Climate Change Demands Architects Design Differently — or Risk Becoming Extinct

By Rand Ekman

HKS Green Week, an annual event in which we learn about and grow our sustainability capacity, brings the industry’s foremost thinkers to our firm for inspiration, education and lively interaction about improving our quality of life.

Green Week 2019 keynote speaker, Dr. Chris Luebkeman is one such thinker, and more importantly, a doer. Luebkeman, Arup Fellow and Director of Global Foresight + Research + Innovation, joined HKS Chief Sustainability Officer Rand Ekman for an expansive conversation on industry disruption, leadership, time and transgenerational thinking, the yin and yang of perspective, and empowering the next generation of designers.

Rand Ekman: What are your thoughts about industry disruption? Is it healthy and necessary to catalyze the kind of change, impact and urgency our planet is facing?

Dr. Chris Luebkeman: Disruptions can be both good and bad, depending on whether you’re the disruptor or the one being disrupted. The key is to be clear about where the disruptions are, when they’re coming and what is our attitude toward them. Our industry is being disrupted. We’re experiencing massive consolidation and generational change, both in leadership and tool sets. There is contextual change from materials to client types. Robotics; AI, machine learning – there are many disruptive forces at work.

Disruption can be paralyzing or empowering depending on your attitude. The firms that will survive are akin to surfers. Surfers anticipate; they understand that waves come in sets. They must pay attention; if they don’t, there will be trouble. It’s about constantly looking up and anticipating the next swell.

I think our industry is deluding itself. We think that because we’re creatives, we’re immune to disruption. I would argue that up to 75 percent of tasks in every architecture office are mundane and repetitive. And anything that’s mundane and repetitive can be automated (and) if it can be automated, it will be. We have to look hard at how we add value on our projects and add value to society. Five years ago, I started talking about AI and machine learning replacing engineers, and many in the industry declared I was full of it. They said, “there’s no way we’re replaced, we’re invaluable, we’re too smart, too clever.” And now people are feeling threatened. If you do not program, code, or work with those who do, then your days are numbered.

The important piece of this is leadership. When you have disruption, leaders react in two ways – either ignore it, or get excited about it. I think the most important thing that senior leaders can do is encourage the middle layers to get out of the way of the young of mind. Not young in age, but young of mind. Firms that accept the disruption and embrace and integrate it into their practice will succeed.

It’s like the difference between a reed bending in the wind or standing up and trying to resist the hurricane – either bend with the wind or get broken. We need to bend and try and imagine where we want to be in the post Anthropocene. What’s our contribution? I’m extremely bullish on what we do, crafting a built environment and places for people to not just survive, but to thrive is only going to be more important with climate change. The work we need to do is profound, huge and rewarding.  We have to be open with our eyes, minds and hearts.

RE: The design world frequently thinks about, and is tethered to, a specific time frame. Has your experience as a geologist influenced your sense of impact and time?

CL:  I’m very interested in time and I think about it through three lenses. One that is important to our industry is the way indigenous people think of time in the sense of generations and not just single generation, but multiple generations. The Maoris look back and look ahead when planning or doing projects, asking “what would the past seven generations have thought about this project, and what will the next seven generations think?” I’ve learned from the Zulus and the Anasazi, the ancient ancestors of today’s Pueblo people from New Mexico and Arizona, who were expert craftsmen and builders – the things they made and homes they built are still here, 1,800 years later. Transgenerational considerations are core to their being.

Time would take another meaning altogether if we thought of our buildings not as garbage heaps to be disposed of, but as materials savings accounts.  I suppose we would design our buildings in a totally different way; as an asset to be reused, not thrown away.

The second lens is our present geological moment: we’re frying the planet. We’re destroying the natural infrastructure we require in order to thrive as a species. But in geologic time, the earth will be here long after everyone has forgotten that America and other nation states ever existed. This geological moment, the Anthropocene we’re in, is profound. We are the first generation to see and understand the cumulative impacts of our actions on our planet. Our knowledge of our planetary systems is both credible and incredible.

Thinking about the third lens of time, I wonder how can we steer our designs every day to support movement as designers for a positive post Anthropocene? What should we be doing now so that the next seven generations will look back upon us with pride rather than puzzlement and pity?

In the post Anthropocene, will we participate in activities that restore natural cycles?  We can’t pretend to bring them back to where they were, but we can create an equilibrium so we’re no longer destroying nature, by working with her rather than conquering, raping and pillaging. Time is urgent and we must act. If we don’t sort this out within the next three generations, then we should be ashamed of ourselves. We need to scale, and we need to do it now. It needs to be how we practice all the time, every day.

We should be committing to zero energy, zero water as our baseline. Going forward, we wouldn’t design a building that doesn’t achieve zero energy or zero water or zero carbon. We need to work with clients who understand this and are going to commit to it.

RE: Do we have to reach a point of crisis before we change our behavior?  

CL: I hope not. But we don’t have a very good track record of action without a crisis. There are design practices around the world that have already woken up. They’re next generation practices fully integrating virtual and augmented reality into their design critiques using fully augmented BIM. Conversely from a practice standpoint, there are instances of dinosaurs walking the planet who are still ignoring it. But I love sketching and I think every individual should be able to communicate design from anywhere and it shouldn’t require a laptop.

So the question becomes, what are our actions? It comes back to leadership, because the writing is on the wall. We all need to see it and accept the challenge, opportunity and responsibility, because we carry that responsibility in our design practicing lives.

Humans are a big part of the problem and the solution. I would argue that the majority of our actions have been unintentional – but now we know. When our forebears built the things they built, they didn’t do it because they wanted to kill and destroy ecosystems. They wanted to make houses and roads so we could have a good civilization. But now we understand those impacts and it’s our responsibility, opportunity and obligation to act differently.

Can we do it fast enough? I don’t know. I think we were going to see many more profound incidences of disruption. Pandemics, water shortages — Cape Town almost ran out of water and Lima will run out of water soon. Crisis levels are increasing around the world. The awareness of these secondary and tertiary impacts is highlighted through media awareness. We will all be impacted. No one is immune.

RE: Yes, there is a strong desire to get into it, to get messy, to figure out how to spend the time thinking, and it is almost always coming from the younger generation.

CL: We, the elders, the Boomer generation, we lived in a context in which we were still conquering nature. The vocabulary of our youth was conquering the planet and winning against nature. And this is not the context of 20 year olds today. They resonate with the rhetoric of healing the planet, of living with her. We have two very different contextual envelopes, these wrappers into which we were born. I keep coming back to our generation’s obligation to help empower the next generation; to work with them rather than suppress them. And, to be fair, there needs to be a wiliness from the younger generations to be open to collaboration and the experiences.

I believe that things are going to get a lot uglier before they get better; but I do believe they will get better. I’m more worried now than I was five years ago, but when I hang out with my kids, their friends or the new hires, then I feel energized and optimistic. They can’t wait to get their hands on our carbon problem and get going.

Green Week 2019

HKS would like to thank Teknion, TarkettSikaAlliedVaproShield, and dri-design, the signature sponsors of Green Week 2019. Green Week is HKS’ annual celebration of sustainable, resilient design, a weeklong forum providing educational opportunities and inspiration.

Rand Ekman

As chief sustainability officer, Rand draws on his passion for projects and for driving broad-based, measurable change in practice. “Being a part of HKS allows me to have a real impact on issues that I care deeply about. My role allows me to influence projects, practice and clients through creative consulting endeavors."