One year ago, I said that I saw myself as a messenger. You may have seen some of my messages this past year in the form of these president’s letters. This time, I have a request.
I have alluded to some serious changes coming our way. That is an understated way of describing our situation. In reality, our world and our profession are facing truly existential challenges.
You probably already know that climate change sits at the top of the list. It is the big, scary thing coming that no one really wants to think about. But we must. There are really just three options available to us. We can achieve net-zero carbon emissions and hope the climate stabilizes; we can acclimate ourselves to a more dangerous and uncomfortable planetary existence; or we can suffer. Given the time constraints, the likeliest outcome is some combination of all three. As architects, we have a huge contribution to make to the first two options. We must now begin to do that thing we do — problem-solve through design. If ever we needed to design for sustainability and resilience, the time is now. We must begin in earnest to create resilient and sustainable buildings, communities, water supplies, food supplies, energy supplies, mobility and transportation, and ecological health.
Second on the list is technology, which is advancing at a rate nearly impossible to keep up with. Our devices are tracking our every move and our every decision. Vehicles are already driving themselves, and may soon be flying themselves. Artificial intelligence will soon begin to play a role in building design. And buildings may soon be constructing themselves — or, at the very least, they will be constructed radically differently than they are today.
This past October, at our Annual Conference in Galveston, Skylar Tibbits captivated us with his presentation on the intersection of research and practice. He is pioneering a way to print objects that can reshape themselves, or self-assemble, over time. According to Tibbits, nearly everything can be programmed, including building materials, bringing the potential to revolutionize design and construction.
Population growth and migration is the third big item on the list. The population of Texas will practically double by 2050 — a very tangible timeframe for most of us. We are expected to grow from 28 million, in recent years, to perhaps 54 million, which does not include any significant climate or political migration. Where will all of these people be? The demographic data tell us that 75 percent of them will be in our urban areas. The thought of cramming another 26 million people into Texas cities within 30 years should cause us real trepidation. The needs and demands of such an exploded population boggle the mind. Where will they live? Where will they go to school? Where will they work and shop, and how will they get to those places? How and what will they eat and drink? And what will power all of this?
Is all of this just too daunting to contemplate? No. We’re architects and designers. This is what we do. We joined this profession because we love solving huge, complex problems. This time, the project is to save the world.
No, we didn’t ask for this assignment, and we might prefer to decline the job. Unfortunately, that’s not an option this time. Business-as-usual will begin to disappear over the coming decade. I ask that we not argue and debate whether these things are truly happening, or ponder and consider for just a few more years. We can no longer merely watch and wait. It’s time to act.
We must recognize the power of what we do, and that it is the only real answer to the challenge. We must create a different future than the one barreling down on us. We also owe it to those who came before, and to those to whom we will bequeath what we create. We must leave the world, and the profession, better than we found it, not worse.
I urge you to be heard, to be seen, and to be engaged in this work.
D. Michael Hellinghausen, AIA, is a principal and COO of OMNIPLAN in Dallas, and the 2019 TxA president.