ODBC

The promise of planning, architecture, engineering and construction is useful but not the way we think. 

Designers, planners, architects, all of us, suffer from several well-documented cognitive failings that distort our ability to predict accurately. But, hey, it is the future, it is not that easy to predict, but this could be changing due to two causalities:

  • Are we more likely not to believe evidence contradicting a commonly adopted meaning of a bright-line, hot button event? The event is easy to recall, leading to the likelihood of overestimating such events’ incidence. We are, thus, less likely to accept contradictory evidence without the bright lines.
  • We know how to make events recur with increasing accuracy right along with the sunrise and the tide. But, the capacity to build for the future does not include knowing what it will mean to people or do to their lives?

Solid psychological evidence of these abilities and behaviors leads to one of my favorite things — inevitable conclusions. With human behavior data, governments and businesses use open database connectivity (ODBC) to build businesses. ODBC is a powerful alternative to firms making decisions based on an experts’ track record.

ODBC is complicated because we are all involved. Knowingly as well as without our knowledge, we are all participants in a huge regression to the mean experiment. New ODBC business partnerships bring unbelievably accurate tools to analyze/improve urban evolutionusing a benign participation process with some sticky privacy issues.

New kinds of knowledge capital are consistently built through curiosity and action. Known preferences are finely tuned essentials of routine design decisions predicated by the senses of the human body. The ODBC benefit builds on this framework for a reform movement in which designers, planners, architects, and engineers acquire the leadership role and loses their subservience to capital by capturing a higher level of control over its uses. Aside from the political challenges involved, the advancement of certainty is a forceful way to assure the quality of human life on the earth.

The Decline of Expert Discretion

I offer two examples as to why this decline is probable. In Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart, Ayres describes the replacement of the “expert” whose knowledge is built on experience and track record by step-by-step procedures with fact-holding computers for data modeling. He argues that anything can be predicted. Just before the publication of Super Crunchers, an equally popular book entitled Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, illustrated how extensive analysis of databases reveals hidden causes and new questions replacing the “firm expert” approach to community development services.

These writers explore new business structures that replace the expert. They skillfully illustrate how massive datasets’ quantitative analyses make hundreds of real-world decisions using algorithms for people asking better questions. The question posed here does not regard removing the role captured by traditional experts from the policy framework. The question is not when or if but how quickly it becomes inevitable. Is there any solace in this truth? It seems the answer is yes.

The remaining and most important human element is to guess. Guessing requires a test to discover the variables that should and should not be included in statistical analysis. In other words, to generate hypotheses remains ultimately human. To ask “what causes what” remains the most valid human act.

What Causes What?

Our present experience is coupled with a dense urban environment where the exponential growth in the number of variables affecting choice is now instantly available. These “sets” of information are beyond our “intuitive” abilities to use, let alone an individual or team’s skill at defining problems. However, tools, such as telescopes in space or microscopes in laboratories, force new observations. We thought they were stars, but they are galaxies, and we are a little blue marble in one of them. We can’t see the “atom” but know why they are objects of matter that are smaller than a wave of light. This quality of observational insight is now available regarding human behavior.

The selection of statistical inferences capable of building datasets that explore human behavior is a vital new policy tool. Hours of sleep, the expenditure of dollars on everything-everywhere, miles traveled, even tears shed, and a laugh out loud. It will help designers to see things never seen. Discovering novelty and asking questions will be the source of human insight in regression to the mean data. Still, the sources of data to establish commonality will define the ultimate decision-making structure of every individual. The trade-off could and must be equal. For example, have a look at this narrative on Earthdays (here).

Consensus on OBDC

Therefore, the consensus on this question is developing as follows: There is a lack of extensive knowledge regarding viable algorithms useful for defining the aesthetic of the urban living experience as weighed against the privacy sought. New questions:

  • How will people be added to this group to develop the super-crunching urban design discussion?
  • How will end-user experience data become a routine product for design and planning firms in dense urban and metropolitan areas?
  • How is urban design data produced, made accessible, and used to alter urban design practices?

