May 11, 2007

Gore to AIA: Architects Needed More Than Ever

by Stephanie Stubbs, Assoc. AIA
Managing Editor

Summary: Former Vice President of the United States the Honorable Al Gore took center stage at the AIA National Convention May 5 in San Antonio with a message for architects everywhere. “You have the greatest opportunity in the history of your profession,” he said, to address “moral imperatives disguised as problems.” He filled the next 50 minutes defining a global crisis and yet assuring the assembly to take heart, because, as problem solvers and leaders in society, “now is your moment.”

“Thank you for making me feel so welcome,” said the convention’s keynote speaker as he began to a long standing ovation, thanking national and AIA San Antonio staff as well as the architecture students and young architects with whom he had met earlier. As he addressed a standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 architects, Gore set a mood of camaraderie with some light, self-deprecating humor. “I flew on Air Force Two for eight years, now I have to take off my shoes to get on an airplane,” he joked. “I’m a recovering politician, up to Step 9 … Oh well, you win some, you lose some … and then there’s the little-known third category.”

Crisis of environment, crisis of spirit
Turning seriously to the global climate crisis, Gore reminded the audience that in Chinese, the two kanji characters that together compose the ideogram of “crisis” individually mean “danger” and “opportunity.” That is a more sophisticated way to communicate the concept of crisis, he said. “The climate crisis presents us with great opportunities, and I daresay the architecture profession by far has the greatest opportunity to address the climate crisis.”

I daresay the architecture profession by far has the greatest opportunity to address the climate crisis

With buildings lasting an average of 75 years and built space in the U.S. doubling over the next 40 years, Gore reasoned, architecture and design, construction and building, and rebuilding and restoration offer more opportunity to address the current danger than any other activity. “This is a crisis of self-definition,” he said. “It’s spiritual—as we ask ourselves: ‘Are we destined to destroy our own species?’ I think not.”

It is a crisis, in another way, defined through the relationship between humankind and the Earth, Gore said. This relationship has been utterly transformed in the last 150 years by:

  • Soaring population growth, which has exploded from 2 billion people just after World War II to 6.5 billion people today. The population growth rate is beginning to show changes and will continue to stabilize globally after the next few decades, as it already has done in Europe, Gore predicted. Four main factors that slow population growth, experience has shown, are the education of girls, empowerment of women, acceptable methods of family planning, and survival of children. All help people develop preference for smaller families.
  • The Technology Revolution, which enables a thousand times more power for the individual to affect the environment. We are destroying the atmosphere as pollution is trapped in our thin layer of atmosphere. “Global warming pollution is trapped, and the planet has a fever because we are putting 70 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year. The planet is getting warmer—the ice is melting, flooding and drought are increasing dramatically—and all of nature, including microbes carrying infectious diseases—are moving from the equator to the poles.

Turning the tipping point
“The world is moving rapidly toward an understanding that we must stop this madness,” Gore said. “The world has a fever, and we must stop it. If your baby had a fever, you would take care of the problem ... We have a chance to raise conscious awareness of what we have in common, which includes our future.”

If you look at the entire built environment, that entire amount of built space will double in the next 35 years, he told the audience. In China, where 10 percent of the population currently lives in an urban environment, the government has a goal to increase the urban population to 70 percent. “What happens in their buildings will have a huge impact,” he said.

New forces are aligning for architects

In addition to the dire scientific predictions that underscore the enormity of the global warming crisis, Gore said that he knows one thing about politics that scientists don’t know: the political system, like climate, is nonlinear: “When enough people become involved in a new way of thinking, it will speed up. New forces are aligning for architects.”

Stakeholders have until now looked at the first cost, which may conflict with design costs that will make the building sustainable. Now they are understanding that green architecture may be worth the price as a “brand” to clients and also increases the resale value of these buildings. It’s a new alignment of forces, and it’s rational for architects to plan for this new reality. “You have to mid-wife this birth,” Gore exclaimed.

Although the AIA as an organization has been very aggressive in promoting these concepts, “now is the moment for individual architects in their communities to shine.” A marketplace and an economy dominated by short-term gain is another version of the challenge architects currently face. “There is a new alignment of forces that will put the wind at your back instead of in your face—You will find that society as a whole is willing to hear what you say,” Gore said. “We can’t wait for slow change … we can and we must do much more.”

What can we do?
Gore told the audience of his testimony to Congress the past week, during which he proposed:

A carbon-neutral mortgage association: This organization would allow the extra cost of the first purchase price of energy-conserving features to be put in a government-backed mortgage supplement. This would allow the cost to be amortized by the savings over the building’s lifetime and make routine thinking of the cost of sustainability features outside the first cost of the building.

Electranet: When you have a photovoltaic array on a building or windmill generators, the building owner should have the right to sell power into the grid—with no limits to the amount of power the building can contribute or letting the utilities companies set the purchase price. If this is implemented, Gore said, all new buildings could be local sources of power distribution, and we won’t have to build any more central coal- or nuclear-power plants.

All new buildings could be local sources of power distribution, and we won’t have to build any more central coal- or nuclear-power plants

A price on carbon pollution: Let’s recover the integrity of our democracy and prevent special interests from avoiding the costs. “It’s not free to use the atmosphere as a sewer for dumping carbon dioxide,” Gore said. Problems are local, regional, and global, and the climate crisis is the rare global crisis. Our economic system doesn’t register it because it is considered as an “externality,” Gore explained. “We could put a cap on carbon-based emissions pollution, such as suggested in the Kyoto Treaty—an even better way is to tax based on pollution, primarily CO2,” Gore said. “Only when we assign a value to the choices we make will we begin to make more rational choices.”

Wiki Architecture site: He further suggested that AIA members might want to take a look at his new book, Assault on Reason (due out later this month) which talks about how communications tools can help us reclaim the integrity of our democracy. For the AIA in particular, he suggested development of a “Wiki” Web site on the architecture of sustainability. It would allow ways of looking at the latest strategies and sharing them—empowering member to go directly to the site to learn directly themselves. “New online tools can become a turning point in serving the AIA to become a leading force in solving the climate crisis,” Gore said.

Architects needed more than ever
“Don’t get tired—you’re needed more now than ever,” Gore told the architects. Even though inconsiderate government policies, short-term-thinking clients, and the feeling of fear that we’re not doing enough can be discouraging, take heart. Architects will play a key role in solving these problems through buildings and cities, Gore said, applauding the AIA’s recent more forceful role through advocacy.

We will find our moral authority and our vision, and our ability to get our act together—we will become the next greatest generation

The time will come when the next generation will ask either:

What were they thinking? Weren’t they paying attention? How could they bequeath a diminished planet, condemning future generations to bitter prospects?

Or :
How did they find the uncommon moral courage to form a new consciousness of how high the stakes really were and work so hard to meet them?

We are going to accept responsibility to shape the world for those who come after us, the former vice president maintained. “The world’s problems are moral imperatives disguised as problems,” he said. “We will find our moral authority and our vision, and our ability to get our act together—we will become the next greatest generation.” All we need is the political will, and that is a renewable resource, Gore concluded, to a resounding and long-lasting standing ovation from the architects.

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Gore acknowledged the four AIA members present in the audience who had trained to served as part of his Climate Project Team. To learn more about the Climate Project, visit the Web site.