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An Analysis of LeMessurier’s Acts

LeMessurier’s story contains many interesting facets. Even though officials banded together, the weather held and the newspapers went on strike, LeMessurier’s acts were remarkable. He has been both praised for his forthright honesty, and criticized for particular aspects of how he handled the situation. But LeMessurier’s lasting legacy is one that challenges design professionals to stand tall behind their work—in good times and bad—and consider one’s ethical obligations to be of the utmost importance. As he navigated this difficult course, LeMessurier compromised business and legal positions to act in accordance with his ethical obligations.

a. The Ethical Obligations

As is true for many professionals, rules of ethical conduct have been adopted to define the system of moral principles that architects and engineers are expected to follow. These rules are in addition to the legal obligations imposed by a particular jurisdiction. While LeMessurier, as an engineer, was subject to codes of ethics governing the conduct of engineers, those codes bear a close resemblance to those governing AIA members.

According to the Code of Ethics for Engineers issued by the National Society of Professional Engineers, six fundamental canons must be obeyed by engineers in the fulfillment of their professional duties. Engineers must:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of the profession.[49]

b. Safety First

The most important point in each of the engineering codes of ethics is the responsibility of each engineer to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.”[50] While the AIA code does not specifically describe this obligation in the same way, the concept is fundamental to the profession of architecture. For example, in New York, the practice of architecture carefully describes professional services “wherein the safeguarding of life, health, property, and public welfare is concerned.”[52] Similarly, in Ohio, the State’s Code of Conduct applicable to architects states that the code of conduct is promulgated “in order to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the public”.[53]

In fact, Rule 2.105 of the 2004 AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct goes further to require that if an architect becomes aware of a decision made by a client that adversely affects the safety of the public, that the architect must not only refuse to consent to the decision, but must also report the issue to public officials. There can be no doubt that safety comes first, and all decisions made by design professionals must be made with safety in mind.

sketch of the tower
While certain of LeMessurier’s acts must be applauded, there are still some questions that have been raised by critics questioning whether LeMessurier acted with regard to safety first in all aspects or if a certain statement “suggests remarkable indifference to ordinary morality and fundamental misunderstanding of professional ethics.”[53] The statement referenced above was one made by LeMessurier about Alan Davenport and his colleagues in Canada. LeMessurier recounted after the situation that Davenport and his team would keep “their traps shut forever” if LeMessurier decided against disclosing the situation—a statement that does seem to be at odds with the seminal cannon seeking to protect the safety and well being of the public.[54]

Even if LeMessurier had chosen not to disclose the predicament, any engineer with knowledge of the danger would have had an independent ethical duty to act. Certainly, from an ethical vantage point, sitting quiet forever was not an option, but even LeMessurier himself seemed to skirt that particular standard during a 1996 statement to an audience of M.I.T. engineering faculty and students. He stated that he knew of an important fifty-story building that was likely to collapse, “totally under-designed,” but that he would not identify it. He continued in saying that “there are a lot of them out there.”[55]

In LeMessurier’s defense, these statements may have been made to illustrate the point that his decision to confess to the building’s shortcomings was not a decision he was forced to make but, rather one he chose to make. In July 2007, ASCE addressed LeMessurier’s conduct pertaining to Canon 1 in its regular column “A Question of Ethics.”[56] The ASCE stated that LeMessurier had an ethical obligation to remove the safety threat, and he did. The round-the-clock repairs which had been verified by an outside consultant were appropriate, as were the efforts to arrange for emergency generators for the tuned mass damper and strain monitoring devices to read the buildings performance.

Certainly, one of the most important decisions that was made early in the process was to assemble a team that helped LeMessurier through the process. Any statements made later seem to have been overshadowed by the significant steps LeMessurier took to assure safety. Not to mention that a sophisticated and detailed plan to evacuate 200,000 people from midtown Manhattan was developed in conjunction with the City of New York and the American Red Cross. Just as remarkable as the creation of the plan, was the secrecy of it. In preventing public knowledge, LeMessurier’s team prevented mass hysteria from causing its own safety threat.

c. Truthful Statements

According to both the NPSE and the ASCE Codes of Ethics, an engineer must “issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.” Similarly, Rule 4.103 of the 2004 AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct state that “Members speaking in their professional capacity shall not knowingly make false statements of material fact.”

