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Ethics: Codes of Conduct for Design Professionals Part 1 – Introduction and Ethical Dilemmas

By Kevin O'Beirne, PE, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, CDT posted 03-05-2024 12:17 PM


This is the first in a three-part series on this blog addressing ethics for design professionals, comprised of: (a) Part 1 – Introduction and Ethical Dilemmas; (b) Part 2 – Common Ethics Requirements; and (c) Part 3 – Ethics and Business Practices.

In the practice of architecture, engineering, geology, and other design professions, the conduct of an individual licensee is as important to society and the integrity of the profession as is the competent performance of the licensee's services. 
Ethics goes to the heart of how society views the design professions and the weight and respect given to their opinions, recommendations, deliverables, and other actions. Despite its inherently basic and essential relevance to the professions as a whole, ethics may sometimes be viewed as a secondary consideration that may, on occasion, be taken for granted. 
This series of articles seeks to elevate design professionals' awareness of, and respect for, the critical importance of always acting ethically, whether in the practice of their profession or otherwise. 

What are Ethics?

The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (1985), which is the dictionary on this writer's bookshelf, includes the following:

  • "ethic n. 1. A principle of right or good conduct. 2. A system of moral principles or values. 3. Ethics (used with a sing. Verb) The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by the individual in his relationship with others. 4. Ethics. The rules or standards governing the conduct of the members of a profession.
  • “ethical. 1. Of, pertaining to, or dealing with ethics. 2. In accordance with the accepted principles of right and wrong that govern the conduct of a profession…"
Black's Law Dictionary, Tenth Edition (2014), includes the following:

  • "ethical. 1. Of, relating to, or involving moral obligations that one person owes another; esp., in law pertaining to legal ethics <the ethical rules regarding confidences>.... 2. Conforming to moral norms or standards of professional conduct <refusing to identify the informant was a perfectly ethical act>.
  • "ethics. 1. A system of moral tenets or principles; the collective doctrines relating to the ideals of human conduct and character. 2. The study of behavior as judged by moral right and wrong, including the sources, principles, and enforcement of behavioral standards…"
The very essence of ethics and what constitutes appropriate ethical behavior has been debated for millennia by philosophers, ethicists, and the public at large. Fortunately, design professionals' expectations of ethical behavior are clearly set forth in statutes governing the practice of the design professions in the United States and Canada, and in codes of conduct established by non-profit organizations representing various constituencies in the design professions.

Historical Background

One of the oldest modern organizations representing a design profession in the United States is the American Institute of Architects (AIA), founded in 1857, primarily to represent the interests of architects and to establish appropriate codes of conduct by architects. During the mid-and late-nineteenth century, a number of catastrophic building failures occurred in the United States. This led to the conclusion that the practice of designing buildings and other major structures should be restricted only to individuals possessing appropriate training, experience, and qualifications. Along with this, during the 1890s and early 1900s, came recognition that architects, like physicians and attorneys, needed to comply with an established code of conduct and to behave ethically in the practice of their profession. After all, an architect could not design a building that subsequently failed and afterward ethically assert to have prioritized the health, safety, and welfare of the building's or structure's occupants, owners, and the public at large. Accordingly, in 1909, AIA adopted the first edition of its guidelines for ethical conduct. 
In 1897, Illinois became the first state to statutorily require government-issued licensing of architects, establishing both requirements for training, experience, and qualifications, as well as ethics requirements for architects.  A likely reason for Illinois being the first was the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871, the aftermath of which saw protracted debates among politicians, journalists, the business community, and the public regarding building construction, materials, and fireproofing. Following the lead of Illinois, many other states subsequently enacted laws and regulations governing licensure of the practice of architecture. To facilitate and support greater uniformity among the architecture laws and regulations of various states, in 1919, the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (NCARB) was formed.

Recognizing that nearly identical concerns pertained to the practice of engineering as those that applied to architecture, in 1907, Wyoming became the first state to statutorily require licensure of professional engineers. Other states followed Wyoming's lead and, in 1920, the predecessor to the modern National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveyors (NCEES) was formed for the engineering professions for the same reasons NCARB was formed for architecture the previous year. In 1914, the American Society of Civil Engineers (founded in 1851) published its first code of ethics for its members. In 1934, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) was founded as a non-profit entity to represent the interests of licensed professional engineers. In 1946, NSPE adopted the first edition of its code of ethics for engineers. 
Between 1897 and 1960, every state and territory of the United States enacted laws and regulations requiring the licensure of architects and engineers, including requirements for design professionals' ethical conduct. In addition, over the years, other design professions, such as geology, landscape architecture, land surveying, and others, have seen similar licensure and ethical obligations enacted throughout the United States and Canada. 

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Design Professionals

Virtually no one believes they have behaved unethically. Indeed, probably almost everyone likes to think that everything they do, whether professionally or otherwise, is ethical. When one reads design professionals' ethics obligations, as discussed in Part 2 of this series, it may be easy to become complacent, perhaps thinking, "Of course, I comply with all these requirements." However, as is often said, the devil is in the details. In fact, under the myriad of pressures and stressors inherent in the practice of consulting engineering, consulting architecture, and other ways in which the design professions are practiced, it is easy and, perhaps, surprisingly common, for ethical lapses to occur.