Two books that offer some insight are: Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

Seven Elements/Four Topics

The following few thousand words seek a new value system for the city and regional planning, architecture, and engineering professions. Your bones tell you, you smell it, there is the challenge of unclear change on the tongues of the public speakers. The sticky multiple versions of the truth offered in the political speech of our modern lives will be swept away by the clear mind of science. This is a call for action in that simple pursuit.

The challenges embedded in the failures of planning, architecture, and engineering are vast. Only a third of the earth’s landscape is urban, and it holds over half its population and will not stop. The densest regions are near natural resources and the ocean, and every part of it is instructive of an adaptation to restraint and the failure to do so. These regions range from heartbreaking failures to soaring enclosures of fully actualized human potential. This duality is now squarely before the change-makers. The rationalized contradictions of “have” and “have not” have become the tragedy of the knowing and the unknowing.

Core Elements of Planning, Architecture, and Engineering Practice
  1. The practice knows that humans experience the world through their bodies.
  2. The practice focuses on specific purposes for buildings and built environments for humans to provide experiences of the world.
  3. The practice builds environments made of materials drawn from the earth’s crust, for which there is a timeless responsibility.
  4. The quality of an architectural solution derived from demonstrations of extraction processes includes responsibility for all human experiences in creating and using each product.
  5. Demonstrations of quality derive from combinations of functional and technical requirements.
  6. Creating a place, its coherence, and material quality produce an aesthetic experience assigned by its users to the design solution.
  7. Standards of practice develop through deliberate periods of reflection, evaluation, and routine performance tests to establish planning, architecture, design, and engineering expertise.

The desire to build a city of gold or a shed in the forest does not require the expertise of architecture and engineering (A&E). It does require the confidence presented by preexisting, demonstrable products. Regretfully, the solutions are, therefore, retrogressive on all aspects of economic and social change. Less understood is the fundamental intention of design as a producer of hedonic experiences known as aesthesis. However, the ability to love, like, or appreciate your environment, yourself, and other people as part of that experience requires psychological and physiological knowledge. At the center, the human ability for profound learning can anticipate and empathize with the knowledge. In the A&E professions, this responsibility has been allowed to remain indeterminate, weak, and damaging to the United States. This is due to a “first” principle. Remaining accountable to the desires of the bill payers, and only as accountable to government as the law requires. See (Finding Density)

Whitney M. Young Jr raised racism in A&E in 1968 at the 100th convention of the American Institute of Architects. Just a few years before his accidental death (1971), he put a deck of cards on the table and explained to the AIA membership that they were the problem.

“Now, you have a nice, normal escape hatch in your historical, ethical code or something that says, after all, you are the designers and not the builders; your role is to give people what they want. Now, that’s a nice, easy cop-out.”

Whitney M. Young Jr.
Read the complete speech here.

Providing the service of design expertise to meet severe challenges such as “sustainability” exists, but it is weak. The desire to end development practices that contribute to racism is supported, but with actions subservient to the historical, ethical code used as an escape hatch.

Demands to improve the human experience with the world require steps well beyond establishing the coherence of place. Confirming a sense of safety, comfort, accessibility, mobility, novelty, color, harmonics produce a long set of demands for consistency. The designer’s production of spatial and aesthetic content requires a new social resonance in the 21st century, an open and uncertain intelligence essential to understanding every human need more than physical. The space-makers knowledge of existence will grow in service to a higher cause and one of purpose in service to humanity, not the bill payers. In failing to take these steps, architecture and engineering are not improving the human condition, and the world must ask why?

The following four topics summarize research and analysis of social and economic issues affecting the professional and non-professional urbanization of the United States. It began with the idea that a small laboratory on the idea of breaking some rules in one medium-sized A&E firm could reveal the brilliance of design as power. The topics outline an Occam’s Razor set of four simple steps by the professions of planning, design, architecture, and engineering that might save us all.

Four Topics

Challenging Planning, Architecture, and Engineering Practice

Topic One: The Arc of History Is an Act of Construction

For the last few thousand years, humanity has gathered and shaped materials from the earth’s crust. It now occurs at a rate unprecedented in any other period. Yet, from Fordism to now, history does not describe the cost of this change as safe practice in any sense of the word, but as one designed to be continuously more profitable.  

