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The Committee on the Environment (COTE®) is an AIA Knowledge Community working for architects, allied professionals, and the public to achieve climate action and climate justice through design. We believe that design excellence is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future. Our work promotes design strategies that empower all AIA members to realize the best social and environmental outcomes with the clients and the communities they serve.

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Equity in Architecture: It's Part of Sustainability

By Elizabeth Rupp del Monte FAIA posted 08-21-2019 11:59 AM


Justice and equity are difficult issues to connect directly with the practice of architecture and sustainable design. But these issues are, in fact, embedded in our pursuit of a sustainable future by design. They are clearly connected to the lives of architects. They are not new issues. As we continue to raise the profile of dealing with issues of climate change in the public sector, we must remember who the public sector is, and who are the groups most impacted by these problems. 

It is well understood that the people most affected by climate change are those living in poverty. Globally, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts can separate families and jeopardize livelihoods, and create climate refugees. These effects increase the risk of conflict, hunger and poverty.

Here in the US as well, these events drive people from their homes and threaten food and water supplies. Those with limited or no resources are unable to deal with these circumstances.

Because climate change is the existential issue of our time, it is essential that all people --  all ages, ethnicities, genders, and races -- be empowered to respond. For example, it is particularly dire where the best response to issues of vulnerable land use is avoid rebuilding in frequently flooded areas, but the residents in those areas have no options for relocation. 

We have recently been remembering when, 50 years ago, Whitney Young spoke to the assembled members of the AIA, at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland, saying, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”

He targeted his remarks at the time to architects in general, but this message seems appropriate as a clarion call to awareness of inequitable impact of the climate emergency on people of color. This awareness cannot change our effort toward dealing with design to mitigate our environmental impact, rather it should make us be more intentional about seeing how more communities can help, and be helped.

In discussing this topic, there are often two objections:

  1. Climate urgency is so important, so crucial, we can’t be distracted by adding other things to it.
  2. We need to provide an equitable, safe society for people of color first, then we can worry about being green.

The answer to both these comments is, yes, it’s urgent and we need rapid action, but not separate actions. As we move forward to solve climate change, we must include everyone. And if issues of environmental equity are not addressed, people who are now behind in accessing society’s benefits will still be behind. A full stand against racism requires standing against the destruction of the environment and against climate change.

By all means, we must work together. To quote African American sustainability advocate Addie Fisher (from a recent post), “You can be mad about a whole lot of s**t at once. You can fight for multiple causes at the same time. But hating on other people for fighting for a good cause is a misdirected waste of energy.”

Working together on these issues as a diverse, unified profession is difficult when diversity is not represented in the profession. The following diagram shows the flow of different demographics through the profession. The numbers of white men and white women are fairly even at the start, but men flow into the Principal box at about 3:1. 

Non-white architects’ numbers are much smaller at the start. There is almost no visible trace from architects of color to the box for principals. This is hard to understand given that in 2018, NCARB reported that non-white students were about 25% of the total of those in school.


So, in 2019, what is the meaning of environmental justice in architecture? 

We know that the highest performing firms have a greater diversity of staff, as noted in “The Habits of High-Performance Firms” by Lance Hosey. But the rates are still low. And to combat environmental injustice, we must face the lack of diversity among those trained to address the problem. 

The problem for architects is much the same for other professions. To do the best work we need to have the best possible designers and managers. This means those with the best training, the best experience, and the best understanding of the process of design, and the technicalities of sustainability.  There are those who resist giving what some call “special treatment” to under-represented groups. In his speech 50 years ago, Whitney Young addressed this:


“For a society that has permitted itself the luxury of an excess of callousness and indifference, we can now afford to permit ourselves the luxury of an excess of caring and of concern.”


We are all human and our innate tendency is to group together with people who look like us, and have similar cultural backgrounds. It’s just easier. Teams working on climate change are no different. 


The truth is, when it comes to quality of work, that greater diversity – of people, of ideas – leads to more creativity and better results. But to get those voices in the room, and to give them equal opportunities to be heard, requires unequal efforts toward empowerment. 


The lack of equity in architecture is a real thing. It means we design buildings for people like us, thinking they will use them like we do, and thinking they want them to look they way we like them to. An architect named Kenneth Luker, with Perkins + Will, was designing a project for an African-American community in Vancouver. He said, “I like clean straight geometry. They wanted none of that. They wanted forms that expressed the movement and the action of their lives, even if it was messy. They actually wanted the un-geometric, uneven edges.” By including the community and engaging them in an equitable process, the project became a much-loved success, with a different design than the architect would have provided otherwise. To be sure buildings are efficiently serving the community, this process is essential.


