Design in the public interest



“Public interest is advanced if all architects recognise that the fundamental and overriding obligation of a profession is to serve and promote the public interest. While an architect has a duty to the client…there is a parallel duty to the public.”

This simple statement appears in the introduction to the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct. It acknowledges that, just as Doctors take an oath to do no harm, and lawyers have a responsibility to the Court as well as their own clients, architects carry a dual responsibility to their client, and to the wider public interest. The responsibility is not only a function of the Code. The National Standard of Competency for Architects comprises five domains of knowledge that include a Social and Ethical domain which is about an understanding of the impact of architecture on communities.

So how do we define the public interest in architecture? Search, and you’ll find little written on it.

When architects turn to the subject of the public interest, it often reveals itself in forums on affordable public housing, public transport or the adverse public health effects of poor planning that isolates households away from services and support. These are themes which extend beyond any single project or precinct, and span multiple portfolios of transport, health and infrastructure, but also go deeper to the very priorities we apply in decision making and public services (which is itself a question of design in the public interest – refer FutureGov or Mindlab, or the Sydney-based New Democracy Foundation).

But can architects really influence the decisions made by government, the finance sector or those who build the business case behind large scale development? Many architects see it as a function of a peak body to advocate or influence. Peak bodies see it as responsibility themselves. A recent survey by the Australian Institute of Architects asked its members to rank a series of priorities, including the importance of influencing public policy, alongside advocating for action on climate change or ‘cutting red tape’. In the US, the institutionalising of ‘public interest’ as something outside architectural practice is evident in a 2011 paper supported by the AIA that asked if ‘public interest design’ was even part of the profession, or whether it belonged alongside as a separate discipline.


But architects are embedded in the decision making process. In NSW, the Office of the Government Architect helps shape the scope and delivery for pubic projects formed inside government. In-house design units embedded in development companies like Lend Lease, Stockland and Mirvac are in the room early, developing alternatives to prove up feasibility. The NSW Architects Registration Board is, right now, working with young architects, education specialists and primary school teachers to bring design education to year 5-6 students within the NSW Education curriculum. So how do these architects define or channel the public interest? And again – what do we mean when we use the term, ’public interest’? Can we even measure the impact or the risk inherent in that interest?

For example, can architects address long term, public risk and liabilities – like the impact of extreme weather events on communities?  In 2013 the Blue Mountains bushfires destroyed or damaged around 320 homes, with a total cost of more than $180 million. Extreme heat is a regular event in Sydney. On 11 February 2017, Sydney recorded temperatures of 47 degrees C in Penrith. During the last peak event in 2013, 133 people were treated after falling unconscious and an additional 220 for other heat-related illnesses. Developing tools and resources in response to these public risks is clearly in the public interest; based on the economic and human health cost alone. And there’s a precedent too. After the 2009 Victorian bushfires, the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority worked with the Government Architect, Geoffrey London, to co-ordinate 19 architects to offer a free catalogue of architect-designed homes. Responses like this don’t need to be limited to moments of crisis. A ‘Small Homes Advisory Service‘ that teams an intelligent ‘architectural kit of parts’  with advice could help accelerate every architect and planner’s call for a more mixed, gentle density in the middle ring.

Public interest and professional ethics

What little is written on architectural practice and the public interest quickly turns to the subject of ethics. Often, this explores the ethics of professional design services for prisons and detention centres (versus the ethics of withholding services from the under-served and most marginalised), or to the exclusive domain of the wealthy. But these are extreme examples. Ethics and the public interest can surely be applied in a more day to day sense.

Locally, architects like Paul Pholeros pioneered HealthHabitat – a not for profit aimed at improving the health of people, particularly children 0-5 years of age, by ensuring they have access to safe and well functioning housing, and an improved living environment. Nightingale – founded by Melbourne architect Jeremy McLeod – is a design-led co-operative-style housing model “where the purchasers (the future residents) have agency in decision-making.”  Applications for the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarships show a growing trend towards research in design-led public engagement programs, and in social impact through architecture – exemplified by Callantha Brigham’s ‘Enabling Goods Deeds in Design’. A common theme in all is the idea of an architect’s skillset brought to a collective benefit, and serving the under-served.

So architects have, and are, finding ways to create positive impact and the public good. But is it enough that some shining examples exist in isolation? In a 1999 essay for Architecture Australia, Dr Simon Longstaff AO of the St James Ethics Centre challenged the profession to put the public interest first, or put at risk the social licence inherent in the statutory protection of the title. If the idea of a profession is to have any significance, Longstaff argues, then it hinges on the notion that professionals make a bargain with society in which they promise conscientiously to serve the public interest, even if to do so may, at times, be at their own expense. Longstaff cautions that “..there would seem to be a growing sense that architecture is just another form of business, and not really a profession at all.” A few years, a GFC and a boom or two later, Longstaff’s caution still seems relevant in 2017.

For Wikihouse co-founder, architect and serial social enterpriser, Indy Johar, the answer is radical. His 2015 manifesto ‘Towards a Future Architecture: 3 Revolutions & 9 Ideas reinvent architecture & design argues that architects need a Hippocratic oath with ensuing liabilities in reference to the long term social and environmental performance of the built environment they design. This would address what Johar sees as a tendency for architects to operate in an environment where buildings and places are designed around short term ROI dictated by clunky financial instruments. For Johar, we need an architecture of outcomes driven by a transformation in business models. “Imagine a world in which architects — as part of their contractual responsibility focused on outcomes — say enhancing innovation, empathy, retention rates, reduction of sick leave, integrity of business and took responsibility building the deep environments to enhance those outcomes and were paid to advance these issues and strategic outcomes as opposed the being paid for organising the commodity of building matter.” (Catch audio from Indy at the Sydney Architecture Festival, World Architecture day global oration).


This may go some way to answering a question Longstaff leaves hanging in his essay. Borrowing from a legal context, Longstaff brings the public interest and ethics together with the idea of the social good.

“One of the tasks of the professional is to seek the social good. It follows from this that one cannot be a professional unless one has some sense of what the social good is. Accordingly, one’s very status as a professional requires that one possess this moral truth. But it requires more, for each profession seeks the social good in a different form, according to its particular expertise. Doctors seek it in the form of health; engineers in the form of safe, efficient buildings and lawyers seek it in the form of justice. Each profession must seek its own form of the social good. Without such knowledge, professionals cannot perform their social roles.”

Our own interest here is in defining a social good that, we think, lies not just in the immediate interests of the private consumer, but also the broader public interest and longer term risks that can’t be addressed at the project-level. The simple shift from architects delivering the stand alone home for a nuclear family – although still common – to apartment living where the ‘consumer’ has little if any contact with the architect (or anyone beyond the sales team) requires that we also adjust. We know we need to inform and engage on issues that transcend individual projects if we are to do our bit to serve and promote the public interest.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s