Peter Arkle

“War is the great teacher of innovation,” Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Newsweek last September. If only the F-22 fighter jet reflected that principle.

First proposed in 1981, during the height of the Cold War, when air-to-air combat ruled the Air Force, the F-22 took a quarter-century to be developed and deployed. By the time the first one lifted off in 2005, the Cold War was long over, and the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were scruffy surface battles with no clear targets for traditional jets. Unmanned—and much cheaper—drones have proved more effective as scouts for ground troops. The very nature of war has changed, and not a single F-22 has been used in active theaters in the Middle East, yet over the next decade the Air Force wants 200 more, at a cost of $200 million each. The flyboy mentality still rules, even when there are no boys flying the planes.

Construction is by no means a great teacher of innovation, but its resistance to change is mired in an Air Force–like obstinacy. Starchitects are the Top Guns of architecture, and flights of ego can be a heavy anchor on invention. Industrywide, construction is still shackled by antiquated practices. The United States is the only major market not using the metric system; even the British no longer use the British system of measurement. Wood framing became popular when big trees were plentiful, steel framing when oil was plentiful. Two of the most common building types—the suburban single-family residence and the developer-driven commercial office building—serve outmoded postwar land-use patterns. Even as the commuter lifestyle wanes because more and more people are reclaiming inner cities and using public transit, those land-use patterns and building types show few signs of following suit.

War may or may not be a great innovator, but it is a great motivator. In 1973, the British chemist Sir George Porter told the London Observer, “I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun’s energy. … If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago.” The sad irony is that the ongoing battle for Middle East oil has shown that sunbeams—properly harnessed—could actually help avoid war.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu calls warfare “a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin,” and the same may be said of construction. Building is an optimistic act, but since it accounts for 40 percent of U.S. energy use, it’s also a potential accomplice to global conflict. By contributing to energy security, more innovative, less consuming buildings can become weapons of peace.