Some of the most well-known lapses in design professionals' ethics arose from errors in judgment regarding the severity of mistakes or omissions in a design where eventual failure jeopardized health and safety (for example, the 1981 collapse of the skywalk system at the Hyatt Regency Kansas City Hotel), and those where business or other pressures manifest to, "Keep silent and play ball, or else our business interests and, perhaps, your career, may see adverse consequences" (for example, the City of Flint 2014 water crisis). However, perhaps among the most common types of ethics challenges experienced by design professionals are more mundane and probably less-remarkable to those who experience them. Some examples either observed by or made known to this writer by trusted colleagues include (none of the examples below involved the writer's employer): 
  • Two senior client development personnel, each of whom was a licensed professional engineer (PE), orally pressured a third PE in their firm to seal and sign a manufacturer's shop drawing for a facility and equipment for which the third PE had no responsible charge or other connection. The project owner was an entity in urgent economic and environmental need of a certain new facility for which the owner had not engaged a consulting engineer and for which an operating permit from an authority having jurisdiction was necessary. To impress the project owner and set their consulting engineering firm up for increased business opportunities with that entity, the two client development personnel placed the firm's business interests above ethical obligations and compliance with statutory requirements for responsible charge. After consulting with other trusted colleagues, the third PE behaved ethically and refused to give in to the pressure to seal and sign the shop drawing. 
  • When this writer was 18 years old and working as a summer intern for a civil engineer in private practice, the engineer was observed removing another PE's seal and signature from a design drawing and subsequently applying his own seal and signature to the drawing. Not knowing much about professional ethics at the time, I nevertheless inherently understood what I had witnessed was wrong. 
  • A consulting engineering firm served as the town engineer and planning board engineer for a certain municipality. Two different, major retailers announced, nearly simultaneously, plans to construct large site developments in that municipality. A senior client development person (not a PE) at the engineering firm worked hard to obtain contracts to serve as the site design engineer for the developers despite the engineering firm serving as the town engineer and planning board engineer responsible for reviewing and recommending approvals by the municipality. Ultimately, the engineering firm was unable to procure either contract, although the engineer's client development person obtained from a majority of the town board and planning board members oral concurrence for the firm to pursue the contracts. However, such concurrence was informal, solicited, and obtained outside official channels and did not include all members of the town board and planning board. 
  • At a consulting engineering firm, colleagues informally asserted that they believed a senior staff member who was a PE serving in responsible charge of professional services, regularly required a senior technician who possessed only a high school diploma to complete the preparation of engineering deliverables and transmit them to clients while the PE was out of the office for extended durations. The senior technician was reportedly orally instructed by the PE to retrieve the PE's seal from a desk drawer and apply a scanned, digital facsimile of the PE's signature adjacent to the seal prior to transmitting the deliverables to clients. 
  • A client development person who was a PE at a large design firm was ultimately found by a state's professional engineering licensing board to have engaged in unethical conduct. The client development person obtained business from a certain department of a large municipal government organization by making inappropriate gifts of travel and entertainment to another PE in charge of the department. Both PEs suffered personal disgrace and adverse media coverage for their ethical lapses. The client development person was investigated by the state licensing board and his employer and was ultimately censured and lost his job. The municipal employee was found to have violated the municipality's own ethics requirements. 
  • A senior employee of a design firm, who frequently served in responsible charge, had reportedly allowed their PE license to lapse. Despite this, the PE continued to seal and sign work products for the firm for 18 months before other staff reported him to the firm's ethics/compliance officer. 
These are just a few examples. When considering an industry involving hundreds of thousands of design professionals, it is easy to see how there is potential for ethical lapses in judgment to occur on a routine basis.


To protect public health, safety, and welfare, as well as to assure the integrity of the professions, architects, engineers, geologists, and other design professionals are obligated to certain codes of conduct and ethics requirements. Although complying with ethics obligations may appear to be intuitive and easy, real-life practices suggest that proper conduct can sometimes be challenging. Fortunately, various organizations and statutes have established written requirements to guide design professionals to behave ethically. 
Forthcoming installments in this series on this blog will include Part 2 – Common Ethics Requirements and Part 3 – Ethics and Business Practices.

Acknowledgments: The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following, who kindly reviewed and commented on drafts of this article: Jerry Cavaluzzi, Esq, of Westchester County, NY, who is Chief Risk Officer and General Counsel for Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, Inc.; and James K. Lowe, Jr., Esq., P.E. (VA, emeritus), who has more than 45 years experience in the A/E industry. The author is solely responsible for the content of this article.

Copyright 2024 by Kevin O'Beirne

The content of this blog post is by the author alone and should not be attributed to any other individual or entity. The author of this blog post is not an attorney, and nothing in this blog post constitutes legal advice. Readers in need of legal advice should consult with a qualified, experienced attorney.

Kevin O'Beirne, PE, FCSI, CCS, CCCA is a professional engineer licensed in NY and PA with over 35 years of experience designing and constructing water and wastewater infrastructure for public and private clients. He is the engineering specifications manager for a global engineering and architecture design firm. He has been a member of various CSI national committees and is the certification chair of CSI's Buffalo-Western New York Chapter. He is an ACEC voting delegate in the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC) and lives and works in the Buffalo, NY, area.  Kevin O'Beirne's LinkedIn page