In December, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) declined to adopt a rule forbidding AIA members to design specific buildings whose purposes involve human-rights violations (as defined by international laws), such as executions or prolonged solitary confinement.

The proposed amendment was submitted to the AIA on August 1, 2014, having been drafted by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), a San Francisco–based 501(c)3 organization, with the help of human-rights lawyers. The amendment would have stipulated that AIA members “shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” In effect, this would have prohibited members from designing facilities such as execution chambers, interrogation suites meant for torture, and super-maximum-security prisons that enable long-term solitary confinement. The proposed amendment would add “enforceable language” to an existing AIA ethics rule that states, “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” The ADPSR submitted the proposal along with a set of endorsement letters and two petitions (one was worded for architects, the other for educators—they have accrued more than 2,100 signatures on

In the AIA’s rejection notice to the ADPSR, 2014 AIA president Helene Combs Dreiling cited a number of concerns conveyed by a special panel appointed to examine the proposal. The panel consisted of seven AIA members, none of whom were AIA elected leadership or board members, chosen by Dreiling for their diversity of expertise and of views on the issue. Reviewing a range of documents and research material, some provided by the ADPSR, the panel evaluated the amendment in terms of the ethics code’s structure and goals. A final report, approved by all seven panel members, was submitted to the AIA board of directors in September.

Questions of scope and enforceability were the principal rationale for rejection, including the potential of an antitrust challenge on the basis of inhibiting competition, the need for a preliminary ruling by an independent court, and the difficulties for an architectural organization of making legal findings. In a statement provided to architectural record, AIA CEO Robert Ivy said that the “AIA board concluded that the current AIA code of ethics provides members and the public with strong and clearly stated guidance concerning the lawful and ethical practice of architecture.”

Architect and ADPSR president Raphael Sperry argues that demonstrating that design is intended for human-rights violations would be easy in the case of execution chambers or interrogation suites but possibly difficult regarding facilities constructed for prolonged solitary confinement. Along those lines, Sperry approved of the ongoing efforts of the AIA’s Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) to write best-practice guidelines on designing segregated housing units (SHUs), i.e., solitary confinement facilities. Such guidelines would define how architects could improve SHUs and provide a standard against which their conditions could be measured. However, the ADPSR still decries the lack of enforceable rules to punish such violations and the opacity and insularity of the AIA board of directors’ evaluation of their proposal.