False Equivalencies and False Choices

Getting this out of the way first, lest anyone accuse this article of being in the denial camp: Anthropogenic global warming is almost certainly real and will very likely have significant long-term societal, economic, and ecological consequences.  Studying the processes that contribute to AGW, predicting the effects with a high degree of certainty, and finding technological solutions to reduce climate change’s impact should be a high priority of the world’s governments at all levels, as should incentivizing reducing carbon output from all industrial and business sectors.

However, some industries are more ready than others to make impactful changes, by dint of embedded scientific expertise and economic feasibility. The energy sector has low- (and zero) carbon options, for example, and the transportation industry is developing feasible technologies for reducing emissions as well.  The building sector, for all of architects’ good intentions, is still a significant contributor of carbon emissions and architects, by dint of their lack of rigorous scientific and technical training, do not have the necessary expertise to contribute meaningful innovation.

In his recent column in Architect magazine, AIA President Carl Elefante writes that the newest design imperative is reducing and eventually eliminating carbon output from buildings.  “A zero net carbon building sector is the architectural design imperative of our time,” he argues.  In his article, he makes a number problematic arguments.

First, Elefante invokes the changes made to make buildings more fire- and earthquake-resistant: “In 1871, the need for fire-safe buildings rose from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire. In 1906, from the rubble of San Francisco came understanding that earthquake risk is a design imperative.”  Elefante acknowledges that fires and earthquakes are singular catastrophic events that cause immediate death and destruction; specific deadly events shocked the public into demanding safety reforms that were rapidly baked into building codes.  This is still a false equivalency.  Climate change is acknowledged by the code writers and the International Energy Conservation Code, and requires incrementally improved energy efficiency in envelope design, mechanical and lighting systems.  But since neither architects nor anyone else really knows how to make a building fully zero-carbon, let alone do it for a reasonable cost, there’s no true mandate for architects to follow.

Elefante blunders again by claiming that “in the decade leading up to Paris, the U.S. building sector grew by 20 billion square feet, yet overall energy consumption remained flat.”  This would be quite an accomplishment if true, but it is not.  In fact, from 1999 to 2012 (dates for which data is actually available) commercial building area grew by 20 billion square feet and site energy use grew by 21%.  The positive news from this is that building area grew faster than energy use, but energy use was not “flat.”  We haven’t made as much progress as Elefante or anyone else would wish for.


Chart made for the author by John Scofield, Ph.D., based on his research

Net-zero carbon buildings may be feasible in the future, but saying that it’s the design imperative of our time requires making dishonest claims for what can be achieved today.  Making dishonest claims about what you can accomplish is terrible professional ethics, and for the leading association of architects to advocate that architects act dishonestly is frankly baffling.

Architects and the rest of the design community need to understand more thoroughly how energy use in buildings responds to design decisions, and where the trade-offs are.  For example, if you make a building envelope more air-tight and highly insulated, you likely need to spend more energy bringing in and tempering the fresh air people need to breathe.

There are strategies to deal with these types of problems, but the solutions need more time and more dedicated scientists, engineers, and climate-friendly policy before they’re ready to be incorporated into real-world projects.  Unless owners are expressly consenting to be guinea pigs (while knowing that results are not in any way guaranteed), architects should not be advocating that owners risk their money on unproven strategies.


Let’s Fix Construction


I was recently asked to participate in a new initiative called Let’s Fix Construction that is being established by some of my colleagues in the Construction Specifications Institute: Eric Lussier who is president of CSI Vermont Chapter and Cherise Lakeside, the #CSIKraken and past president of CSI Portland Chapter.  The purpose of the initiative is to separate the complaints from the solutions when we discuss why things go wrong in construction projects, and promote the solutions. Other participants so far are Randy Nishimura, Vivian Volz, Keith Robinson and Marvin Kemp, and the project is open to accepting additional contributors.

My hope, which is why I decided to participate myself, is that we can get past the usual CSI talking points, dig deeper, take a hard look at what is really ailing the industry and come up with solutions and then integrate those solutions into the various professions and trades within AEC.  By “usual CSI talking points” I mean the heavy advocacy for certifications, encouragement of improved communications, promotion of the ‘trusted advisor’ appellation, etcetera.  None of these are wrong, but to be frank, they haven’t fixed construction yet.

The project is named “Let’s Fix Construction.”  I accept the premise that construction is broken (or at least not operating optimally).  Undoubtedly this is due to various factors, but I’d argue a good place to look for them is at the real weaknesses in architectural education and in the way that architecture is practiced.

What follows is an edited excerpt from my first post on Let’s Fix Construction, where I outline my view of where the practice of architecture is complicit in the brokenness of construction and is missing the mark on living up to its promise and to its own vision of itself.

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The facility design and construction process (at least in the traditional design-bid-build or design-negotiate-build methods) is for the most part driven by the architect.  The architect is the one who is presented the project goals by the Owner and is tasked with generating the design and construction documents and then helping to facilitate its execution.  In this architect-centric view, the responsibility to faithfully and skillfully execute the work lies with the architect.  The architect comes up with the conceptual design and develops that design, adding more and more technical detail, coordinating the work of engineering and other consultants, incorporating information from myriad sources into one package and shepherding that package through procurement and entitlement, until the job can be built by a contractor. The architect maintains responsibility through construction, working to verify that the project is being built so that it conforms to the design.

As the center of all that activity, the architect is the source of (or at least contributing to) many problems that, if solved, would go a long way toward ‘fixing’ construction.  The words “many but not all” should of course be a given in front of each item below.

  • Architects don’t view their work as providing a professional service in which they have a duty to put their clients’ interests above all others and to making sure they communicate honestly with their clients and to obtaining informed consent for all important decisions.  Instead, architects see themselves as designing for themselves, or believe they’re working for the good of society, the environment, adopting “improving life” or other lofty goals that create real conflicts of interest that they don’t even recognize.  

(Before reading on, I strongly recommend reading Ujjval Vyas’s comment to my post on LetsFixConstuction, and also his lengthy comment to Randy Nishimura’s post, Revitalization + Reinvention. The conceptual underpinning of the duty I briefly mention above is his idea, and I will be writing more about that in the future).

  • A few architects even go so far as to think of themselves as more important than their own work.  As an example, during an interview I conducted with a prominent and outspoken Chicago architect, he mentioned that contractors respect him “because I know how to say ‘fuck'”.
  • Architects have inadequate practical knowledge of construction. They don’t understand how their designs and details get translated into physical components in a building and what it really takes for human beings to assemble what they’ve designed.
  • Architects, and humans in general, to be fair, have a overly optimistic view of their own knowledge and competence.  This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  As a result, they forcefully promote making decisions based on faulty information that they have high levels of confidence in.  Most “green” advocacy falls into this category.
  • Architects are slow to recognize and adapt to changes in construction technology, and end up lazily copying solutions from project to project long after they’re obsolete.
  • Architects are hesitant to participate in the code-writing process, even though the content of the codes and the way they’re developed directly impact their work.
  • Architects have very poor knowledge of how much construction actually costs, and use loose rules of thumb to try to determine whether or not their designs are within clients’ budgets.  They rarely know how the details they create affect the project cost, and the resulting necessary VE costs them time, money and prestige.  

The idea that we’re going to fix construction means that these and other problems should be identified, given serious thought individually and collectively.  I look forward to working to affect the changes that the industry needs, and I hope the Let’s Fix Construction project can be on the vanguard of inventing and implementing those solutions.  If you think you have an interesting perspective on this problem and would like to participate in this project, it is still seeking additional contributors.  Contact Eric at letsfixconstruction@gmail.com for more information.