As a national policy, this practice pushed manufacturing labor out of the United States to less regulated, lower-cost areas in trade for lower-cost goods at home. Globalization is a well-documented force of history; however, its impact on the city-building trades is a research and development task tossed like a ball to the city-builders, the designer, planner, architect, and engineer, and they can’t catch.

Yes, individual projects represent extraordinary exhibits of design and technical expertise. Still, they are caves in the storm of urbanization history as it spreads the poisonous mass of human endeavor “as construction” across the surface of the earth.

Cities cover the earth’s prime locations, and yet they remain little more than a vague notion. As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic, I refer readers to “How cities took over the world” (here). The project experience of the A&E firms expressed by those in the graphic (below) and as many other contributors would care to recommend is needed. The Guardian (here) offers readers an extensive review of the earth’s urban reality. A video illustrates (here) the explosion of cities in the last two seconds of a three-minute presentation covering 4,000 years of urban development, or 9,000 if you want to go Neolithic.

The growth of architecture and engineering as a professional force surpasses all others in city-building, yet it remains an undistinguished expression of political power. Management companies such as McKinsey & Company noticed this as a productivity problem in 2017 (here). Its city-forming capacities and influence are self-suppressed in preference for praise as an art. Over the last four thousand years, from Alexandria to the Erie Canal, the practice has turned away from recognizing how it shapes the world as a political force in preference to its services for expressing the imaginations of capital. This behavior needs to stop.

The global A&E practice has developed in service to those who desire to build cities at a development rate rightly criticized as endangering the well-being of life. In this context, the thousand-year arc of history exhibits urban life brought to its knees many times in countless submissions to the destructive forces of black death, war, resource overreach, and the anticipatory ignorance of central governance. This behavior needs to stop.

The thread in this demand for discussion asks participants to examine this history with the presumption of a continuously urbanizing, global system, structurally and destructively embedded in or alongside another world that uses only what it needs, wastes nothing, and obtains its energy from sunlight. Looking forward and back, questions regarding the medium- and long-term must recognize the incompatibility of these two systems as currently designed. How can the destructive forces of each establish balance, and at what cost to human life?

Preceding our few thousand years, millions of species have come and gone over the last four billion years. In this context, the genius of time is the formation of well-informed and reflective humans, capable of explaining and understanding the universe well enough so as not to become its victim. The first question of history that points to this future of knowledge must discover an urban world that is generous with the earth with near-perfect information. The history of urban construction needs to change. Finally, can the powerful development expertise of actors such as those exhibited above become more mindful of this challenge. What forces are needed to get more effective thinking, and where necessary, force corrective action?

Topic Two: Erase the Contract

Architects and engineers have defined a set of professional restrictions on themselves. They also accepted limits demanded by investors (public and private). As the classic phrasing in the contract documents describes, A&E work shall be limited work. A&E provides two services design and construction documents, or more directly, build design expertise reputations to “get the job” and “documents” that get a project built.  

When a building is to be built, the process begins for the construction manager when there is an agreement between the owner and the architect followed by a separate agreement between an owner and the architect called the B132 agreement between the owner and a construction management adviser. This agreement follows the A232 that outlines the general conditions of the contract of construction. Following this step, the litigious nature established by these first two agreements sets into motion the possibility of many other contracts designed to avoid complaints.

The climate warming crisis has encouraged a process for implementing the concept of “sustainability” into every project as an exhibit (E 235).  The process for change orders and the steps necessary to acquire certifications for payment, new construction change directives, and ultimately a certificate of substantial completion sets forth the final payment elements of the initial contract between owner and contractor.

After these two tasks (get the job and sign documents), A&E is without power and trapped in binding contracts of its own making. It can observe well-paid union workers in conflict with the non-union worker through strategic “divide-and-conquer” tactics to accomplish a profit. Profit, of course, is essential. It is only the term and structure for defining returns and accruals that are in question — the result involves the intervention using public funds for supply-side subsidies and demand-side incentives of public policy.

Change in response to unmet human needs is injected into the city-building process to lower the cost of money or support efforts to produce better and safer environments through various zoning and construction regulations. The result is a maze of contractual requirements. Finally, A&E remains relevant in its examination of a long list of issues and concerns related to the use of building materials and construction practices to maintain public welfare and prevent litigation on a project-by-project basis. In addition, the knowledge drawn from the application of technology in planning, architecture, and engineering in city-building has the power to prove that humanity is not an infestation but an instrument capable of understanding the full complexity of all the conditions in which a building is made, not as an object in space, but as an addition in a community where much more needs to be done and with whom new partners are needed in a very different type of contract.