The issue of equity has been addressed in a range of ways at the national AIA level. The AIA Code of Ethics has been revised recently to address both issues of equity and designing for climate change. 


There are unfortunate stereotypes about who cares about the environment (Subaru-driving middle-aged white ladies?) Stereotypes are just stories we tell about certain groups to categorize that group in shorthand. They are powerful because the stories we tell about ourselves or others shape how we see the world and how the world sees us. But they are only stories, and we can rewrite them.


Fred Perpall is CEO of The Beck Group, and one of the few black architects in Dallas leading a major firm. He knows the challenges of stereotypes and how powerful they can be in shaping one's behavior. In architecture school, Perpall was one of two black students in the program and struggled to fit in.


It was only several years into his career that Perpall finally felt confident enough to show his authentic self, and he began to succeed.  “I finally felt I could show my colleagues and bosses the real me, and my full expression of creativity and talents.” 


How do we move past stereotypes and rewrite the story of women and people of color in architecture?


When Roberta Washington launched her firm in 1983, it was one of the first African-American, woman-owned architectural firms in the country. Firms like hers are often included on project teams to do just enough work to get the contract percentages to meet the RFP requirements. This is frustrating for architects like Washingtonand others, who want to be hired on their merits and given credit for their capabilities. It happens to both women-owned firms, and minority-owned firms.


Zena Howard, one of only 0.02 percent of female African American architects in the U.S. says that, sustainability is a key factor in her design work.  She explained, “Sustainability is a huge issue. In light of the fact that buildings worldwide consume 60 percent of our energy sources, we, as architects have a huge [responsibility] to do something about the energy savings and energy goals in this country." 


There are signs of progress. In addition to the requirements for high levels of performance, a university recently included the following request in an RFP:


The university is exploring ways to infuse Critical Race Theory (CRT) into the project. It’s new to capital planning as we explore innovative approaches to engage people most affected by educational inequities.

  • Please explain your philosophy and approach to inclusive design.
  • In what ways do you think design can contribute to college retention, academic success, and social equity?
  • What tools does your team use to promote a racially inclusive design process? 


As always, whether it’s diversity or sustainability, when our clients ask for it, we take it seriously, but we shouldn’t be waiting. We should be leading. The incoming generations of architects are counting on it.


Since I began with Whitney Young, I will also give him the final words:


“An ancient Greek scholar was once asked to predict when the Greeks would achieve victory in Athens. He replied, “We shall achieve victory in Athens and justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.” 

And so shall it be with this problem of human rights in this country.”


And so shall it be with environmental equity.


Betsy del Monte, FAIA, teaches environmentally responsive planning and high performance building design in multiple venues. As a consultant with Cameron MacAllister, she works with firms and project teams to enable sustainability and resilient design.  An adjunct professor at SMU, she teaches a graduate program for sustainability and development. She currently serves on the AIA Strategic Council. She holds degrees in architecture from UVA, and Rice University.


AIA Code of Ethics

Ethics and integrity are essential to our work

AIA members are dedicated to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and competence. The AIA Code of Ethics guides members’ conduct in fulfilling those obligations. The Code applies to the professional activities of all AIA members, regardless of their membership category.

The following excerpts from the Code are intended to address issues of equity and inclusion:

  • Ethical standards are specific goals toward which members should aspire
  • Rules of conduct are mandatory requirements

Ethical Standard 1.4 

Human Rights:
Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors. 

Rule 1.401 

Members shall not engage in harassment or discrimination in their professional activities on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, disability, caregiver status, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. 

Commentary: Harassment may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, unwelcome physical contact, or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of violation of this Rule. 

Rule 1.402 Members shall not engage in conduct involving wanton disregard of the rights of others. 

Commentary: Wanton disregard under this rule includes conduct taken in disregard of (1) a high degree of risk that the Complainant would be adversely affected, and (2) that risk would be apparent to a reasonable person. “Reasonable person” is an objective standard and considers someone who uses such qualities as attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgement which a society requires of its members to protect their own interests and the interests of others. 

Wanton disregard under this rule under this rule also includes engaging in conduct that is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider it harassing, hostile, or abusive. This includes, but is not limited to, sexual misconduct, bullying, intimidation, or retaliation. 


Obligations to Colleagues 

Members should respect the rights and acknowledge the professional aspirations and contributions of their colleagues. 

Ethical Standard 5.1 

Professional Environment: Members should provide their colleagues and employees with a fair and equitable working environment, compensate them fairly, and facilitate their professional development. 

Rule 5.101 

Members shall treat their colleagues and employees with mutual respect, and provide an equitable working environment. 


The American Institute of Architects has released Guides for Equitable Practice. We are providing tools and resources to help architects take steps to build a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive profession. If you are an AIA member, you can download the guides here: