Eleanor Jolliffe takes issue with the way the new code of conduct infantilises the profession

Eleanor Jolliffe

A new set of RIBA code of conduct came into effect at the start of May. The RIBA told me that the codes needed to be strengthened, with “more detail and additional guidance – to meet best practice for professional disciplinary matters”. This hasn’t been done half-heartedly. The previous code, from 2005, could fit on two sides of A4 – with room to spare. The 2019 revision takes 18 sides of A4. This revision is significant, not just for the apparent 900% increase in content, but for the increased specificity of the codes.

For instance, until April 30 it was sufficient for members to “comply with good employment practice and the RIBA employment policy, in their capacity as an employer or employee”. Now the requirements, for responsibilities as an employer alone, stretch to nearly a full A4 sheet including guidance on contracts, employment disputes and employing interns. I could expand this at some length but, in brief, a summary of the changes I could see from a side by side comparison is as follows (bear with me):

Principle 1: Integrity

Significantly expanded and re-written sections on: Impartiality and undue influence; Statements; Conflicts of interest; Confidentiality and privacy; and Bribery and corruption. New sections covering: Handling client money; and Criminal conviction or disqualification as a director/sanction.

Principle 2: Competence

This section has been most notably expanded and almost entirely re-written. The vague, open-ended guidelines of 2005 are entirely gone and the scope of what “competence” covers has been substantially expanded. Some of the new content in this section seems to directly address the outcomes of recent legal proceedings regarding architects – specifically Freeborn V Marcel (record keeping, appointments and client communications) and Stuart Duffy (certificates and practical completion).

Significantly expanded and rewritten sections on: Skill, knowledge, care, ability; Terms of appointment; Keeping the client informed; Record keeping; and Law and regulations. New sections covering: Time, cost, quality; Health and safety; Inspection services; Building performance; Heritage and conservation; Certification; The environment; and Community and society.

Principle 3: Relationships

Significantly expanded and rewritten sections on: Equality, diversity and inclusion; Employment and responsibilities as an employer; Competitions; and Complaints and dispute resolution.

New sections covering: Copyright; Previous appointments; Peers; Modern slavery; Advertising/business names/use of RIBA crest and logo; Insurance; Non-disclosure agreements; and Whistleblowing.

I was particularly struck by how much more prescriptive the RIBA now is on both environmental and social issues. Before it was deemed sufficient that, “members should respect the beliefs and opinions of other people, recognise social diversity and treat everyone fairly…” and that, “members shall be aware of the environmental impact of their work”.

Now the RIBA seems to be requiring positive action and a broader sphere of influence from its members as, among other things, members “shall provide their professional services… in a manner that encourages and promotes equality of opportunity and diversity”, “shall seek and promote social justice” and “shall encourage their clients to adopt sustainable practices at the earliest opportunity”.

In response to my query on why these areas in particular had been so strengthened the RIBA said: “The codes have been strengthened in order to make architects’ obligations even clearer in respect of wider social and environmental issues. They need to reflect the evolving definitions of architectural practice. Architects certainly need to be more responsive and agile than ever before”.

The RIBA’s insistence that “members should practise evidence-informed design and should keep evidence used in reaching design decisions” worried me, however. This may be a reaction to the Freeborn/Marcel case, but I am now in a slight quandary. Should I report a prominent architect who once guest lectured at my university for the (striking) blue they used “because we liked it”? Or another notable architect whose building ended up a particular shade as “the model foam was that colour and we all got so used to it no one could imagine anything else”?

These may be trite examples but I hope you will humour me. An RIBA that starts being prescriptive on matters of style and design is an RIBA I am less keen to be associated with. The best design isn’t always entirely “evidence-informed”. As an aside, the disciplinary reporting and actions on these codes are worth a column of their own.

There is no doubt the RIBA has been closing loopholes. The 2005 codes were concise and implied, to me anyway, that you were an adult and a professional. They seemed to suggest that, with your extensive RIBA accredited education you already possessed the tools to practise at a gold standard and that these guidelines were merely helpful reminders.

The 2019 codes are well-researched and written, socially and environmentally responsible and significantly more comprehensive. They clearly indicate the RIBA’s opinion on significant issues such as the environment, modern slavery, client relations and work-life balance. I applaud them and the sentiments behind them. However, I can’t help feeling slightly infantilised by them.

Perhaps I was naïve to assume that chartered architects would act in an honest and professional manner without these guidelines. But if the RIBA believes it is necessary to instruct that: “Members shall not allow themselves to be improperly influenced by their own self-interest” (1.1.4 ); “Members shall abide by applicable laws and regulations at all times” (2.1.4 ); and “Members must not seek to pass off someone else’s work as their own” (3.1.4 ) I am slightly less proud to belong to this profession than I was before I read them.

Perhaps the RIBA puts less faith in the qualifications it accredits or has less confidence in its members’ consciences than 15 years ago. Or maybe the RIBA itself has become more morally substantive. But the message I take from these codes, and several others, is: “We don’t entirely trust you to be professional any more.”

In all likelihood this is unfair. I am a young architect and have been fortunate to work in highly competent and professional practices. The idea that anyone I work with would have to be reminded to “accept professional responsibility for the professional services provided by them to their clients…” (2.1.3) or “not knowingly violate the law…” (2.11.1) is laughable.

Perhaps I am just very lucky. Nevertheless, I am worried for the future of the profession if it turns out that my experience is more representative of the exception than the norm.