The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has amended its professional code of ethics to prohibit members from designing execution chambers or spaces to be used for torture, including long-term solitary confinement.

“We are committed to promoting the design of a more equitable and just built world that dismantles racial injustice and upholds human rights,” said AIA 2020 President Jane Frederick. “AIA members are required to uphold the health, safety and welfare of the public. Spaces for execution, torture and prolonged solitary confinement contradict those values. This decision emphasizes AIA’s commitment to making a difference on this issue and upholding human rights for our society.”

The new ethics rules, adopted on December 10, 2020, continue a trend among businesses and professional associations to distance themselves from capital punishment. “The market is increasingly opting out of the death penalty,” said Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham. “Whether it is pharmaceutical manufacturers or nitrogen producers refusing to sell their products to state prisons or doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and now architects saying it is unethical to assist in the execution process, more and more segments of society are saying they will not participate as a cog in the machinery of the death penalty.”

As recently as 2019, AIA had said designing execution chambers was acceptable in jurisdictions that authorized capital punishment. The new rule, which is mandatory for all members, explains, “Designing spaces intended to end human life is inconsistent with the ideal of upholding human rights. What is lawful and what is ethical are two separate inquiries; acting lawfully may not equate to acting ethically.”

Like many organizations, AIA began more deeply examining the impact of its policies on racial justice in light of the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests. In June, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic at The New York Times, urged the organization to reconsider the policy, writing, “Architects should not contribute their expertise to the most egregious aspects of a system that commits exceptional violence against African-Americans and other minorities.”

Raphael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility had pushed for the change. “Architecture has historically been a white, male dominated profession that has participated in systems of oppression and injustice including segregation and mass incarceration,” he said. “This code change is a sign that things can change and that they are changing.”

The ban on designing spaces for torture also could affect the design of death-row facilities. AIA prohibits the design of a space intended for “indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact, for more than 15 consecutive days.” Such conditions have been the norm for those incarcerated on death row for decades, though states are increasingly moving away from mandatory solitary confinement for death-row prisoners.

AIA also adopted a statement of position calling for its members to promote criminal justice reform and rehabilitation and “strive to ensure that the physical needs, health, dignity and human potential of all those who come in contact with the justice system are respected and given the opportunity to flourish.”


Julia Jacobs, Prominent Architects Group Prohibits Design of Death Chambers, New York Times, December 11, 2020; Press Release, AIA Board of Directors com­mits to advanc­ing jus­tice through design, American Institute of Architects, December 11, 2020; Tim Nelson, The AIA Moves to Prohibit Members From Designing Death Chambers, Architectural Digest, December 152020.

Read the AIA’s 2020 Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.