The following few thousand words seek a new value system for the professions of Planning, Architecture and Engineering. Your bones tell you, you smell it, there is the challenge of unclear change on the tongues of the public speakers. The sticky multiple versions of the truth offered in the political-speech of our modern lives will be swept away by the clear mind of science. This is a call for help in that simple pursuit.

The challenges embedded in the failures of planning, architecture and engineering are vast. Only a third of the earth’s landscape is urban and it holds over half its population and will not stop. The densest regions are near natural resources and ocean and every part of it is instructive of an adaptation to restraint and the failure to do so. These regions range from heartbreaking failures to soaring enclosures of fully actualized human potential. This duality is now squarely before the change makers. The rationalized contradictions of “have” and “have not” has become the tragedy of the knowing and the unknowing.

Core Elements of Planning, Architecture, and Engineering Practice
  1. The practice knows that humans experience the world through their bodies.
  2. The practice focuses on specific purposes for buildings and built environments for humans to provide experiences of the world.
  3. The practice builds environments made of materials drawn from the earth’s crust, for which there is a timeless responsibility.
  4. The quality of an architectural solution derived from demonstrations of extraction processes includes responsibility for all human experiences in the creation and use of each product.
  5. Demonstrations of quality derive from combinations of functional and technical requirements.
  6. The creation of a place, its coherence, and material quality produce an aesthetic experience assigned by its users to the design solution.
  7. Standards of practice develop through deliberate periods of reflection, evaluation, and routine performance tests to establish planning, architecture, design, and engineering expertise.

The desire to build a city of gold or a shed in the forest does not require the expertise of architecture and engineering (A&E). It does require the confidence presented by preexisting, demonstrable products. Regretfully, the solutions are, therefore retrogressive. Less understood is the fundamental intention of design as a producer of hedonic experiences known as aesthesis. However, the psychological and physiological ability to anticipate and empathize with the knowledge of another is indeterminate.

The energy to succeed in providing the service of design expertise to meet severe challenges such as “sustainability” exists, but it is weak. Demands to improve require steps well beyond establishing the coherence of place. Establishing a sense of safety, comfort, accessibility, mobility, novelty, color, harmonics produce a long set of demands for consistency. The designer’s production of spatial and aesthetic content requires a fundamental resonance, an open and uncertain intelligence essential to understanding the human need for an ever-growing knowledge of existence with purpose. In taking these steps, architecture and engineering are failing, the human condition is not improving for far too many, and one must ask why.

The following four topics summarize research and analysis of social and economic issues affecting the non-professional urbanization of the United States. It began with the idea that a small laboratory on the idea of breaking some rules in one medium sized A&E firm to reveal the brilliance of design as power. The topics outline an Occam’s Razor set of four simple steps by the professions of planning, design, architecture, and engineering that might save us all.

Four Topics

Challenging Planning, Architecture, and Engineering Practice

Topic One: The Arc of History Is an Act of Construction

For the last few thousand years, humanity has gathered and shaped materials from the earth’s crust. It now occurs at a rate unprecedented in any other period. From Fordism to now, history does not describe the cost of this change as a safe practice in any sense of the word, but as one designed to be continuously more profitable.  

As a matter of national policy this practice pushed manufacturing labor out of the United States to less regulated, lower-cost areas in trade for lower-cost goods at home. Globalization is a well-documented force of history; however, its impact on the city-building trades is a research and development task tossed like a ball to the city-builders, the designer, planner, architect and engineer and they can’t catch.

Yes, individual projects represent extraordinary exhibits of design and technical expertise, but they are caves in the storm of urbanization history as it spreads the full mass of human endeavor across the surface of the earth.

Cities cover the earth’s prime locations, and yet they remain little more than a vague notion. As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic, I refer readers to “How cities took over the world” (here). The project experience of the A&E firms expressed by those in the graphic (below) along with as many others contributors would care to recommend are needed. The Guardian (here) offers readers and extensive review of the earth’s urban reality. A video illustrates (here) the explosion of cities in the last two seconds of a three-minute presentation covering 4,000 years of urban development.

The growth of architecture and engineering as a professional force surpasses all others in city-building, yet it remains an undistinguished expression of political power. Its city-forming capacities and influence is self-suppressed in preference for praise as an art. Over the last four thousand years from Alexandria to the Erie Canal, the practice has turned away from recognizing how it shapes the world as a political force in preference to its services for expressing the imaginations of capital. This behavior needs to stop.

The global A&E practice has developed in service to capital with a desire to build cities at a development rate rightly criticized as endangering the well-being of life. The thousand year arc of history in this context exhibits urban life brought to its knees many times in countless submissions to the destructive forces of black death, war, resource overreach, and the anticipatory ignorance of central governance. This behavior needs to stop.

The thread in this demand for discussion, therefore, asks participants to examine this history with the presumption of a continuously urbanizing, global system, structurally embedded in or alongside another world that uses only what it needs, wastes nothing and obtains its energy from sunlight. Looking forward and back, questions into the medium- and long-term must ask about the compatibility of these two systems, and how can the destructive forces of each establish balance and at what cost to human life?

