What is an ethical building?


What are some examples of an ethical building?

Sep 10, 13 12:02 am

Very 1971.  Very regional.  Very in tune with its context.  And, yes, socially responsible at a time when that wasn't an absolute must, but they are primarily a forest resources company, so they were forward thinking and appeased the tree huggers.  It was designed by SOM.

Weyerhaeuser International Headquarters, Federal Way, WA (south Seattle suburb):

There are more flattering views than the one shown.  The best ones are where the full height above the adjacent pond or water feature is better displayed.

Sep 10, 13 12:15 am

Truly ethical buildings are made for the landscape, by the landscape. 

Sep 10, 13 9:00 am

+++ LITS4FormZ

Sep 10, 13 10:25 am
A building that embodies the owner's commitment to a place and community, not just their ability to make a profit.
Sep 10, 13 10:34 am

Not to make light of the situation, but I wonder if the igloos are polar bear proof.  The smallness of the openings could offer some protection.  But I wonder if these large animals would just start wreaking havoc on the structure if they wanted in.  Or if the locals had a good assortment of bows and arrows, harpoons, or other weapons.  After all, the purpose of any structure is to provide shelter, offer protection from the elements, and enable human functions.  The elements would vary by location.

Sep 10, 13 12:07 pm

why would a polar bear want to break in?  would a break-in from a person be just a threatening?  there is no lock on the front door.  no ada clearance either. 

the guy in the picture is wearing something to the effect of a columbia jacket.  maybe cabela's.  bow and arrow?  why wouldn't he just carry a pistol if he felt he needed the protection?  he could get a shot off a lot quicker if he didn't have to notch an arrow and pull the string back and all that.

Sep 10, 13 12:24 pm

why would a polar bear want to break in?

Do you watch nature documentaries?  Polar bears are something to be feared.  When a vehicle passes them on their snowy terrain, and they see people inside, they get excited, as in "lunchtime."  If the vehicle stops or goes slowly, they will come close to it, or even follow it.

Sep 10, 13 12:59 pm

they look pretty cuddly and playful to me.  i'm sure i'm ruled by many emotions, but fear isn't typically at the top of the list.  if i came into contact with a polar bear tomorrow (despite the 100 degree heat), i really don't think it would concern me (other than the inappropriate environment part) because the polar bear wouldn't have any reason to be afraid of me.  there isn't really any possibility i would be it's only food source in the middle of the city, and if there was some sort of outside influence that has the bear rattled, it would typically communicate that in some way so i would know to avoid it's perimeter.  i would think with all of your travels you would understand animals better.

the most ethical building is the one that isn't going to destroy polar bear's homes.  which means, the most ethical building is the one not built.

you could also say the most ethical building is the one where the client pays the architect...

Sep 10, 13 1:36 pm

Inuit hunt Nanuk, and they've protested bans on hunting them.

It must have been more challenging before the Hudson's Bay Company armed them rifles and snowmobiles.

Sep 10, 13 1:40 pm

i would think with all of your travels you would understand animals better.

I understand that you give them their space ... when you're in THEIR space.  That means the Arctic Circle (polar bears), Glacier National Park in MT (grizzly bears), the Gold Country foothills of the Sierra Nevada in CA (mountain lions), random creeks and ponds in rural Florida (alligators), and beaches on Australia's Great Barrier Reef (white sharks). 

I was just talking to a big corn fed Midwestern guy last weekend who said that when his golf ball went in, or near, the water features on Florida golf courses, he didn't bother to go get it.  People sort of assume every water feature on a Florida golf course has a gator living in it.  And they're probably right.

Choose life.  Or at least your arms and legs.

Sep 10, 13 2:23 pm
Roark’s Revenge

One where the Architect also makes an appropriate profit and not just the owner / certain consultants or the realtor or end user flipper.

striving to design good buildings is already inherently ethical and selfless as the extra time taken to do so eats away at the design firms profit.

the alternative profit driven model / lazy approach ( take your pick ) is the norm for the majority of realised buildings worldwide. So Architecture ( as opposed to building ) is inherently ethical in its intent.

