Ethics: Are Architect-Manufacturer Partnerships a Good Idea?

A recent article in The Construction Specifier Magazine, “AIA Study Provides Roadmap to Enhance Architect-Manufacturer Relationship,”[1] summarizes the findings of a new AIA (American Institute of Architects) study[2] on the relationships between building product manufacturers and architects. The study suggests that architects and manufacturers form long-term partnerships, but it is unclear if these are meant to be formalized business relationships (i.e., joint ventures or strategic partnerships) or merely symbolic (i.e., friendships or social relationships). Either case may raise ethics conflicts for both parties, but in the former case, a contractually defined relationship is particularly disturbing from the standpoint of the architect’s professional ethics.

Architects have a long-standing primary ethical duty as professional advisors to their clients, codified in the earliest version of the AIA Canons of Ethics (1909)[3], and consistently incorporated in subsequent versions, up to the current 2018 revision[4]. If the architect enters into a business agreement with a manufacturer, the architect assumes legal and ethical obligations to that manufacturer including acting in the best interests of the architect-manufacturer partnership. What happens when architects’ business responsibilities to their manufacturer-partners conflict with their responsibilities to their clients, the owners? Specifically, what happens when an architect is asked to select the most appropriate product for a client’s building among many manufacturers, and one of those manufacturers is also in a partnership with the architect? How can the client be assured the architect is acting in the best interest of the client, and not merely defaulting to the manufacturer-partner’s product?

The Construction Specifier article has drawn responses in social media from some who proffer CSI (Construction Specifications Institute) as a better exemplar than AIA of an organization where collegial collaboration between manufacturer and architect is already occurring. In fact CSI, through its trusted advisor initiative and its CCPR (Certified Construction Product Representative) certification, has done a great service in defining the experienced product representative’s value to the architect. As CSI’s Product Representation Practice Guide[5] states, “Product representatives who exhibit detailed knowledge, competence, a willingness to consult, and a history of honest and ethical dealings have an excellent opportunity to become important resources for the [architect].”

But, while it might be tempting to boost CSI rather than AIA as a resource for building relationships between architects and manufacturers, neither organization provides useful guidance on the ethics of a situation where an architect would partner with a manufacturer. The current AIA Code of Ethics is fraught with internal contradictions that can result in unresolvable conflicts when applied to specific examples. On the subject of ethics, CSI is largely silent, having abandoned as obsolete its previous ethics code; currently, there are no plans to replace it.

Can the proposed architect-manufacturer partnerships suggested by AIA square with traditional professional ethics without further complicating the inherent contradictions within its existing code? Can CSI, with its current laissez-faire attitude toward ethics, contribute anything of value to the conversation? Ethics is not static, it changes as society and business evolves. There was a time when the ethics of architecture prohibited architects from practicing design-build, from competing for commissions based on fee, and from advertising. All of that is no longer true, made obsolete by an evolving construction industry. It is a conflict of interest for an architect to have a financial interest in a building product manufacturer. It is difficult to imagine how changing this longstanding ethical prohibition would not ultimately violate the primary ethical and fiduciary duty an architect has to his or her client.[6]


[1]https://www.constructionspecifier.com/aia-study-provides-roadmap-to-enhance-architect-manufacturer-relationship/?utm_content=bufferf5a19&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=editorial

[2]https://www.aia.org/resources/85766-the-architects-journey-to-specification:46

[3]The 1909 AIA Code of Ethics was printed in “The American Architect,” Vol. XCVI., No. 1774, p. 273-

[4]http://aiad8.prod.acquia-sites.com/sites/default/files/2018-09/2018_Code_of_Ethics_0.pdf

[5]Spiegel, Ross G., et al. The CSI Construction Product Representation Practice Guide. Wiley, 2013.

[6]The views expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily represent those of the Greater St. Louis Chapter of CSI.


George A. Everding, FCSI CCS CCCA AIA SCIP, now retired, spent forty years as an architect, including three years as a specifier and product representative for a manufacturer. He presented "Ethics for Design and Construction: Making Good Choices" at the October Greater St. Louis chapter meeting, and at CONSTRUCT2018.

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