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When Addressing Liability and Ethics, Upfront is the Only Option

The Citicorp Center case study shows the professional benefits of accountability, even when the risk is negative public scrutiny

For many architects, dealing with the myriad requirements and the complexities their practices impose can be difficult, and a frequently overlooked aspect is ethics. While sound business decisions usually fulfill one’s ethical obligations, there are times when business acumen does not completely address ethical responsibilities, leaving the architect to identify issues and formulate important and difficult decisions that may ultimately define one’s practice. Author Michael J. Vardaro explores these challenges in a new white paper commissioned by the AIA Trust, which examines the design of the Citicorp Center in New York City. This white paper is available to members on the AIA Trust website, and is discussed in a seminar entitled “LeMessurier Stands Tall: A Case Study in Professional Ethics” at the AIA National Convention in June. Additionally, the ARCHITECT Live presentation “Ethical Architecture: Excellence in Client Retention and Risk Management” will explore the same topic.

The design of the Citicorp Center (renamed the Citigroup Center in 2009) is an excellent case study by which to analyze the competing demands placed on design professionals, and to examine how business, legal, and ethical responsibilities must be carefully considered and balanced. The story demonstrates the need for proper communication, delegation, and supervision during the design and construction process, and emphasizes the importance of balancing professional and legal responsibilities with ethical obligations. William LeMessurier, a prominent American structural engineer at that time, ultimately salvaged his career, and in fact elevated his stature in the design professional community, by the way he handled a serious structural controversy.

The purchase agreement of the Citicorp Center property entailed an important condition: to build a new church on the same corner with no connection to the Citicorp building. This presented a significant architectural and engineering challenge. Citibank, the project’s client, retained Hugh Stubbins to be the architect of the new building, and engineer LeMessurier proposed a chevron pattern of structural bracing to transfer loads to columns placed at the mid-span of the building’s exterior walls. This permitted each corner of the building to cantilever out 72 feet, and to place the new church building into the property’s corner.

The Citicorp Center building was completed in 1977. Shortly thereafter, Diane Hartley, a Princeton engineering student, raised serious questions regarding the calculations made to determine and compensate for sway vulnerability, given the steel superstructure’s relatively light weight compared with other skyscrapers. Her calculations indicated that quartering winds produced significantly higher stresses than those pushing against one face of the building, a different structural behavior than a conventional building with columns placed at the four corners.

During the course of the Citicorp Center project, the steel contractor had proposed a substitution to the full penetration weld required in the construction documents because of cost considerations. The substitution was accepted and approved through the shop drawing process. LeMessurier knew of the substitution when he became aware of the student’s inquiry. In light of the inquiry, he gave the issue serious thought and chose to further investigate, uncovering what he called “very peculiar behavior” that prompted him to investigate further, rather than look the other way. It was his thorough investigation and recalculations that indicated a very realistic potential for structural system failure and possible building collapse. In determining the full extent of the problem, LeMessurier’s calculations revealed that potential winds could topple the building, and he was forced to reevaluate the situation. His predicament illustrated how important it is for design professionals to be willing to reanalyze their work and remain open to other ideas, perspectives, and criticisms.

How LeMessurier decided to proceed, and the lasting impact of his actions, are what comprise this case study of ethics and how ethical actions—however costly in money and reputation—ultimately yield the only acceptable course of action. Acknowledging, confronting, and solving the problem evidenced in LeMessurier’s actions commanded respect from all those involved, and the overall handling of the situation helped create good will that became invaluable. In detail, the ethics white paper identifies numerous valuable lessons learned, and conduct that can forestall, or at the very least rectify, problems that arise.

While the AIA Code of Ethics does not specifically describe the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the same manner as the engineering code, this concept is fundamental to the profession of architecture. The AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct requires that, if an architect becomes aware of a decision made by a client that adversely affects the safety of the public, the architect must not only refuse to consent to the decision but must also report the issue to public officials. There can be no doubt that safety comes first, and all decisions made by design professionals must be made with safety in mind.


Recent Related:

Insure Your Firm’s Future: The AIA Trust Professional Liability Database


Read the white paper, “LeMessurier Stands Tall: A Case Study in Professional Ethics”

Visit the AIA Trust research archive.

Find this upcoming white paper and all AIA Trust risk management resources—free to AIA members—on the AIA Trust website.


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