case of SAIA, even third parties affected by the architect’s work. The profession expects its members to possess a ‘systematic body of knowledge and theory’ and to ‘maintain and advance their knowledge. Every architect worthy of the title should remain a student throughout his or her career, continually aspiring to greater heights. The true professional will always resist mediocrity and stagnation. It was no doubt this very expectation – shared across professional boundaries – that gave rise to the concept of continuing professional development (CPD).

Before addressing the architect’s obligation to a client, both codes unashamedly state that the architect has an obligation to the public. How often is the personal interest of the client not al- lowed to overshadow the public interest? Do we build inappropriate buildings that ignore the cultural heritage of a society or bend the rules and disobey laws un- der instruction and to the benefit of our client, but to the detriment of the com- munity? Instead, architects should not only be concerned about public interests, but also ‘involve themselves in civic activities and promote public awareness of architectural issues.

Indeed, we have a very real obligation – one that should not be taken lightly – to serve the client professionally and conscientiously. How often will an architect knowingly give one client an excellent service and another a shoddy one? How often do architects accept work from clients knowing full well that they possess neither adequate knowledge nor technical resources, or even sufficient time, to fulfil the commitment? Architects also often neglect to enter into written agreements with clients prior to undertaking work.

What about fellow practitioners? The SAIA code states categorically that one member has an obligation to another member. The UIA code also entrenches the need for colleagues to respect one another’s rights and obligations. The principle finds practical application in the listed standards and rules, one of which instructs against one architect from attempting to supplant a colleague, and another against fee bargaining in competition, the all-right-I’ll-do-it-for- less response! At a time when even government is procuring services by means of ‘fee bidding’, the challenge to maintain professional dignity becomes very pertinent.

Architecture as a profession dates back to antiquity and has etched out a proud and respected place for itself in society. The South African Institute of Architects was established in 1927, drawing together the existing architectural fraternities from the various colonies: the Cape Institute (established in 1899), Port Elizabeth Society (1900), Natal (1901), Transvaal (1909) and the Orange

Free State (1921). Every architect has an obligation to promote and uphold the integrity of the profession. In fact, this is, in part, SAIA’s raison d’êtreix. The UIA Accord even goes so far as to say that ‘an architect shall not take as a partner … an unsuitable person. It is sad when fellow practitioners ride on the back of the profession without demonstrating a willingness to contribute to its dignity and growth, an attitude not dissimilar to those who use the world’s natural resources without helping to replenish them for future generations.

What happens if someone breaches any of the rules that underpin SAIA’s Code of Ethics? The SAIA Procedure for Enquiry document sets out how allegations of unethical conduct are dealt with by the organisation. Sanctions include a reprimand, warning, fine, temporary suspension or the cancellation of membership. The UIA, on the other hand, has no control over the conduct of the individual. The accord policy is merely an aspirational standard that each member section adopts. The UIA does, therefore, not act against individuals who are guilty of unethical conduct. It is up the member section to deal with the issue.

As regards the mandatory code, the Code of Professional Conduct was published as Board Notice 154 of 2009. It applies to all professionals registered by SACAP (architects, senior technologists, technologists, and draftspersons).

It comprises six rules which deal with unprofessional conduct (Rule 1); the obligation to be competent, to perform only in appropriate categories of work and ensure continual development of knowledge and skill (Rule 2); how services can be promoted, explicitly forbidding misrepresentation – for example, the use of the term ‘architect’ instead of ‘technologist’ (Rule 3); professional responsibilities, once again stating the obligation for a proper service level agreement between professional and client (Rule 4); form of practice and business entity (Rule 5); and finally, how professionals should conduct themselves when working outside the borders of South Africa – yes, even in neighbouring Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia (Rule 6).

What happens when a complaint is lodged against a professional? Clauses 27 to 33 of the Architectural Act (Act 44 of 2000) deal with professional conduct, investigation into charges of improper conduct and the consequences if found guilty. Clause 32 lists the sanctions. A registered person may be cautioned, fined, suspended or deregistered, forfeiting his capacity to earn a living through the practice of architecture. Actions in terms of these clauses are to- tally independent of any civil or criminal action that may be taken against a professional.

Architects in South Africa study full time for at least five years, work under supervision for a further two years and then write a formal examination, which, if they pass, entitles them to adopt the designation Professional Architect (Pr Arch) and practise independently. This process and hard-earned right should instil an awareness of and commitment to ethical behaviour in the heart of every successful candidate.

More important than the written codes, though, is that unwritten human trait to which Francis Collins, a leading US geneticist and long-time leader of the Human Genome Project, refers when he says: ‘We have come full circle, returning again to the existence of the Moral Law. Influential 20th-century writer, CS Lewis, makes the point too: ‘Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Ultimately, the architect should be guided by his or her own conscience.

This article first appeared in Architecture ZA Sept/Oct 2013. Published with permission and thanks to the Ed.