I’ve always assumed that a healthy majority of American architects believe in climate change, consider it a serious problem, and endorse sustainable design as a worthwhile response.
I stand corrected.
Over the summer, 960 readers of Architect participated in a survey about their green beliefs. In it, we asked participants to select from four statements the one that best characterizes their attitude toward sustainability. Fewer than half (46.4 percent) chose the statement, “It’s vital that we design and build sustainably, in order to conserve scarce resources and prevent further global warming.” Fewer than half. Apparently I live in a bubble. An East Coast, media-elite, socialist bubble.
The majority of respondents to our survey expressed some degree of skepticism about climate change, either questioning its validity or the value of sustainable design. One group (12.8 percent) dismissed the issue outright: “Global warming is a myth perpetuated by the media, and green building is a fad—it’ll be forgotten in 20 years’ time.” Yikes. Others (6.7 percent) doubted that green-building efforts in America could offset the damage caused by industrialization in China and India.
The largest (and to me, most interesting) group of naysayers (34.1 percent) fell somewhere in the middle, subscribing to the following statement: “I’m not sure that global warming is caused by man, but energy conservation makes economic sense if we’ll be less dependent on other countries’ oil.” These constitute the swing votes, an architecture-profession echo of the beliefs of the majority of Americans.
And just what do Americans believe? According to a nationwide voter survey the AIA conducted earlier this year, 54 percent of respondents said they would oppose a tax of 50 cents per gallon of gasoline “to reduce global warming, cut carbon emissions, protect the environment, and fund the development of alternative fuels and clean, new energy sources”; by contrast, 56 percent said they would support the same tax “to hold down oil prices and end America’s dependence on foreign oil.”
What gives? Same tax, same outcome. Yes, but different motive. For many Americans, the threat of environmental calamity is simply too abstract or remote for them to take action … to make a personal sacrifice for the common good. Great Recession economics and post-9/11 national security are much more immediate, comprehensible concerns than a fractional uptick in the thermometer or a bunch of scientists crying wolf.
Smart architects sell green design to skeptical clients in the name of cost savings: “Trim those operating expenses (oh yeah, and reduce your carbon footprint).” Imagine an even bigger sales job along the same lines: a massive national investment in high-performance building—not to mention alternative energy, high-speed rail, and other holy grails of the sustainability movement. In the current political climate, this may seem like a pipe dream, but apparently it could be a reality if the pitch simply was made in the name of cutting the flow of dollars to the Middle East.
The $1 trillion construction industry accounts for 6 percent of GDP, even in the current slump. An industry that large should have no problem pushing policy. And we have some serious allies. At an awards dinner I attended this summer for the Asia Society, honoree Energy Secretary Steven Chu spent nearly all his lectern time talking to the crowd of diplomats and policy wonks about building performance.
So what would happen if architects, builders, engineers, developers, and manufacturers set aside their differences, hired the right lobbyists, and successfully parlayed the green dream into a massive market and unshakable mandate for high-performance, low-energy, green buildings? A good thing, right?
I’d say be careful what you wish for.
The New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Freidman (of The World Is Flat fame) has gone blue in the face complaining that the U.S. has fallen far behind Germany, Japan, and even China as a consumer and producer of green technology. (The environmental benefits are only half his story; he thinks we’re missing out on the biggest business deal since the rise of the personal computer.) This national shortcoming applies not just to solar-panel fabrication, the subject of one Freidman diatribe, but to architecture as well.
Programs such as LEED and Energy Star are important first steps in the long hard march toward a green future, and many architecture firms and schools have made their own remarkable contributions. But long-term progress depends on a massive intellectual and financial investment in building science research.
As Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s article, “Shaky Foundation," makes painfully clear, there is dangerously little R&D funding available for the building sciences in the U.S. And as any architecture school professor can tell you, where there’s no funding, there’s no research.
According to Mark Frankel, technical director of the nonprofit New Buildings Institute, the building sector spends one-tenth as much on R&D as the national average for other industries. This is shameful. So if the dream of sweeping green legislation somehow does come true, architecture may not be ready for it.