The Common Dilemma of Architecture and the Environment

architect and the client cartoonMost of us probably have a friend that is either an architect or an environmentalist. Okay, maybe not. Perhaps most of us know someone that is either in a creative design profession or cares about the natural environment–enough to know that both groups have some common threads. Both work too many hours for too little money despite being devoted to their work. Both find it difficult to convey the full range of their roles to those outside of their profession. Both struggle with the task of trying to achieve greater relevance in the eyes of American culture. Architecture and the environment; an odd pairing perhaps given that buildings and nature are not exactly best friends right now, but their similarities could result from the fact that both groups ultimately face the same uphill battle.

The optimist in me would venture to say that the goals of environmentalists and architects (a healthy natural environment and a better built environment) are appreciated by Americans. We like clean air. We like beautiful buildings. We appreciate clean water. We revere majestic spaces. Some us of may go as far as to read the environment section of the newspaper or buy an issue of Architectural Digest.

But according to both professions, America doesn’t present a model of progress for their respective fields. Our environments, both natural and constructed, are arguably still degrading faster than they are improving–most likely because both worthy pursuits are considered just that: admirable goals, but not daily essentials. While the developer special, American “dream homes” are probably based on designs once drawn by an architect, few Americans end up hiring one for our own houses. An architect remains a luxury of the wealthy in the eyes of most of the country. Though the majority of Americans believe in climate change and most of that majority believe it is caused by the actions of humanity, few are prepared to alter their lifestyle enough to induce change. Environmental policy is still a luxury of wealthy nations, or rather when wealthy nations have extra wealth lying around.

green scare tactics cartoonA friend of mine (also both an architect and a proponent of sustainability) recently said succinctly that “the fact remains that design is not economically valued.” The core problem is that both architecture and the environment are not economically valued despite the fact that the quality of both relate directly to our quality of life. Quality of space and efficient construction methods play much less of a role in buying a home than the number of square feet or garage bays. The societal and environmental “costs” of cheap, coal power never make it onto our power bill despite the fact we end up paying for them eventually anyway (maybe we need a warning label?). With these complex systems deployed over vast areas, it is easier to notice when they are operating poorly rather than investing to make sure they continue to operate well.

Then again, the common irony of both architects and environmentalists is that their respective cultural disconnects could be largely self-inflicted. For decades the practice of architecture has veered away from engaging the American public, drifting further into isolating, esoteric terminology and critique. Meanwhile, environmentalists have latched on to the single facet of global warming rather than the multi-faceted idea of sustainability. The frustration of our collective lethargy in ecological progress only pushes their message towards the goal of making others afraid rather than educated.

I’m interested in some outside comments and thoughts, but for me any hope of changing the perception of cultural relevance of these pursuits is less about making the economics work and more about conveying the value proposition in a way people can understand and why it is important. Part of redefining the practice of architectural and environmental advocacy has to focus on helping people engage with them.

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4 Responses to “The Common Dilemma of Architecture and the Environment”

  1. Tyler,

    2/3rds of the way through your post, I had the very simple reaction that the core problem that we deal with as a society is a classic tragedy of the commons. We all value sustainability and a clean environment but in a non-cooperative/ non-enforced society, the game theory move is always to defect. If everybody defects (doesn’t cooperate), I defect and even if everybody else cooperates I also defect because I am 1 out of 6 Billion and have no marginal impact on the outcome. However, this is a somewhat boring and defeatist response to this problem. I really appreciate the final paragraph of your blog because you re-orient the conversation to be about how to message the current condition, which may not have a strong economic cost/benefit argument.

    I think architects need to sell what they do and not just expect people to wake up one day and decide that that architects are just brilliant and that they should call one. An architect may be a luxury good, and may remain so, but there are many luxury goods that are purchased by a large portion of the middle class. Coach handbags, designer clothing, the latest smart phones, sporty cars, 1K+ engagement rings, etc. are luxuries but lots of people buy them who are not strictly upper class. These things have been marketed and sold to these people. You buy them not because you are looking for the cheapest way to cloth yourself, the cheapest way to drive from A to B, the cheapest way to make a call.

    Instead you are paying more for 1) Additional Utility (car goes faster, phone does more stuff) but more likely because you are 2) Signaling to others that you are really in big time love because your fiancée bought you a ring that costs $10K, or that you are super cool for driving a car with spinning rims. People are sold both of these value propositions. They are told why they need to go faster. They are told why 3 moths salary is a totally normal amount to spend on a hunk of carbon. They are told that driving an Escalade means that they have really made it, even if they have no money to fill the tank.

    The idea of Selling the value proposition of architecture and design to the mass public may seem off-putting to some who do not want to have to convince people that they have a “need” for something that they have to buy. But this seems like the exact problem you are outlining. Why are people not buying architecture and design? Maybe, because nobody is really selling it to them. People pay a premium for all sorts of products because they have been sold on the 1) additional utility and 2) on the signal that it will put off. Make people want to buy something that is not just a cookie cutter tract house that is as big as possible for the money they have. Small, efficient and well designed can be attractive to people.


    • Giles,

      Great comment. I guess the sticking point for me is that if we view architecture as part of the built environment, then architecture and the natural environment are not luxuries. Some of us may want the 10K engagement ring, but everyone needs someplace to live and work. Likewise, given that the health of the natural environment correlates with our own health we cannot think of its maintenance as a luxury.

      My point in the last paragraph was that focusing on making the economics work may be less important not because it can’t be done, but because it’s not enough. I’m not sure that the economics don’t work if more people ascribed value to the parts of the environment and architecture that they enjoy–parts they would suddenly be willing to pay for if they woke up one day and were gone.

      I agree that the goal of additional utility is important, but my goal would be that someone could buy a house that was the same price, with a smaller size but better quality and more spatially efficient. “Small, efficient and well designed can be attractive to people.” Exactly…

  2. Tyler, thanks for the great article!

    I have noticed almost exactly the same frustrations being expressed by others in the design team (engineers, landscape architects and even quantity surveyors!). I am not sure if almost all professions in all fields feel their work is undervalued, but I am confident that 90% of those in the construction sector (well, on the design side at least) feel this way, which is quite interesting.

    I also think Giles is pretty spot-on. Leading on from his solution regarding selling/marketing of the value proposition, this is something that probably the whole industry needs to do. This is difficult of course, given the often silo’d thinking of the various disciplines, but I think architects perhaps have a better platform to lead from than the rest of the design team. If they could get the QS’s on board though, that would be a bonus!

    • Absolutely, Oscar. And I think you’re right in that the construction industry has managed to cement itself in the realm of necessity in the eyes of those outside of the process despite the fact that it really works hand in hand with the design side.

      I agree that it’s a tall order for the profession. We’re not necessarily taught to try and help make that segment of the population better understand the benefits of good design–it takes enough time just for us to learn and understand what they are!

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