Efforts to change the system from within have resulted in introducing technology and law to produce contracts, such as presented by the Integrated Project Delivery introduced by the American Institute of Architects in the mid-2000s (AIA pdf here).

As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic, refer your readers to the implementation of IPD ( pdf here) that reviews a dozen projects in the United States. I also ask you to refer project experience of A&E firms expressed in the graphic (above) as it relates to the construction trade organizations exhibited in the graphic (below) along with as many other “workers organizations” as you would care to recommend with one additional component – add your focus on the expertise of the construction trades as exhibited by their union representation and by spending about three minutes with some people talking about their life-experience in construction.

‘The vitality of architecture does not stand on the strength of its foundations or the vision of its builders. 
It stands on the dignity of life formed in the heart of all of its creators.”

I offer the following change tactically aimed at a far more significant change in the city-building contract than exhibited in the well-intentioned tinkering offered by the IPD program. First, I would include a demand to recapture a resource such as building information modeling systems (BIM) as a public responsibility. It is adopted widely and somewhat inappropriately by construction management firms in contracts with owners and developers. It belongs elsewhere in a new partnership.

If significant improvements in system management toward a practice of architecture and engineering are to occur, it must defer to people’s lives in priority over the property. In response to demands for resilience, it must meet sustainability goals in preference to weathering the next storm, whether it be fire or rage. A new relationship between the construction trades, their unions, and A&E can produce the balance needed to move forward as a force for political change. Accepting this idea may be essential to eliminating the destructive forces of raw capital at work in the world.

An improved concept of change that gets well past the profitability of managing time is needed. The cold industrialization of construction awaits on the global factory floor. In this writer’s mind, a new alliance of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) are the best means toward retaining the art and humanity of architecture with the precision of science and engineering sustained by the heart and soul of its human builders. Technology makes many contributions to city-building that offer exhilarating promise. The embodied energy in building materials could be sustained for centuries as recyclable. All surfaces would collect tactile and energy from the sun, the movement of people and goods occurs seamlessly. When these changes can be made to recur there is proof of control. With these proofs, one other human problem requires careful examination in the United States because it is the most diverse society on earth.

The argument in this brief look at changing the city-building contract is one that must occur between design, the technology of architecture, and engineering with the construction trades and its workers. Without this change, the city-building professions will fail in their contract with humanity.

Topic Three: Change the Concept of Change

Building diversity is an adjustment of social justice and a step toward extraordinary new powers for change.

Open processes that value human dignity, fair wages, health, and safety occur in countries with the capacity to make a democratic change. Over the last fifty years, public regulation and litigation regarding the safety of construction sites make them marginally protected. Elsewhere in the world, the record shows construction labor as a struggle with death, and if not death, despair.

Investors know creativity is in the major urban centers, and the time to capture it is now.  When business and government leaders put options on the table that don’t create change, the policy is not to create change. The CEO’s from small to massive A&E firms recognize the prevailing narrative of a nation’s white, male, racial preeminence, and how it is represented in their businesses today. They should see it in the context of a rapidly changing American value system aimed at high levels of fairness that eliminate wrongs, thereby opening an exponential capacity for growth through innovation.

As the more responsible power holders take a good look at the nation as it is today, they will discover how to shift the subtle and corrosive ideology of gender and racial pre-eminence that is white and male toward greater inclusion. They will learn how it creates the invisibility of all others. The first step is to identify the privileges that have enabled past “rights” to continue for so long that they have become today’s “wrongs.” In the light of a society that seeks to improve its understanding of itself, the demand (while painful) for a “facts are friendly” approach to solving problems is paramount.