Preceding our few thousand years, millions of species have come and gone over the last four billion years. The genius of time in this context is the formation of well-informed and reflective humans, capable of explaining and understanding the universe well enough so as not to become its victim. The first question of history that points to this future of knowledge must be to discover an urban world that is generous with the earth with near-perfect information. The history of urban construction needs to change. Finally, can the powerful development expertise of actors such as those exhibited above, become more mindful of this challenge. What forces are needed to get more effective thinking and where necessary force corrective action?

Topic Two: Erase the Contract

Architects and engineers have defined a set of professional restrictions on themselves. They also accepted limits demanded by investors (public and private). As the classic phrasing in the contract documents describes, A&E work shall be limited work. A&E provides two services design and construction documents, or more directly, build design expertise reputations to “get the job” and “documents” that get a project built.  

After these two tasks, A&E is without power and trapped in binding contracts of its own making. It can observe well-paid union workers in conflict with the non-union worker through strategic “divide-and-conquer” tactics in the accomplishment of profit. Profit, of course, is essential. It is only the term and structure for defining returns and accruals that are in question — the result involves the intervention with the use of public funds for supply-side subsidies and demand-side incentives of public policy.

Change in response to unmet human need is injected into the city-building process to lower the cost of money or support efforts to produce better and safer environments through a variety of zoning and construction regulations. The result is a maze of contractual requirements. Finally, A&E remains relevant in its examination of a long list of issues and concerns related to the use of building materials and construction practices to maintain public welfare and prevent litigation on a project-by-project basis. The knowledge drawn from the application of technology in planning, architecture and engineering in city-building has the power to prove that humanity is not an infestation, but an instrument capable of understanding the full complexity of all the conditions in which a building is made, not as an object in space, but as an addition in a community where much more needs to be done and with whom new partners are needed in a very different type of contract.

Efforts to change the system from within have resulted in the introduction of technology and law to produce contracts such as presented by the Integrated Project Delivery introduced by the American Institute of Architects in mid-2000s (pdf here). The idea improves project efficiency, but fails to recognize the complexity of adding to a vast compound of buildings without recognizing the global urban system of which it is a part.

As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic, refer your readers to the implementation of IPD ( pdf here) that reviews a dozen projects in the United States. I also ask you to refer project experience of A&E firms expressed in the graphic (above) as it relates to the construction trade organizations exhibited in the graphic (below) along with as many other “workers organizations” as you would care to recommend with one additional component – add your focus on the expertise of the construction trades as exhibited by their union representation and by spending about three minutes with some people talking about their life-experience in construction.

‘The vitality of architecture does not stand on the strength of its foundations or the vision of its builders. 
It stands on the dignity of life formed in the heart of all of its creators.”

I offer the following change aimed a far more significant change in the city-building contract than exhibited in the well-intentioned tinkering offered by the IPD program. I would include a demand to recapture a resource such as building information modeling systems (BIM) adopted widely and somewhat inappropriately by construction management firms in contract with owners and developers.

If significant improvements in system management toward a practice of architecture and engineering is to occur it must defer to lives of people in priority over property. In response to demands for resilience it must meet the goals of sustainability in preference to weathering the next storm whether it be fire or rage. A new relationship between the construction trades, their unions and A&E can produce the balance needed to move forward as a force for political change. Accepting this idea may be essential to eliminating the destructive forces of raw capital at work in the world.

An improved concept of change that gets well past the profitability of managing time is needed. The cold industrialization of construction awaits on the global factory floor. In this writers mind, a new alliance of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) is the best means toward retaining the art and humanity of architecture with the precision of science and engineering sustained by the heart and soul of its city-builders. Many of the contributions of technology to city-building offer exhilarating promise – the embodied energy in building materials could be sustained for centuries as recyclable, all of its surfaces would collect tactile and sun-energy, the movement of people and goods occurs seamlessly. When these changes can be made to recur there is proof of control. With these proofs, one other human problem requires careful examination in the United States because it is the most diverse society on the earth.

The argument in this brief look at changing the city-building contract is one that must occur between design, the technology of architecture and engineering with the construction-trades and its workers. With out this change the city-building professions will fail in their contract with humanity.

Topic Three: Change the Concept of Change

Building diversity is not an adjustment to social justice, it is a step toward extraordinary new powers for change.

Open processes that value human dignity, fair wages, health, and safety occur in countries with the capacity to make a democratic change. Over the last fifty years, public regulation and litigation regarding the safety of construction sites make them marginally protected. Elsewhere in the world, the record shows construction labor as a struggle with death, and if not death, despair.

Investors know creativity is in the major urban centers, and the time to capture it is now.  When business and government leaders put options on the table that don’t create change, the policy is not to create change. The CEO’s from small to massive A&E firms recognize the prevailing narrative of a nation’s white, male, racial pre-eminence, and how it is represented in their businesses today. They should see it in the context of a rapidly changing American value system aimed high levels of fairness that eliminate wrongs, thereby opening an exponential capacity for growth through innovation.