 An  Architect who makes a loss on a well designed building actually takes a double hit -  the actual defined loss and the undefined loss ( lost profits due to the extra time expended on good design ). 

For an Architect to make a loss due to time lost to intensive design whilst all other parties make a profit -  that is unethical as well as being naive and stupid on the part of the Architect if repeated project after proect . Ive never seen anyone else devote unpaid time / work for free on a building .

Sep 10, 13 2:24 pm

Wasn't it Philip Johnson who said the ideal client is the one that goes off to Europe for an extended period of time and leaves you the checkbook, or something to that effect?  Real ethical ... and real professional.  Oh brother.

Sep 10, 13 2:27 pm
wurdan freo

One that doesn't use 5 year olds from burma... or is it myanmar.. I really can't keep up with this stuff. 

Sep 10, 13 2:57 pm
ka em

What is an ethical building?

Sep 10, 13 11:13 pm


I think it's a building that doesn't upset granolas and tree huggers.  Better yet, they lovingly talk about the building.

Sep 10, 13 11:25 pm

an excellent book that makes clear that ethics in architecture isn't three sentences. it's a career-long exploration. :

Sep 11, 13 7:24 am

Maybe I don't understand the question, but how can an inanimate mass of matter be ethical or unethical?  The architect, developer, builder, owner, and whomever might be, but how does that rub off on architecture?  A building can have negative or positive associations that might be associated with ethical or unethical behavior, but even if you chose to attach human qualities to inert matter, time tends to modify or even erase those associations. 

Sep 11, 13 9:10 am

^ Like they did at Treblinka?

Sep 11, 13 9:38 am

to be fair thayer-d, i a building can do great harm.  this could include structural deficiencies, that cause the building to collapse and kill people.  it could include inefficient mechanical systems that cause global warming.  building things often causes habitats for some flora/fauna to be destroyed.  that includes killing bunnies.  when such harm can be caused, perhaps ethics can be a concern.

if we label people as "granola" and hold stereotypes and prejudices that suggests such people are generally less intelligent or otherwise worth less than the rest of us, it might take the sting out of the decisions we make that cause harm to others.

Sep 11, 13 9:43 am

Regarding Treblinka's buildings being unethical, I suppose that's one way of looking at it.

@ curtkram.  I see your point, allthough in the examples you describe I would lable the builder or whomever was responsible for those failures and not the building itself.  Like a bridge that colapses, it might be the contractor or engineer who's unethical behavior led to failure, but not the bridge itself.  A building might represent unethical behavior but labeling a building *unethical* seems to take blame away from whomever was responsible for its failure.

As to prejudices, I think you've right about how they are harmful, all be it natural.  Degrade a person through associations or however and it makes it easier to mis-treat them.  In the Holocaust, the Nazi's spent years degrading everybody who wasn't aryan (whatever the hell that means) to justify their eventual slaughter, but they also made it patently clear to whomever would object that their fate would be the same.  But if you lable everything in Germany during that time as unethical, you risk the kind of guilt by association that encourages prejudice thinking in the first place.

Buildings are like corporations, they aren't human.

Sep 11, 13 10:20 am

To the point that buildings are inert matter that can't be either ethical or not, I want to raise the example of the house in Cleveland where Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus were imprisoned for ten years: it has been demolished.  The house didn't do anything wrong, but somehow we humans anthropomorphize buildings, particularly buildings where something awful happens.

Not arguing for or against your point, Thayer, just throwing an example into the discussion.

Sep 11, 13 10:44 am

That's a great point Donna.  That house was a house of horrors.  Or take the Neurenburg Parade grounds that Germany is going to restore.  I would flatten it, but looking at Mussolini's EUR, I would keep.  One is associated with mass murder, while the other one (while still a murderer) is just an egomaniac's White City.

