As the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount and residents in polluted cities such as Los Angeles and Delhi experience the delight of fresh air and unobstructed views, it is becoming clear that big changes in our built environment may be around the corner. Those of us in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering need to be at heart of this change. The good news: we already have the technologies and building products we need to make low-carbon and climate positive buildings. What’s more, the rate of advance in the field of material science, where researchers are developing building materials that can help capture water and regulate building temperature, suggests a near future where buildings can help solve some of our most pressing energy, resource, and climate problems.
It’s going to take a lot of work to get to that better future, and I’m not talking only about R&D efforts. Buildings, as anyone who’s spent time on a construction site can tell you, take a lot of work to put together. Trends towards automation and off-site construction do not remove the need for labor, but rather displace work into new forms and locations. What was done 300 feet in the air may now be done in the relative comfort and safety of a factory. Some imagine a future where robots do more of this work. If we put the ethical question of whether we need robots in a world where many are going hungry, at some point in the chain we’ll still need people with practical knowledge of building assembly techniques and protocols. How should the machine react when it encounters out-of-plumb conditions? Gaps between materials that exceed tolerances? Conditions that don’t quite match the drawings? These situations demand what sociologists call practical knowledge, which is gained through physical experience in real-world situations.more, the rate of advance in the field of material science, where researchers are developing building materials that can help capture water and regulate building temperature, suggests a near future where buildings can help solve some of our most pressing energy, resource, and climate problems.
"What's missing from our field is not skills. It's mutual respect."
Practical knowledge exists in tension with scientific or technical knowledge, and it’s this kind of knowledge that colleges and universities tend to privilege. Technical knowledge is reinforced by social structures. I’ll never forget the incredulity of my guidance counselor at my high school, located in a far-flung upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago, when I informed her I wanted to participate in an architectural drafting competition sponsored by the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. She looked right at me and said in a tone of voice one could generously describe as imperious, “You know what vocational means, right? I thought you were going to college.”
I went to the competition.
I had forgotten about that until last year, when, in my current position as a university professor, environmentally-minded human, and advocate for better building, I put together a proposal to teach best-practice building science for a National Science Foundation-sponsored Innovations in Graduate Education program. One of the best parts of life in academia is that, to improve your own ideas, you are trained to seek out people who will — generously and often with glee! — tell you exactly how and why you’re wrong. When I asked for feedback from Mitsubishi Electric’s Kimberly Llewellyn, who’s long advocated for the building trades, she made the problem clear.
“What is missing in the building industry,” she said, “is not skills. It’s mutual respect.” Put simply, many of those who work on construction sites do not feel respected by the credentialed professionals sitting behind a desk. Important efforts are underway to raise the profile and remuneration of those in the trades, such as Fine Homebuilding’s Help Keep Craft Alive campaign and JLC’s Training the Trades initiative. Unfortunately, those of us issuing credentials, whether it’s an undergraduate degree in Construction Management or a master’s degree in Architecture, do not do enough to address this, even though everyone in the industry is dependent on the practical knowledge of the trades. I’d say it’s the glue that holds buildings together, but it’s more than a metaphor. To advance innovation in the building industry, both practical and technical knowledge are needed. The stakes are high; if a high-performance building is not designed, detailed, and constructed well, it will literally fall apart, typically from moisture damage and lack of drying potential. Builders and architects know there’s no shortage of these kinds of failures. It’s the kind of thing that keeps architects and builders up at night and lets construction defect lawyers practice social distancing on their yachts.
But let’s get back to talking about respect. Llewellyn’s critique led me to find a new field of academic knowledge called Legitimation Code Theory, or LCT. I’ve written elsewhere about LCT, but what you need to know here is summed up in the diagram below from the LCT website.
The vertical axis, epistemic relations, shows how closely held abstract knowledge in a given field. For architects, and especially academic architects, abstract knowledge, in particular about aesthetic preferences, is the name of the game. Builders don’t have as much of a use for abstract knowledge, but they do need practical knowledge to do their job well. Both architects and builders sit on the right side of the social relations scale, because in these parts of the building industry who are and who you know is as important as what you know. Engineers, however, slide over to the top left, thanks to a highly standardized system of education and forms of knowledge that emphasize interchangeability. For an engineer the ultimate mark of legitimacy is knowing your stuff.
The distribution of attitudes toward knowledge of the building industry has never worked well. In his 2009 book 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front, Andrew Shanken showed an ad for Time Magazine, which poked fun at a stereotypically impractical architect.
That ad, part of a series, is early evidence of the gap that still exists today between those in the building industry whose currency is abstract knowledge and those who have a comparatively practical bent. The postwar problem was the pressing need to build more housing. We face the same problem today, with cities across the US experiencing a housing crisis. Yet this means great potential. As we will build (one New York City worth of floor area every month for the next 40 years!) we have the opportunity to design and construct buildings that use less — or even make — energy and sequester carbon. Making every home climate-positive would go a long way towards addressing the climate crisis.
The proposal I wrote, titled BuildSMART, addresses this opportunity by bringing trades together with graduate students to learn about the best practices for high-performance buildings. While it was not funded, I’m sharing the complete proposal and the full feedback from the peer-review process here in the hopes that others working on this critically important goal will find this of use at a time of enormous potential.
Let’s make change.
Note: I originally published this article on April 29, 2020 on LinkedIn.