As the more responsible power holders take a good look at the nation as it is today, they will discover how to shift the subtle and corrosive ideology of gender and racial pre-eminence that is white and male toward greater inclusion. They will learn how it creates the invisibility of all others. The first step is to identify the privileges that have enabled past “rights” to continue for so long that they have become today’s “wrongs.” In the light of a society that seeks to improve its understanding of itself, the demand (while painful) for a “facts are friendly” approach to solving problems is paramount.

Nearly 40% of the U.S. population are people of color.  Their lack of representation in many influential fields reveals obvious “white race pre-eminence” that remains unchallenged. Here are some Department of Labor (DOL) numbers to back that up.

  • From 2009 to 2018, the percentage of black law partners up from 1.7% to 1.8%.
  • From 1985 to 2016, the proportion of black men in management at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees barely budged–from 3% to 3.2%.
  • People of color held about 16% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018.
  • A 2018 survey of the 15 largest public fashion and apparel companies found that nonwhites held only 11% of board seats and that nearly three-quarters of company CEOs were white men.
  • In the top 200 film releases of 2017, minorities accounted for 7.8% of writers, 12.6% of directors, and 19.8% of lead roles.

As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic and resistance to it, I will refer readers to two discussions on the implementation of diversity (pdf here and here ) that address a range of issues. The task of linking A&E to the Construction Trades experience offers lessons in racial and gender in both of their ranks.

At first glance, architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms have improved gender balance with a significant influence on education and training programs. The construction trade unions have improved racial access and trust in diversity with added strength in the transparency of pay equity and negotiations for health insurance services in their ranks. There is a strong win/win potential in developing this relationship through education.

An alliance of knowledge and choices in career ladders between the building trades and city-building professionals can produce any more levels of participation from designing a building to building one. The enrichment for a cross-disciplinary engagement in the challenges faced in city-building is infinite in its possibility. It is capable of crushing the intellectual silos in which the trades and professionals find themselves trapped.

Topic Four: Realign City-Building

Until recently, the history of the construction industry regarding change issues has been not to allow social change. The history of A&E, however, illustrates policies more responsive to demands for change. The focus on education serves greater gender-balance positioned to achieve equity; A&E policies are also eager to adapt to new technologies to their portfolio of problem-solving tools.

Few evaluation systems address social change and sustainability beyond the capacity of marketing to claim “steps.” Department of Commerce (Census) and DOL produce measures for evaluating responses of business and industry to social demands. Agents can claim modest advances in broad areas such as social justice and point to specific areas such as sexual harassment.  However, steps in preventing environmental damage do not quantify threats to future generations effectively. Vague, and in many cases, unverifiable measures are used on a project-by-project basis with impunity.

On the question of accountability, these issues concern any thinking person. The design professions and construction trades can take a more substantial leadership role in public policy. There are more questions, and please offer them, but the best of them to seek answers and opinions are as follows

Welcome, and Thank You!

Yep, this is a tunnel search.

Please contribute facts, names of places, numbers, sources, and resources to help this little think tank community explore some ideas, and define the problems presented in each of the following questions. Our focus is simple — no one is as smart as all of us.

1

Should the A&E community enter into alliances with the construction trades industry to make both more responsive to social and environmental challenges?

Knowing that an alliance with the construction trades is not considered possible at this time, what strategies might you offer or what purposes might this action serve?

Please respond: link to email here

2

Is it possible for you to envision the formation of a highly trained, architecture, engineering, and construction industry as a highly advanced technological force in the city-building world? If yes, what national and global structures would you deploy (real or imagined).

Knowing that the top annual billing rate for the world’s largest A&E firms falls short of a billion U.S. Dollars, consider your answer in terms of taking full development control.

Please respond: link to email here

3

Through legislation and changes in central governance policy, will it be necessary for A&E to develop the capacity to establish a controlling and deciding role in every expenditure related to urban preservation, re-development, and construction?

This question presumes an inability of nation-states and global regulatory bodies to establish ground rules for managing the displacement of millions of people over the next half-century.

Please respond: link to email here

4

Can A&E define and resolve the challenges of the next two decades that predict enormous physical damages to the urban infrastructure of America?

Please respond: link to email here

The question imagines the availability of substantial capital to resolve coastal and southern border disruptions in new multi-national business partnerships designed to define specific levels of design expertise rapidly when needed.

5

Will A&E lead in its capacity to design and plan environments that respond to the vast creativity embedded in the social and economic diversity unique to the United States?

The representation of the multi-cultural, ethnic, and racial composition of the American population is considered a valuable asset. Can A&E in the United States respond effectively in resolving issues?

Please respond: link to email here

6

Will AEC envision new ways of life that focus on the humanity embedded in our shared realities that produce new forms of comfort in life and health in living with the knowledge that we sustain the joy and laughter of all those who wait in the deep future?

Asking for your theory of change in this closing question asks you to reflect on all previous answers with the idea that some elements of hope for the leadership in the profession will become possible, if not in your heart, and your imagination

Please respond: link to email here and thank-you.

The challenge is to combine design skill and construction knowledge and progressive nature of labor unions, architecture and engineering to create the opportunity to save us all, or save anyone who looks into the eyes of a six-year-old to know that we had better try hard and start now.

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