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“Do No Harm:” The Architect’s Standard of Care

For building codes, architects must strive for the highest standard possible

By A. Vernon Woodworth, AIA, LEED AP

The views reflected in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the American Institute of Architects or its members.

Every architect assumes a standard of care in the course of his or her professional activities. The establishment of minimum standards for safety in buildings, as defined through building codes, is a significant factor in defining this duty of care. Beyond any contractual obligations or other warranties, the establishment of a standard of reasonable care addresses the obligation of the architect when he or she performs any acts that could forseeably result in harm to others. Consequently, the standard of reasonable care sets the bar for a finding of negligence. As a result, when codes evolve, so does the architect's standard of care.

But is this duty really limited to meeting the minimum standards of the codes -- the least safe and least energy efficient building one can legally construct? What if standard design and building practices are found to have deleterious environmental effects that impact climate and that contribute to rising sea-levels, desertification, species extinction, and other negative consequences? Could the continued construction of inefficient buildings and the propagation of environmentally harmful landscapes in the face of scientific evidence of destructive impacts be equated to the manufacture of tobacco products after a direct link to cancer has been established?

We know that climate is changing due to emissions which alter the troposphere, and building construction and operation are the single largest source of these emissions. The current best estimate is that buildings, along with their associated embodied energy, contribute 48 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and that 76 percent of all electricity generated from nonrenewable sources is consumed by buildings. "Business as usual" will result in both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions increasing by at least 35 percent by 2030.

The AIA and the IGCC

The AIA sustainability position statement addresses these responsibilities of the profession:


      The AIA recognizes a growing body of evidence that demonstrates current planning, design, construction, and real estate practices contribute to patterns of resource consumption that will inhibit the sustainable future of the Earth. Architects, as the leaders in design of the built environment, are responsible to act as stewards of the Earth. Consequently, we encourage communities to join with us to take the leadership to change the course of the planet's future and support legislative and regulatory strategies that implement sustainable design practices to advance the goal of achieving carbon-neutral buildings by the year 2030.

Partnering with the International Code Council, ASTM International, ASHRAE, the Illuminating Engineering Society, and the USGBC, the AIA has demonstrated its commitment to this position statement in the development of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). This code stretches the boundaries of a traditional building code in several ways.


      • With a chapter devoted to natural resource conservation, land use, and development, the IGCC expands the jurisdiction of the code beyond the boundaries of the building envelope and even beyond the boundaries of the site.

      • A chapter on material resource efficiency includes requirements for waste management, recycled content, and life cycle assessment.

      • The chapter on energy efficiency and atmospheric quality includes a section on commissioning, documentation, and planning for operations and maintenance. As such, the IGCC continues to prescribe requirements beyond the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy, the traditional termination of a building code's involvement.

“Do no harm”

Will the adoption of the IGCC expand the architect's legal responsibilities and therefore their exposure to liability? There is no question that it will, but this expansion is both inevitable and necessary. By proactively assuming this responsibility, as the AIA has done through its sustainability position statement, its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality in the built environment by 2030, and its participation in the IGCC development process, the leadership of the profession in the realm of the built environment is reaffirmed.

The ultimate standard of care is that of the medical profession: “Do no harm.” With regard to the environmental impacts of our professional work as architects, why would this not be our standard of care as well? Physicians are respected and compensated for their mastery of the healing arts. It seems reasonable to assume that a society reoriented, in large part, to the perpetuation of a sustainable level of development and consumption would both value and appropriately compensate the professionals most directly associated with the achievement of these goals. If this sounds unrealistic, consider the implications of a society not aligned with these goals, and ask yourself whether this is an acceptable alternative.

What is our standard of care?

The AIA, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Union of Concerned Scientists, and numerous other organizations now recognize the health of the biosphere as the number one issue faced by all societies on Earth. Based on information provided by the AIA and following the example of the AIA's sustainability position statement, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has adopted a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. The plan intends to reduce the use of fossil fuels in buildings by 60 percent by 2010; 70 percent by 2015; 80 percent by 2020; 90 percent by 2025; achieving full carbon neutrality by 2030. Presumably, architects will be designing these buildings, so it is not unreasonable to assume that fee structures will inevitably evolve to incorporate this expanded responsibility.

Despite much concern, there have been only a limited number of lawsuits filed against architects for their role in the certification of a building in accordance with the USGBC's LEED program. The newly-developed IGCC raises similar concerns. However, the AIA has both sponsored this code and been substantially represented on its drafting committees. Through continued involvement in the evolution of the IGCC, the delegation of responsibilities can be clarified and the terms and conditions of its enforcement refined. Backing away from the expanded scope of the IGCC and its implications for the profession is not an option.

The IPCC projects a rise in the earth's average temperature given current projected energy consumption and emissions between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius, but a more recent study from MIT concludes that consequences of climate change have been underestimated significantly. The most recent consensus study of the issue, prepared as a background document of the Copenhagen international climate negotiations, establishes an increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as the tipping point beyond which consequences become catastrophic. Achieving the goal of limiting emissions to avoid this tipping point requires an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions by 60 to 80 percent. Given the role of the built environment in generating these emissions and the role of the architectural profession in designing the built environment, what is our standard of care? We must answer this for ourselves before it is answered for us.

Recent Related:

Practice Update: Risk and LEED Online Version 3

Sustainable AIA: 2031--Integrating Sustainability and Design for the Future (and Today)

Sustainability and Design -- Can We Evolve?

What You Need to Know About the IGCC

Public Comments Sought on International Green Construction Code First Draft

International Green Construction Code Effort Tackles Building Commissioning and Adoptability

Work on International Green Construction Code Continues on Course

ICC, AIA, ASTM Begin Work on International Green Construction Code

AIA Partners with ICC to Create a Green Construction Code

AIA, NBI Partner on Energy Saving Code Revisions


Check out the AIA's Codes Advocacy home page and its IGCC toolkit.

See what the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community, as well as the Codes and Standards Member Community, are up to.

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the podcast "Citizen Architect on the Move: Chris Green, AIA."

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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