The architect-developer

The death of Miriam Pace buried in the ruins of her collapsed Ħamrun home as a direct result of building works in hand in an adjacent property has shocked the nation. The theatrics of Ian Borg, Joseph Muscat and Sandro Chetcuti, in the aftermath of last summer’s incidents had instilled a false sense of security that matters were now under control. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The whole construction industry is justifiably once more under the spotlight, for the umpteenth time since last summer. This spotlighting justifiably includes an examination of the ethical behaviour (or otherwise) of architects and civil engineers.

In the resulting public debate, it has been pointed out that the architect and civil engineer in charge of the problematic works at Ħamrun has more than a professional interest in the works in hand. He is also a minority shareholder of the limited liability company which applied for and holds development permit PA6459/19 issued by the Planning Authority in January. It has been reported that he holds 10 per cent of the shares of the company in question: MCZMC Developers Limited. He thus also has an interest in the returns resulting from his shareholding.

The debate as to whether it is ethical for an architect and civil engineer to have other than a professional interest in any specific development under his direction is not a recent one. Nor is it limited to Malta.

The Code of Conduct for holders of a warrant to practice locally as architects and civil engineers is contained in a schedule attached to subsidiary legislation entitled Chamber of Architects Regulations.

The schedule is entitled Code of Professional Conduct. This code of conduct, was originally drafted in 1969, but it was subsequently amended in 2010. It clearly lays down that a locally warranted architect “must not hold, assume or consciously accept a position in which his interest is in conflict with his professional duty.”(rule 1) Furthermore, it is provided that a locally warranted architect “is remunerated solely by his professional fees payable by his clients and/or by his salary payable by his employer. He is debarred from any other source of remuneration in connection with the works and duties entrusted to him.” (rule 2)

This clearly signifies that a locally warranted architect is barred from being involved as a property investor or as a developer in property in respect of which he or she is professionally involved.

Notwithstanding all this, readers would however easily point at a number of cases, both recent as well as not so recent, as to their being surprised when viewing a property which they were interested in purchasing to get to know that the developer was also the architect in charge of the development in hand. While in most cases no particular problems arise, there is always a feeling of uneasiness when dealing with the architect-developer with such a blatant conflict of interest.

At times, when there are problems associated with the property being purchased it is not possible to distinguish between the architect and the developer. The developer takes over while the architect takes a back seat. A situation which fits perfectly into George Orwell’s description in his Animal Farm: looking from man to pig and from pig to man again and not being able to tell which is which!

A number of these architect-developers are known, while others hide their identity behind corporate structures and/or business partners. The question to which I have no clear answer is: why has such a blatant disregard of professional ethics been permitted as if it is the “normal” acceptable behaviour?

The Chamber of Architects, maybe, could supply an answer. Since its foundation 100 years ago, the Chamber has been responsible for enquiring into “the professional practices of architects and civil engineers”. I am not aware of any action initiated by the Chamber in respect of any architect-developer to date.

When a conflict of interest arises, the removal of the cause of the conflict or withdrawing from the situation which gives rise to the conflict is essential. Taking no action signifies accepting the situation as the normal acceptable behaviour.

Through lack of action over the years we are currently on the brink of transforming the unacceptable into the “new normal”. This is the amoral society at its best.

published in The Malta Independent : 8 March 2020

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