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The six duties of care underpinning the RIBA Ethical Practice competence

Learn about architects’ responsibilities to clients, colleagues and society. Alasdair Ben Dixon (Partner, Collective Works) explains the moral dilemmas that the new RIBA guidance will cover.

25 November 2021

Ethical practice is one of four subject areas that the RIBA has designated as a key mandatory competence for members. It investigates the ethical issues that regularly arise for practices, and provides guidance over architects’ duties to society and to each other.

As with the other three competences – Health and Safety, Climate Literacy and Research Literacy – a Knowledge Schedule has been drawn up for Ethical Practice. This provides an overview or curriculum. It focuses on six duties – specific areas in which architects have a duty of care.

“The Ethical Practice competence is designed to help architects to recognise ethical issues in practice,” explains Alasdair Ben Dixon, Co-Founder at Collective Works and the author of forthcoming RIBA guidance for the competence.

The six duties for ethical practice in the RIBA’s draft knowledge schedule are:

  1. Duty to the wider world
  2. Duty to society and the end user
  3. Duty to those commissioning services
  4. Duty to those in the workplace
  5. Duty to the profession
  6. Duty to oneself

Ethical Practice is one of four mandatory competences that the RIBA is introducing, in order to help architects find solutions to the dilemmas they may encounter in today's practice.

The Knowledge Schedule provides details of specific topic areas for each duty. These include a very wide range of subjects. The following are a small example:

  • the climate emergency and biodiversity
  • supply chains
  • building regulations, housing standards and planning policy
  • equity, diversity and inclusion
  • modern slavery
  • social value and responsibility
  • whistleblowing
  • company culture and respecting colleagues
  • copyright and credit

Each duty also presents a particular ethical dilemma. This might be: challenging the brief; a conflict of interest between stakeholders; the provision of affordable housing; or the support of the client’s best interest.

Ben Dixon points out examples of the kind of ethical challenge that a practice might face. What should a practice do if a developer is pushing forward a scheme that clearly goes against the wishes of the local community?

Is a practice acting in the interests of its staff if they are working long hours to compete for work that they might not win? Considerations about who is bearing the brunt of a practice’s decisions inform the architect’s duties to the workplace, to the profession and to oneself.

In terms of fulfilling one’s duties to clients and users, Ben Dixon cites one real life example of good practice. AECOM now, as a default, record every single decision that is taken on a project. This means that when a project is handed over to a different team or firm, those decisions can be tracked back transparently.

Ben Dixon was involved in organising the RIBA’s first core CPD Ethical Practice workshops in 2019, This presented participating architects with a series of dilemmas that took inspiration from Thomas Fisher’s book Ethics for Architects.

Architects were encouraged to talk through the dilemmas as a way of collectively deciding how they might respond.

“The workshops tested the idea that ethical reasoning can be developed through discussion with colleagues,” Ben Dixon explains. “One of the lessons that emerged was that ethics should be seen as a process, not a hurdle to be jumped.”

For the 2021 CPD course Ethics in Practice: Challenges and Rewards, ten small- and medium-sized practices discussed how they have approached real life ethical challenges.

There are 12 case studies organised around the six duties. They demonstrate how taking a positive ethical position in the face of a challenge can improve aspects of practice and can play an important role in areas such as sustainability, diversity, wellbeing and client relationships. It can even pay dividends in terms of marketing and cash flow.

For Dixon, the six duties can be seen as lenses through which practitioners can examine the way they work. Further CPD content is available in the form of the free Ethical Practice video series, which offers introductions to the six duties by six different presenters.

Thanks to Alasdair Ben Dixon, Co-Founder, Collective Works.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Legal, regulatory and statutory compliance.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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