President Donald Trump’s tumultuous first month in office has many architects wondering what his administration will mean for the design and building industry, particularly in areas such as affordable housing, sustainable design, and energy efficiency.
Congress has yet to confirm many of Trump’s cabinet picks to head the agencies with jurisdiction over those issues—his nominees to lead the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) all await votes in the Senate. Last Friday the Senate confirmed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt—a vocal critic of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who has sued the EPA at least a dozen times over President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other regulations—to lead the agency. Trump has not announced his pick to lead the General Services Administration (GSA), though he did appoint longtime GSA official Tim Horne as acting administrator shortly after his inauguration.
When ARCHITECT asked representatives from each of those agencies about their outlook for the next four years, they declined to comment until after the transition period. Some architects and industry observers, however, forecast severe cuts to federal funding for programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment, and at preparing the nation’s cities for the impact of climate change.
A memo circulated by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., calls for trillions of dollars in cuts to environmental programs across the federal government, although it’s not clear which, if any, of those ideas elected officials will manifest into policy.
James Crispino, AIA, president and design principal of Francis Cauffman, is wary. “I’m feeling pretty pessimistic these days when it comes to the federal government’s interest in these [federal programs],” he says.
His firm, which has offices in New York and Philadelphia, rehabilitated New York University’s Langone Medical Center after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, securing a backup power source, elevating mechanical systems, and building a flood barrier to protect the Midtown Manhattan campus from future storm surges supercharged by sea-level rise. That project, which earned NYU the Disaster Recovery Institute’s first “Hub of Resilience” designation, was financed with $1.13 billion in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Crispino expects similar funding to wither under President Trump, who has dismissed climate change as a “hoax.” Trump’s choices to lead the EPA, DOE, USDA, and HUD—Pruitt, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Ben Carson, respectively—have all publicly cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human activity contributes significantly to global warming.
“They’re not going to fund a solution to a problem that they don’t think exists,” Crispino says.
Though Trump has yet to name someone to head FEMA, FEMA spokeswoman Stephanie Moffett believes that whoever ends up in the role will remain committed to disaster recovery and minimizing risk. “FEMA’s mission continues to be helping communities prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate against all future hazards,” she said in a statement. “The agency will continue working with individuals and communities to understand and protect against risks from all hazards.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Beardsley, senior policy counsel at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is watching activity related to the EPA closely. “There is a lot of anxiety about the EPA,” she says. That agency oversees major energy efficiency programs such as Energy Star, WaterSense, and Portfolio Manager, which are all part of the government's discretionary spending budget—meaning it's up to the EPA and Congress to determine how much funding they receive.
Though funding for this year is set, these programs could see cuts going forward if Congress slashes EPA's budget. “That would make them a little more vulnerable to budget cuts,” Beardsley says, “but they’re also very popular with the private sector.” And while Energy Star is voluntary and market-based, she adds, "federal law requires that EPA carries it out."
However, Beardsley notes, Trump’s stated focus on business and the private sector could be a foothold for groups such as the USGBC, which would like to see federal support for sustainable design increase. A Booz Allen report commissioned in 2015 by the USGBC forecasts the green building sector could provide 3.3 million jobs by 2018. “The business case really speaks for itself,” Beardsley says.
Crispino made a similar appeal to Trump’s experience as a businessman and real estate developer in New York. “Trump was in New York for Sandy,” Crispino said. “He may not believe that global warming is a threat, but he can’t deny that storms are a threat to coastal cities around the world.” That's a point he and others will keep pushing as Trump's transition continues.
The Senate adjourned Friday after confirming Pruitt. Votes on new cabinet members will resume Feb. 27, with Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), investor Wilbur Ross, and Perry vying to lead the Interior, Commerce, and Energy departments, respectively.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since first publication to clarify that Scott Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over several regulations.