Sep 11, 13 11:23 am

if we label people as "granola" and hold stereotypes and prejudices that suggests such people are generally less intelligent or otherwise worth less than the rest of us, it might take the sting out of the decisions we make that cause harm to others.

The granola and tree hugger monikers may be stereotypes, but I didn't come up with them.  Also, they say nothing about intelligence.  Usually, they are intelligent, or at least well-informed on some topics. The monikers speak to their misplaced passions on nutrition, exaggerated passions about the environment, and often packaged thinking on both religion and politics.  I sort of thought granolas were what might have been hippies at one time.  Therefore, I thought they were peaceful and affable people, who smoked a lot of pot and had a lot of sex.  Not.  They are much more about anger, rebellion, and flouting conventions.  I don't advocate mistreatment of anyone.  However, if someone, or a segment of society, with a predictable collective value system doesn't resonate with you, give them a wide berth.

Sep 11, 13 1:33 pm

^ Labeling groups of people is a way to divide society.

Sep 11, 13 7:03 pm

Miles, you're from the greater NYC area and are probably aware people there do it all the time.  My relatives there always prefaced someone as "my (insert ethnicity) friend or coworker."  I find that those who are more apt to make light of differences among people are oftentimes the most tolerant of differences.  What really bites my ass is when someone from a very homogenous area of America shakes their finger at you and says "that's not nice" at something of that nature, when they have surrounded themselves with WASPs and know little or nothing about other cultures, as in NIMBY.  I find that kind of hypocritical. 

I got the greatest laugh in San Francisco one day.  I went in on BART with a friend and his parents (ahem ... from Cuba) who wanted to go to the Wharf.  I've usually driven to the Wharf, so we got off BART at Montgomery in the Financial District.  We needed a bus to get us up to the Wharf.  At the bus stop, I saw this American guy who was kind of goofy and street smart at the same time.  I asked him "Which bus can get us to the Wharf?"  He mentioned the 15, 30, and 45, I think - multiples of 15, IIR.  Since they all went through Chinatown, he added "we call it the Orient Express."  No veneer of "San Francisco political correctness."  He was just a funny guy, so you know it was humor instead of hate. 

Sep 11, 13 7:18 pm

Ethical buildings are those that are for the benefit of those that occupy them, not for the status or reputation of the architect. 

Ethical: Most buildings

Unethical: CCTV, Pruit-igoe, WTC

Sep 11, 13 9:03 pm

^ Developers produce most buildings for profit without concern for *anything* else.

Sep 11, 13 11:09 pm

Yeah, you are right. But profit at least creates some motivation to make building experience better, because if nobody wants to come, then you won't make money. Of course many times we are stuck with what developers give us so there might not be as much choice as we think, but it does work to a certain  extent. Capitalism always gives us hope that something better will come along. 

Sep 12, 13 11:50 am

From a developer's point of view "better" buildings  are more profitable, and the emphasis is on marketing rather than ethical responsibility.

Sep 12, 13 1:57 pm

Yes, marketing is clearly the enemy of good/ethical design. That's why I find those glossy computer renderings awful. That's why it would be beneficial to create some system of checking back on buildings to see if they matched their promises, but there's no money in that (since the architecture media was annexed by PR firms). 

Sep 12, 13 2:03 pm

Buildings are not ethical, but they are the result of design which is an extension of ethical choices and moral frameworks. I don't believe a building should be conceptualized with any agency because it can make no choices - but buildings are an interesting evidence of choices. 

Sep 12, 13 6:21 pm

"What are some examples of an ethical building?" 

That depends on the assumptions behind your question: is the building ethical because the architect (or his/her intentions) is ethical, or is it ethical because the building promotes (or reinforces) ethics? 

