Addressing Human Rights through Architecture

Raphael Sperry

As a member of USGBC’s Social Equity Working Group and as president of the independent nonprofit organization Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility (, I was very excited to see the New York Times cover the question of human rights in architecture. ADPSR has been petitioning the American Institute of Architects to amend their Code of Ethics to prohibit the design of spaces intended to violate human rights: namely, execution chambers and spaces intended for prolonged solitary confinement. While AIA rejected the idea (at least for now), USGBC has been making progress on human rights through the social equity pilot credits added to the LEED rating system last year. These credits give points to projects that help to protect and enhance human rights – for instance, by purchasing materials that are extracted and processed by companies that commit to human rights and labor protections up and down the supply chain. The owners, designers, and builders of the project can participate as well through respecting their workers or entering into community benefit arrangements, among other mechanisms.

The way I see it, human rights are a core part of social equity. Protection from slave labor and child labor, decent working conditions, prevention of discrimination, access to health care and education – all this and more are part of the human rights framework that has grown up since the end of the Second World War. And social equity is a core part of sustainable development, going all the way back to the 1991 Rio Earth Summit and the idea of the “triple bottom line.” Equity concerns arguably go beyond human rights, but people tend to feel very strongly when human rights are violated – think about the recent controversy over the horrific treatment of construction workers in the Persian Gulf states. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that workers were allowed to die on construction sites in countries where the death penalty is still in effect – these are both symptoms of a failure to recognize the “right to life” embedded within human rights.

Ultimately, human rights are too important to just leave up to governments to protect and enforce. After all, human rights are supposed to protect people from their own governments when those governments go astray. And every country can make progress. It is very unfortunate that AIA chose not to advance the cause of human rights recently, but they can always change their minds. And it is very encouraging that USGBC is taking its first steps into this territory as well. I am excited to see what else we can achieve by seeing the triple bottom line more clearly.

Raphael Sperry
Senior Associate, Urban Fabrick President, Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility