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Design in Uncertain Times
Two options: Be part of the problems, or be advocates for advancing solutions.
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM

No one knows what twist of fate will materialize next week, or tomorrow, or even today. We live with a gnawing awareness that actions we take - or fail to take - now may have profound consequences that are often equally unpredictable. 

What are the implications for architecture in this uncertain world? What is our potential to better shape our built environment to help stabilize or improve situations for ourselves, our families, our communities, now and in the future? 

Abnormal is the New Normal  

Increasingly, the only constant in our lives is change - in many cases, dramatic change. All around us, life is steadily becoming more complex and less predictable. We all live under shadows of uncertainty, coping with an uneasy awareness that at any moment, our world may shift beneath us with startling consequences. The potential for developments seemingly beyond our control - anticipated and unanticipated, known and unknown, incremental and instant - constantly dwell alongside us. 

"For all its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future." 
~ Barbara Jordan

Destabilized Natural Dynamics 

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows unprecedented climate change is now not only unavoidable, it's already occurring. What is still unclear is the extent to which human contributions to destabilized natural cycles and systems will be allowed to continue to compile and amplify, and the extent we will collectively act to slow, arrest, or reverse these behaviors before we pass a tipping point of no return. Weather driven catastrophes - from drought to floods to firestorms - are increasing in both frequency and scale and early impacts of sea level change are becoming evident globally. 

"Most of us feel some kind of uncertainty, as populations increase and resources wane. We have to face these issues."
~ Issey Miyake

Rises in sea level result in decreasing freshwater. Water - "the new oil" - is an increasingly scarce resource in many regions, including vital agricultural regions that provide much of our food supply. While climate change is the most dire and urgent issue of our time, there are other ominous environmental threats we ignore at our peril. 

The Cascadia subduction fault, running from California to Canada, is overdue to produce a massive earthquake (magnitude 9 or higher) and an even more deadly tsunami that could leave coastal regions decimated and without power, water, emergency services, or food. The potential exists for this to be the greatest natural disaster in the history of our species, particularly because little is being done to proactively address the threat. 

The density and mobility of populations worldwide amplify the threat of nature born threats.   Deadly pandemics from disease transmission has occurred numerous times in human history, and threaten to do so again with even more deadly consequences given the risk of epidemics from strains of deadly viruses with the potential to mutate to become resistant to treatment or dramatically easier to transmit.

Destabilized Cultural/Economic/Political/Infrastructure Dynamics 

All of these threats carry massive economic implications, as do so many dangers posed by sources other than natural disasters. As 'first world' dependencies on infrastructures of utilities and data have become ubiquitous, we have become increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of potentially deadly failures in these systems, particularly in urban regions. 

"No one has any idea what's next... the uncertainty of the business climate in America is frightening to everyone."
~ Steve Wynn

The collapse of the East Coast power grid that left New York City and much of the surrounding region literally in the dark demonstrated acute fragility and vulnerability, but didn't even hint at the potential fallout of the destruction of electrical equipment such as what could occur as a result of an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse detonation) or a successful hack of any possible number of critical internet dependent systems. The "Great Recession" that began in 2007 revealed the fragility of our economy and systemic economic issues that remain ominously unresolved. The polarization of political discourse has not only marginalized our government, but also moved us into increasingly isolated individual perspectives reinforced by the echo chambers of social media and sensationalized news cycles. The threat of terrorism permeates our lives... nowhere is outside of its reach, and no one is exempt from its impacts. Abroad, countless human tragedies are unfolding in the midst of economic and political upheaval.

Uncertainty in the Insurance Industry 

Although we take it somewhat for granted, the availability of reasonably affordable insurance is one of the fundamental components of contemporary economic systems. The insurance industry relies on relatively reasonable and predictable losses. A world torn apart by a destabilized climate removes the predictability of losses to massive and unprecedented floods, windstorms, firestorms, etc. - casting doubt on the viability of the fundamental premises of insurance. As insurance becomes more expensive or even impossible to secure, so too will investments and loans. 

The Zeitgeist of Uncertainty

The German word Zeitgeist translates as "time mind" or "time spirit" and has been used to describe the overarching mindset of a culture at any point in time. The term is generally attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel, although he never actually used it. He did use the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time).

"When we know we live in uncertainty, we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions."
~ Richard P. Feynman

"No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit." Hegel believed that art reflects, by it's very nature, the culture of the time in which it is created.  Culture and art are bound together because any artist is a product of his or her time and brings that culture to any given work of art. Historians draw parallels between, for example, the gardens of Versailles, Bach's fugues, and Newton's equations all pointing to a broad underlying cultural preoccupation with then-emerging concepts of science such as infinity. 
Today, however, our culture is so fragmented, information is processed so rapidly, and change is so constant and ubiquitous, that uncertainty and ambiguity have become pervasive aspects of our individual and collective mindset. With change and transformation as our only constants, the certainty of uncertainty is one context we all tend to share. 

The Post Industrial Revolution

A dramatic turning point for our species and our environment was the period of history termed the Industrial Revolution, which empowered us to attain previously unimaginable standards of living as well as unimaginable environmental damage. Ours is but one of countless species on earth whose future now depends on our collective speed and effectiveness making a radical transformation - a 'Post-Industrial Revolution' - that leverages our scientific and industrial capabilities to transition away from destructive and unhealthy behaviors and toward restorative and healthy ones. 

"Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, that differences can be resolved. It is a type of confidence. It is fragile. It can be blackened by fear and superstition. "
~ Bernard Beckett

The solutions are not to be found through apathy, denial, or resignation, but ferociously optimistic engagement, innovation, and action. We need to kindle personal inspiration and faith to help others do the same.

Humans are problem solving creatures. We need challenges; it's our nature. If we don't have problems, it seems we create them. One of the difficulties we face confronting the looming disasters facing us today, however, is their overwhelmingly scale and complexity - and the corresponding sense of personal helplessness and irrelevance we feel in their shadow. How can our individual actions possibly matter, in larger scheme of things? 

The simple answer is that mostly, they don't, in and of themselves... but that doesn't matter. These are not problems within the reach of individuals, but rather, within the reach of cultures. We need to look beyond that limited metric of cause-and-effect to see ourselves as part of a community... a global community that is displacing the natural world with it's own built environment. Our incremental contributions to our built environment aggregate to form the quality and health of the greater whole, just as our individual behavioral choices do, but what matters most is our leadership.

The Creativity of Uncertainty

Since meaningful mitigation or solutions to these problems will only be found in the kind of collective action that is driven by profound cultural change, we have but two options: Resign ourselves to be part of the problems, or be advocates for advancing the solutions. This is the context within which we must consider our roles as architects, as clients of architects, and as citizens of the world. The sadly abused cliche of "sustainability" as some kind of virtue falls far short of the kind of mindset we need moving forward. Most conversations around notions of 'sustainability' tend to deliver too little, too late in terms of meaningful change. Instead of sustainability, we should be talking about restorative design and action. We should resolve to leave conditions truly improved over how we initially find them. 

"The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers."
~ Erich Fromm

Another important working concept we think is likely to overtake sustainability is the concept of resilience. We are moving forward into a future where we will have no choice but to adapt to hard realities. We must deal with shifting and diminishing resources even as we experience increasingly frequent and frightening encounters with crises of various kinds. The benefits of thinking and acting proactively to become more resilient and thereby more secure are not a substitute for addressing underlying problems, but will be of value in helping get through periods of peak stress.

Incremental Vectors

It may be said of so many things - our health, our relationships, our environment - nothing is in a state of stasis with what matters most to our quality of life. Bit by bit, things are constantly either moving in positive directions or negative ones. But unlike our personal issues, how we treat the environment can profoundly impact those we share it with. Some actions embody both positive and negative elements, but every intervention we make in the environment contributes toward an aggregate movement, for better or worse. 

"There's an interesting trend that occurs in times of mounting pressure and high uncertainty, which is that it's a natural human tendency to seek out people that agree with us, that are similar to us because it's a source of comfort in a world that's so rapidly changing."
~ John Hagel III

We have created these complex, tangled messes one step at a time. We can only clean them up the same way. All our futures depend on our ability to build cultural awareness, consensus, and will to amplify the instances and scope of environmentally healthy choices and simultaneously reduce the instances and scope of environmentally bad choices. Environmental health - or health in general, for that matter - should not be politicized or commoditized, but that is exactly what has happened. Rather than pulling together as a society to enact the kind of transformative changes that are so critical to our future, we are handicapped by political polarization that resists change. Shorter term priorities take precedence over future consequences.

It is perhaps understandable that some choose to attempt to simply deny the reality of the urgency, scope, or significance of the problems being created by our own actions. Pretending that Business as Usual is even an option is one way of avoiding change, even if the pain that change would represent is but a thin fraction of the pain that will ultimately rain down on us as a result of such gross irresponsibility. Denial is the only way to create space within which short term self interests can continue to be indulged in. Such voices have always, and will always, exist, but we must do all we can to make them increasingly marginalized and insignificant. We must proactively stand for not only future generations, but for our own well being.

Less Bad is Not Good Enough

In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart join a chorus of voices the likes of Thoreau, Leopold, Carlson, McHarg, Suzuki, Berry, Pollan, and others who not only point to our collective environmental missteps, but also offer positive inspiring and empowering alternatives toward corrective action. It seems to me that McDonough and Braungart are precisely correct when they speak of a failure of imagination.

" be 'less bad' is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the 'be less bad' approach: a failure of the imagination.  From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species' role in the world. What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100% good?"~ McDonough & Braungart, Cradle to Cradle

To purchase and drive a Prius or a Volt is surely less bad, environmentally, than choosing a Hummer or Expedition. But a less bad choice is still bad; it still represents a ratchet-click in the wrong direction, albeit a somewhat smaller one. Even a totally electric car pollutes, as in most places electricity is produced using coal or nuclear power, and the energy embodied in the manufacture, maintenance, and disposal of a motor vehicle is enormous. Countless examples of 'less bad' are all around us. The premise underlying Cradle to Cradle is that we are capable of being much better environmentally than merely less bad - that we are capable of being environmentally good. To get there does not mean moving backward, regressing to some primitive pre-industrial revolution living condition, but rather, to move radically forward, well beyond how we have deployed our inheritances of resources and technologies, toward healthy, sustainable, economical, rewarding, and honorable ways of living. It means being meaningfully progressive.

Buildings are our largest consumers of energy and generators of waste and toxic waste only because we settle for that outcome. Programs like the International Living Building Challenge provide empirical proof that not only do we have the means to reverse those realities, but that doing so makes sense economically. The ILBC program is an example of Good, while LEED buildings, at any level, are almost certainly just more examples of Less Bad. This is not a critique of the LEED program, per se; less bad is indeed better - often much better - but it does not represent the kind of truly meaningful progress we need to reach for. The phrase 'built to code' may be read as a euphemism for 'built as poorly as legally permissible.' Building codes define minimum standards for public safety, primarily focusing on fire and seismic risk management. From the perspective of design for health or environmental appropriateness, many legal mainstream construction practices are broadly irresponsible and unethical. Not only do we need to transition toward healthy and sustainable practices, we must not stop there. It is within our means to reach for restorative architecture - architecture that represents a net positive intervention in the health and quality of the environment over time.

One of the primary obstacles to meaningful change is how we currently evaluate choices with respect to cost, or more specifically, how we define cost. We tend to consider the cost of something to be what we pay to initially acquire it. This short term concept of cost fails to account for the substantially more significant costs associated with longer term consequences of our choices. The direct result is a constant tension between environmental and economic considerations in architectural practice. A preoccupation with short term outcomes ensures the latter will trump the former as surely as a royal flush beats a pair of deuces. But once the temporal frame of reference shifts away from an obsession with immediacy, the tension between economic impact and environmental impact invariably dissolves. The impact on our health from cheap but toxic building materials is a prime example; what are the ultimate costs of living and working in environments loaded with carcinogens? 

Virtuous H E A D

The founder of SIREWALL, Meror Krayenhoff, introduced me to the acronym 'HEAD' - which he composed to articulate the four priorities around which the driving core values of that company are organized. I have relied on it ever since to summarize qualities I believe should also be foundational expectations for everything we do in our architectural practice, without exception:


The list is ordered such that relative prioritizations are also clarified, which is helpful in cases where there may be competing aspects of a given situation. So, for example, nothing is more important than Health. This is how Meror thinks about quality, and how I believe the responsible architect should think about quality.

There has never been a time when it has been so important that architecture is not reduced to superficial indulgences, but is instead a holistic, substantial, and meaningful engagement with questions of health and environmental appropriateness. This calls for aggressively working beyond notions of mere sustainability or resilience toward post-industrial, restorative and regenerative practices. 

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.