For the former: plenty. For example, buildings by the late Mockbee, or the refugees' temporal housing by Ban. Then there are more dubious cases where 'heroic' architects proposed wholesale bulldozing in the name of 'blight clearance' in the 1950s/60s. As for the latter, a few. For example, the house of pleasure by Ledoux, which purportedly encouraged vice ironically for the aims of virtue; or Bentham's panopticon prison, which internalizes self-discipline, and values considered virtuous by the disciplinarians; or more recently, Exhibition Road in London, where Dixon and Jones aimed to internalize good conscientiousness on the part of the motorists by removing sidewalk so motorists and pedestrians all share one space. 

If 20th century was about the former, then we have to beware of the latter in the 21st century. There is sufficient social science, capital and willpower out there to completely mould the built environment to encourage a certain kind of ethics. To cite one proponent of the 'just city': what are your chances of mentally or physically protesting a city that restricts your willingness, and indeed, ethos, to live as ethically as you can (say in LA where owning a car, and participation in all its corollary activities and burdens, is necessary...)? Or when shops lined every arterial ways making contemporary living a routine of constantly buying unnecessary gimmicks? 

Optimistically, architects advocating salutogenic designs have used this knowledge to craft very powerful healing spaces. But this knowledge, as B.F. Skinner has shown, can be used for dubious ends. Architects would be foolish to leave ethical reasoning out in design. 

Sep 16, 13 11:41 am

" is the building ethical because the architect (or his/her intentions) is ethical, or is it ethical because the building promotes (or reinforces) ethics?"  How does one verify these conclusions?  And if one could, how would other players with unethical dispositions factor into the ethicalmeter reading of a building?  If one's doing "good", there's no need to advertise, just do it.

Sep 17, 13 8:57 am


One verifies the former by measuring the architect's intention against the outcomes. If the architect's intention is to design a zero-energy building, the outcome should consistently reflect this intention. One verifies the latter by observing the design features that aim to encourage, or compel, some kind of moral compliance. The architect should account for himself/herself first before trying to factor in the ethical intentions of others. It is possible to exonerate the architect for his/her good intentions in a badly made building, but it is quite impossible to absolve the architect if his/her intentions is to display his/her egoism at the expense of the public good. 

Quite the contrary, when one is trying to do 'good', one should make a point to explain this to one's clients/potential users. This is because the architect's notion of 'good' is usually enriched by the values held to be good by others. 

Sep 18, 13 1:06 am

Intention vs outcome is not ethics but rather a measure of performance that may be effected by client / contractor / etc.

To strive for high performance is a lofty goal. To achieve the ideal desired level of performance is all but impossible, which doesn't keep us from trying. Some of us, at least.

A high-performance prison for profit is not ethical no matter how well the execution (no pun intended) meets the intention.

Sep 18, 13 10:19 am

I just want to know three *simple* things.  Who's the judge on what's ethical or not, how will that  judgement effect what gets built, and to what end? 

Sep 18, 13 2:27 pm


Conventionally speaking, the professional body is the entity that judges what's ethical or not. But today--in any open society--there are individuals and watch-groups that review one's building. They can also judge what's ethical or not. It is not possible for one to violate a tenet of environmental ethics (an easy example)--say, destruction of the habitat of the fairy shrimp with one's architecture--and hope to get away with it. 

Your second question is a little more tricky. This is because you presumed that ethical judgment necessarily leads to effecting what gets built. Ethical judgments do many other things, of which only one is effecting what gets built. Suppose no one cares about the built environment; no one cares to point out that this or that is unethical--everyone simply minds their own business. This is not only a failure of democracy, but also the inevitable failure of the civic life and ultimately, the hijacking of civic life by other ideologies. How do I know? I live, and have lived, in many cities just like that! And I am sure you see that too. 

And so the question of 'to what end' is clear and very simple: to ensure that there is still a proper, humanistic and civilized way to critique and evaluate buildings beyond dollars and cents on the one hand, and on the other, that there is this other leverage against unilateralism, tyranny from wealth and reckless power in the public sphere. Just because the city has become mostly privatized and corporatized does not mean the erosion of moral rights; in other words, having economic rights do not replace the need too for moral rights. 

