Architects as Climate Change Advocates

BY ON October 26, 2017

Cityscape, designed by architects

When I think about architects, I often imagine a smart, creative professional wearing round, black glasses quietly working at a drafting table. This stereotypical — and often inaccurate — image of architects as low-key figures in our society does not take into account the enormous impact that their work has on the way our families live, and also on climate change.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions,  

“Residential and commercial buildings account for almost 39 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Nearly all of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the residential and commercial sectors can be attributed to energy use in buildings.”

Yet that stereotype does reflect Chicago architect Tom Jacobs’s view that his profession has been “strangely silent” when it comes to speaking out about what is literally a world-shaking issue.

Determined to change that, Jacobs, along with fellow Chicago architect Peter Exley launched Architects Advocate in July 2016 to give his profession a voice with which to advocate for action on climate change. With unanimous support from his firm’s partners, they combined their professional network connections, invited fellow Chicago architects to join, and publicly launched the initiative in September 2016.

In a recent phone interview Jacobs explained that architects,

“… are on the front lines of healthy communities and clean air – we do this for a living. In the run-up to the national election, one of the two candidates declared that climate change is a hoax. If we remain silent, we basically become complicit. If we do our job right as architects, we make people’s lives better, their communities healthier. Specifically, this was an encouragement for people to vote for candidates who are guided by science.”

Architects Advocate’s members currently include over 800 firms nationwide, and more than 2,300 individual members. Members’ actions range from posting an Architects Advocate banner on their website, to speaking publicly in support of action on climate change.

According to Jacobs, the group’s primary focus is to build support for the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus, asking members to urge their congressional representatives to participate. The caucus was put together by two U.S. congressional representatives from Florida, one from each party. Representatives who wish to join the caucus must do so with a partner from the other side of the aisle. As of this month, the Climate Solutions Caucus boasts 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans for a total of 60 members.

According to Jacobs, Architects Advocate supports the Caucus because it provides a non-partisan solution to working on climate change. He asserts that while political action is healthy and necessary, partisanship is not.

“Being political is something that is genuinely required of us as good and active citizens. That’s a duty that comes with the system. The partisanship piece has gotten so bad, so dysfunctional, that we can’t even talk to the other side. I’m almost more worried about that than I am about the issue itself.”

And because the U.S is a capitalist country, professional voices have the potential to carry some extra weight. According to Jacobs,

Everything in our society depends so much on the performance of corporations. We have elected a system of self-organization that invests a lot of power into corporations … it’s about money and everything else gets accommodated as long as the money motive is met.”

For that reason, architects have a unique opportunity to tap into the profit motive, while also helping businesses opt for green energy. Companies can now construct buildings that are energy-positive — producing more energy than they need, and returning the excess back to the grid. Jacobs refers to such buildings as “little power plants.” Not only do we have the technology to do this, he says, but those businesses that can make the initial investment…

“…are setting themselves up to do better down the road and increase their competitiveness. It is a hopeful development that could spur rapid change, and really get us off our fossil fuel addiction into a healthy and clean energy future.”

While the current administration is doing everything it can to support the fossil fuel industry — by destroying America’s Clean Power Plan, for example, — Architects Advocate is adding more voices to an ever-growing chorus that is demanding a healthy environment. Speaking as a parent, Jacobs notes,

“That moment when you have children changes everything. I’m looking at the world we live in. What’s my answer going to be when they ask, ‘Why didn’t you guys do anything about this?’ I will not allow anyone to accuse me of not trying.”

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TOPICS: Activism, Climate Change, Illinois, Politics