Whether LeMessurier complied with this obligation has been hotly debated. On August 17, 1978, the Engineering News Record reported “LeMessurier maintains that the...tower has well over the structural support it requires to withstand anticipated wind loads and that the purpose of the extra bracing is simply to supplement it.”[57] The story went on to state, “LeMessurier declines to say, however, whether he feels the bracing is necessary or optional. ‘I advised the bank, and they listened to me,’ he says. ‘As the bank put it, “we’d like to have belts and suspenders.” While some question the complete truthfulness of these statements, one argument is that the truth of the statements made was ‘close enough’ under the circumstances. A videotaped presentation of LeMessurier made at M.I.T. on November 17, 1995 contains the following explanation:

We had to cook up a line of bull, I’ll tell you. And white lies at this point are entirely moral. You don’t want to spread terror in the community to people who don’t need to be terrorized. We were terrorized, no question about that.[58]

One might consider that by not alarming the public, LeMessurier was indeed acting in the public’s best interest. Others, though, would argue that if there is a public danger, the public has the right to know. At a minimum, the statements clearly omitted relevant and pertinent information. Accordingly, it would seem that these omissions would fail to comport with Section II.3 of NSPE’s Code of Ethics for Engineers requiring an engineer to “include all relevant and pertinent information” in statements made. But no ethics analysis is simple and NSPE Canon 4 requiring an engineer to be a “faithful agent or trustee” of his/her client might override any obligation LeMessurier had to say more.i Citicorp’s desire to keep word of the massive repair out of the public domain was crystal clear. Accordingly, any consideration of LeMessurier’s obligations under the third Canon must be considered with appropriate attention given to his duties to his client.

d. Silence

The sixth Canon of the NSPE Code of Ethics requires an engineer to conduct himself honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of the profession. This requirement is mirrored in Canon I of the 2004 AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Moreover, Section III of the Code of Ethics for Engineers clarifies that “engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.”[60] Additionally, Canon 7 of the ASCE Code of Ethics requires engineers to “provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.” Similarly, the NSPE requires engineers to “strive to serve the public interest” and are encouraged to provide guidance for young engineers.[61] These various provisions collectively develop the concept that a mistake such as this should be disclosed and discussed since it has significant value from the perspective of avoiding similar mistakes in the future. Some believe that since LeMessurier’s personal memoir, published in early April 1995 (one month before the New Yorker article was published), failed to provide any description of the Citicorp saga or lessons learned from it, even though LeMessurier devotes significant attention to the Citicorp Project, it was not in keeping with his professional obligations.[62] Some criticize his silence.

Just three years after the Citicorp repairs were completed, the Hyatt Skywalk collapse took the lives of 114 people. If the structural problems of the Citicorp Center had been made known, one is left to wonder whether the Hyatt design team would have made the necessary changes to avoid the devastating events in Kansas City. However, based on a review of the Hyatt facts, it seems unlikely that knowledge of the Citicorp Center would have had any effect.

Unlike LeMessurier’s willingness to question his own work, the Hyatt engineers did not appear willing to do so. Reports detail that before the Hyatt walkway collapse, contractors made complaints to the engineer about the walkways that the engineer summarily dismissed. Those complaints, if considered, would have alerted the engineer to the grave danger that existed. Moreover, the engineers failed to uncover shortcomings in their design process even after an unrelated collapse of the atrium occurred on that project.

While it is unlikely that the Hyatt disaster could have been averted by any events that occurred at the Citicorp Center, contrasting the two projects and the actions or inactions of the engineers provides invaluable lessons for designers to study.

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