It is quite simple isn't it? To the end that architecture has mostly become a coding activity on the one hand, and on the other, some watered down ideology of sustainability, we have completely lost the language and interest to see that this discipline is broader on the one end, and graver for our common existence on the other end. 

Sep 18, 13 10:06 pm

I wish it where that simple.  The architectural world seems starkly divided.  Take a look at the buildings that get highlighted in a magazine like Architect and the buildings in the ads. If the professional body is who judges ethics, then it might be useful to know what part of this body you are refering to; academia, media, development, architects, builders, or clients, becasue they all play their part.  The second question is tricky becasue what's the point of ethics if they don't play any role in outcomes?  In other words, anyone can say "I Love Jesus!!!" and yet their actions might not live up to Jesuse's principals, assuming Christians can actually agree on those principles.

I found your last answer the most promising.  "To ensure that there is still a proper, humanistic and civilized way to critique and evaluate buildings"  If only that where true.  There are some who look at this profession as only a job like any other, without any responsability to the general public, a public for whom ethics would seem to benefit the most.  Does this make them "unethical"?  I'm not prepared to pass judgement on them even if it where possible to pass a judgement. 

I wish architects where instilled a set of humanist ethics.  I just don't see it happening since so many are still obsessed about defining what is "of our time".  My guess is sustainability is as good a yard stick for what is humanist since we depend on this planet to sustain our humanity, so we need to treat it right.  Some will focus on cool enviro-technology while others might focus on dense transit oriented development to minimize our foot print on this planet and still others on re-cycling.  I don't mean to be splitting hairs, but this is the conundrum with this kind of broad inquary like 'ethical architecture'.

It's an interesting topic though and you've given as good an answer as I've read.

Sep 19, 13 6:08 am

Thank you for your response. I appreciate that. To have said what you said shows that you are seeking answers. I don't have all the answers but I have some leads to some of the doubts you have. 

The professional body I am referring to is the AIA, or similar regulatory body. Yes, it is not the strongest organization but it still has some legitimacy. Sometimes on ethical matters effects show in different ways across a long time span. Not having an immediate impact does not mean no impact. 

Your 'Jesus' example is telling. Anyone can call him, 'Lord, Lord' but not everyone will follow his ways, as you suggested. Similarly, there are architects who will treat architecture as a vehicle for glory, fame or wealth, or simply, as just a job. But what is that to you? That seems to be the most important question: we are still responsible for ourselves. And so I leave others' plausible 'unethical' behavior to themselves. Where their work or their actions cross my path I oppose as much as I can civilly and leave it as that. It is not my job or mandate to police ethical violations: I can't in a society of democratic equals. 

But this does not mean I can't judge, or am unwilling to judge. This is because we are all called to judge everyday from the smallest and most trivial matters to the most critical decisions in our lives. So why this inconsistency to refrain from judgment in ethical matters? Are we fearful? I hope not. Judgment is the hallmark of humanity; and it is hardly just to conflate judgment that condemn, which is a kind of judgment that is heavily abused, and judgment that leads to the distinction between the better and the worse. Ethical judgment often is the latter rather than the former.

I see in my workplace, my school and my society an unwillingness to judge, and so the worse gets worse. But I act differently because I cannot deny this human capacity to see the better from the worse. 

On the contrary, I think pluralism to how people interpret sustainability is good. Because over time some things will show for what they are instead of what they seemed. 

Sep 19, 13 9:44 am

Maybe it's time for 'necter's to define an appropriate set of ethics for architecture.

Sustainability has been mentioned repeatedly. Also the kind of project - prison, execution facility, etc.

I don't buy the idea that the highest level of work is in itself ethical. "I'll give them the very best torture chamber they've ever seen. 220v outlets conveniently located, acoustic paneling for sound control, floor drains for easy cleanup, etc."

Sep 19, 13 10:02 am

re: your last post Miles, this seems related and I would totally agree (as an outside observer) with your point.

Sep 19, 13 11:55 am

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