One issue that the right and left agreed upon in the 2016 election? Infrastructure. The country’s roads, bridges, highways, hospitals, railways, and water systems need immediate attention. President Trump promised to spend $1 trillion to improve the situation; so far, no comprehensive plan has been released–but the president is implementing policy that will impact how these projects are designed and built. And according to environmentalists and architects, it might make infrastructure weaker, not stronger.
On August 15, Trump signed an executive order that shortened the permitting process for federal infrastructure projects by overhauling the environmental review process, which he believes has slowed the pace of infrastructure construction and repair. Trump also revoked an Obama-era rule mandating extra flood protections for all federal infrastructure projects–designed to build resilience and mitigate damage from climate change. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Texas government assess the damage from Hurricane Harvey and its flood waters, and begin to rebuild, this policy change will impact how new infrastructure is designed and to what specifications.
Obama’s 2015 executive order was all about using design to reduce the risk of catastrophic damage from flooding. For example, it mandated that all projects receiving federal funding must use the best-available climate science and hydrological data to assess flood risk and determine what the flood elevation should be. It also went into granular detail and instituted a rule that added two feet to the base flood elevation for non-critical projects and three feet to critical projects. Trump’s executive order eliminates the stricter protections Obama mandated on flooding and the effects of climate change, along with shortening the environmental review process. Environmental advocates have railed against the order, while the oil industry has showered it with praise.
To get a fuller understanding of the new policy’s implications, we spoke to members of two groups that it will directly impact: architects and sustainability experts.
Set Up To Fail
To Margaret Montgomery–sustainability leader at NBBJ, an architecture firm based in Seattle that designs for Amazon and Samsung and recently rebuilt the Veterans Administration Hospital, in New Orleans–the new policy is indicative of climate denial, which puts us at risk for long-term planning.
“Climate change is here, no matter what any administration does to hide the facts,” she says. “To blindly act as if nothing is happening sets us up for facilities that fail, people that are hurt, and communities burdened with tremendous additional costs that could have been avoided. It especially damages communities that have less power and ability to react and recover when something happens.”
Montgomery, like other architects who commented for this story, believes that specific regions of the country are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of Trump’s policy, like communities that are more dependent on federal funding, areas that don’t accept that climate change is real, and areas that are underserved. Regions that already have strong local climate action plans–typically major cities on the coasts–will continue to champion sustainable, resilient design. The areas that are at the greatest risk of infrastructure failure in a storm are often the least likely to prioritize resiliency without federal oversight.
A “Fast-Food Version” Of Development
“I wasn’t surprised; we all saw this coming,” Mike Cavanaugh–sustainability leader at CannonDesign, a firm that specializes in hospitals, university campuses, and civic buildings–tells Co.Design. “We’re definitely concerned, but at the same time we’ve been through this for seven to eight months and we know deregulation is the theme of the day.”
He points out that, paradoxically, deregulation is detrimental to areas that want it the most. These are regions that already have the worst infrastructure since their economies have not supported new construction or maintenance over they years–so they urgently need new development, which could spark job creation.
“[Policy makers] deregulate because they want things to happen faster,” Cavanaugh says. “So areas without the robust economy feel like they need to get a fast-food version of development going. That’s where planning isn’t going to take place properly. They’ll build critical infrastructure below the 500-year floodplain and that’s where we’ll see regretting some of these decisions made to quickly get a short-term economic boost, maybe not in 1 or 5 years, but in 10 or 20 years. So it’s places in the south, like Louisiana still rebuilding from Katrina, [that want] to accelerate oil and gas infrastructure.”
It Will Sow “Incongruence and Confusion”
In his executive order, Trump stated that unnecessary rules and regulations cause inefficient decision-making processes, stalling infrastructure development. To spark development, he claimed, the country needs fewer rules. But fewer federal rules might not make development faster–it could actually slow construction down even more, according to Phil Harrison, CEO of Perkins+Will, one of the largest architecture firms in the country.
“Right now, perhaps the biggest impact is incongruence and confusion,” he tells Co.Design in an email. “While a number of sustainability-focused policies are being ‘rolled back,’ other pre-existing federal environmental policies and executive orders, such as the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings–which essentially sets requirements for federal buildings to meet the 2030 Challenge–remain in effect. This lack of clarity around what’s still applicable and what’s not will likely lead to even greater regulatory burden, despite all promises to the contrary.”
In his experience, Harrison has found his government clients to be “good stewards of public funds” and doesn’t believe that agencies would put their multimillion dollar investments in harm’s way. But that might not be the case in every situation.
“Since, by ‘rolling back’ some of these environmental policies, the federal government is reducing its role in protecting the public interest, other groups will need to close the gap,” Harrison tells Co.Design. “Fortunately, communities, cities, counties, and states already have a more significant hand in public health and safety than the federal government. So for now, this ‘rollback’ simply means they will need to do more.”
The View From The Front Lines
If these municipalities–and the stakeholders footing the bill–agree that climate-resilient design is a priority, changes at the federal level won’t matter. However, there are dozens of climate deniers in office. While resilient design and sustainability have become part of the lingua franca for many projects today, that wasn’t the case a decade ago.
“In general, my biggest worry is that we’re just beginning to head in the right direction and gather the resources and forces and momentum to actually respond appropriately to climate change,” Margaret Montgomery says. “I think it’s unfortunate we’re hitting a setback. In the profession we’re mobilized. We’ll do what we can do and there’s a lot we can do without being told to do it.”
In many ways, architects are the first line of defense. As consultants, they are equipped to inform their clients about resilient design. The AIA Code of Ethics includes a section about how environmentally responsible design is a professional duty. CannonDesign incorporates questions about long-term resiliency at the start of its discussions with clients by plainly asking if it’s a priority. If not, then its architects explain why it’s worth considering.
Of course, this approach can only go so far when there are many stakeholders involved and many competing priorities, cost and time being two major factors. Flood-resistant design is often more expensive, since it can include things like moving mechanical systems to upper floors and significantly reinforcing structures. When it comes to staying within budget, design elements that aren’t necessary for day-to-day operation rarely take priority: Why spend extra money to design a structure for an event that might only happen once every 100 years?
“It’s really handy for us as taxpayers to say we can shave 2% or 3% off the project cost now, but at what cost in a disaster?” Montgomery says about investing in resilient design. “We just have the heroic sense that we can put off paying, but we can’t for very long. The costs of disaster are amounting so much–and it’s so avoidable.”
The country’s current infrastructure problem is a result of putting short-term priorities over long-term consequences. Budgets are severely limited. Building a new bridge might be put off for a few years, but funding emergency services can’t be delayed, for example. The cycle repeats, and here we are. The only solution is to be aggressively proactive, and the administration’s current trajectory is anything but.
Trump abandoned his plans for an infrastructure advisory council–which would have steered his trillion-dollar promise–after his other councils disbanded in the wake of Charlottesville. Long-term infrastructure planning requires vision and foresight to rally taxpayers, private contractors, counties, cities, and states around projects that will take longer than a political term–or annual profit report–to plan and complete. As it is now, Trump’s blind “need for speed” policy robs tomorrow for today.