“Sure. You can sign this 2030 thing. We could ALL sign it, but we would still FAIL!”

The man standing at the microphone made a scribbling-across-his-palm gesture to signify writing and paused for us to feel the impact of his impassioned and imploring expression. We – speakers at a panel presentation – squirmed in our seats waiting to see which of us would address this “question” from the audience.

Fail? Us? How?

The American Society of Civil Engineers and the Structural Engineering Institute invited me to speak at their 2012 Boston Regional Design Forum titled “Design in a Time of Change”. My love for engineersbeing what it is, I was interested. The organizers wanted panelists who would be provocative and controversial. When I told them I could talk about the brave new world of building energy use disclosure ordinances, the International Green Construction Code, and building energy asset labeling programs, they signed me up.

All four of us on the panel were forward-looking, optimistic, and progressive. Another architect (Josiah Stevenson, AIA, from Leers Weinzapfel) and I both spoke of our firms’ signing the AIA 2030 Commitment. We dazzled the packed house with broad-minded pronouncements about where architecture was going. Then the moderator asked for questions.

After waiting for a few other people to approach the microphones, Antonio Di Mambro, FAIA, stood up. I knew Tony. In 1988, he created the best climate change adaptation plan the City of Boston has ever seen. He proposed a harbor gateway and storm surge protection breakwater connecting Winthrop to Squantum across Deer and Long Islands protecting the city against sea level rise. Twenty-four years later, we still haven’t acted on Tony’s vision.

Tony is no small thinker. I took a deep breath. As I suspected, his “question” (about our collective risk of failure) was no softball.

His critique of our presentation came down to one basic admonition. We can design beautiful new energy efficient buildings. We can promote more rigorous codes and technologies. But if we can’t provide housing for the homeless, good schools and health care and reliable, inexpensive public transportation for all the region’s citizens, we will fail. Even if all our buildings were carbon-neutral, that alone would not make us a truly sustainable society.

And he was right.

While listening to him talk, I had a flashback to my first AIA Convention in Philadelphia twelve years ago. Former Mayor of Atlanta and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young was the keynote speaker. He asked us – architects – what we were we all doing about poverty. War and disease, (the other two major scourges of humankind) were, in his view, something that our profession couldn’t eradicate. But poverty: he put that one squarely in our laps. I remember that moment like it was yesterday, thinking “how on earth does my training as an architect prepare me to fight poverty?”

Tony’s question was the same as Ambassador Young’s. I didn’t know what to say twelve years ago, but this time I was ready.

Yes. We architects can claim to understand the “triple-bottom-line” of sustainability. We understand how our work contributes to job creation, directs investment and otherwise supports economic viability. We are getting much better at designing buildings that support stewardship of the natural environment. But that third leg of the stool? Social equity? The need for all members of a society to share in the benefits of a society? We rarely contribute to that cause.

And why not? Because our practice model doesn’t allow it. Our fee-for-services orientation and contractually-based thinking keeps us in a professional box. If we have clients who build affordable housing or if our firm does a little pro-bono design work, that’s great. But most of us do very little of that. Not enough to collectively matter, anyway. To really address social equity we have to step outside of our practice model – AS architects – with all our degrees and training and skills at the ready.

As a test, ask yourself this question: Who benefits from what you do?

Your clients, your firm, and yourself? That’s what the practice model expects. But sorry, for highly trained 21st century professionals, that ain’t enough. It’s like designing a building that just barely meets code. What if your community and your neighbors also benefitted? That’s good, but we can do better. How about your children’s children’s children? Now we’re talking. But how about people you will never meet? How could the benefits of your efforts extend to people you may never meet who do NOT share in the societal benefits that you enjoy, hmm?

That was Tony’s challenge to us. So try this: For a couple weekends a year or a few hours a week, take your incredible personal architectural tool kit and step outside that practice model. Become an activist. Take poverty or homelessness into your own hands. Do more good. Some suggestions: join the CDRC Boston. Work with Architects for Humanity. Get inspired by the MASS Design Group. Check out the NEWIRE Community Involvement Committee (thanks, Anne). There is literally no end to the ways you can plug in. The wider the circle of benefit, the greater your return will be. Trust me on this.

In addition to meeting our AIA 2030 Commitment goals, we must also work for social equity to succeed at this sustainability thing. If enough of us think this way, we will not fail.

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA.

Published Nov 12, 2012