Nearly 40% of the U.S. population are people of color.  Their lack of representation in many influential fields reveals obvious “white race preeminence” that remains unchallenged. Department of Labor (DOL) numbers to back that up are:

  • From 2009 to 2018, the percentage of black law partners up from 1.7% to 1.8%.
  • From 1985 to 2016, the proportion of black men in management at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees barely budged–from 3% to 3.2%.
  • People of color held about 16% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018.
  • A 2018 survey of the 15 largest public fashion and apparel companies found that nonwhites held only 11% of board seats and that nearly three-quarters of company CEOs were white men.
  • In the top 200 film releases of 2017, minorities accounted for 7.8% of writers, 12.6% of directors, and 19.8% of lead roles.

As a stimulant to further discussion on this topic and resistance to it, I will refer readers to two discussions on the implementation of diversity (AIA pdf here, a research article here) that addresses a range of issues. The task of linking A&E to the Construction Trades experience offers lessons in racial and gender in both of their ranks.

At first glance, architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms have improved gender balance with a significant influence on education and training programs. The construction trade unions have improved racial access and trust in diversity with added strength in the transparency of pay equity and negotiations for health insurance services in their ranks. There is a strong win/win potential in developing this relationship through education.

An alliance of knowledge and choices in career ladders between the building trades and city-building professionals can produce any more levels of participation from designing a building to building one. The enrichment for a cross-disciplinary engagement in the challenges faced in city-building is infinite in its possibility. It is capable of crushing the intellectual silos in which the trades and professionals find themselves trapped.

Topic Four: Realign City-Building

Until recently, the history of the construction industry regarding change issues has been not to allow social change. The history of A&E, however, illustrates policies more responsive to demands for change. The focus on education serves greater gender-balance positioned to achieve equity; A&E policies are also eager to adapt to new technologies to their portfolio of problem-solving tools.

Few evaluation systems address social change and sustainability beyond the capacity of marketing to claim “steps.” Departments of Commerce (Census) and Labor produce measures for evaluating responses of business and industry to social demands. Agents can claim modest advances in broad areas such as social justice and point to specific areas such as sexual harassment. However, steps in preventing environmental damage do not quantify threats to future generations effectively. Vague, and in many cases, unverifiable measures are used on a project-by-project basis with impunity. Draw a line around the city. Inside unlimited growth is on offer if nothing damaging can go outside that line. With this alignment, there may be enough time to make it work. If not, I fear doom awaits full expression in the screams of the impoverished.

On the question of accountability, these issues concern any thinking person. The design professions and construction trades can take a more substantial leadership role in public policy. There are more questions, and please offer them, but the best of them to seek opinions as follows:

Thank You

Yep, this is a tunnel search.

Please contribute facts, names of places, numbers, sources, and resources to help this little think tank community explore some ideas, and define the problems presented in each of the following questions. Our focus is simple — no one is as smart as all of us.

1

Should the A&E community enter into alliances with the construction trades industry to make both more responsive to social and environmental challenges?

Knowing that an alliance with the construction trades is not considered possible at this time, what strategies might you offer or what purposes might this action serve?

Please respond: link to email here

2

Is it possible for you to envision the formation of a highly trained, architecture, engineering, and construction industry as a highly advanced technological force in the city-building world? If yes, what national and global structures would you deploy (real or imagined).

Knowing that the top annual billing rate for the world’s largest A&E firms falls short of a billion U.S. Dollars, consider your answer in terms of taking full development control.

Please respond: link to email here

3

Through legislation and changes in central governance policy, will it be necessary for A&E to develop the capacity to establish a controlling and deciding role in every expenditure related to urban preservation, re-development, and construction?

This question presumes an inability of nation-states and global regulatory bodies to establish ground rules for managing the displacement of millions of people over the next half-century.

Please respond: link to email here

4

Can A&E define and resolve the challenges of the next two decades that predict enormous physical damages to the urban infrastructure of America?

Please respond: link to email here

The question imagines the availability of substantial capital to resolve coastal and southern border disruptions in new multi-national business partnerships designed to define specific levels of design expertise rapidly when needed.

5

Will A&E lead in its capacity to design and plan environments that respond to the vast creativity embedded in the social and economic diversity unique to the United States?

The representation of the multi-cultural, ethnic, and racial composition of the American population is considered a valuable asset. Can A&E in the United States respond effectively in resolving issues?

Please respond: link to email here

6

Will AEC envision new ways of life that focus on the humanity embedded in our shared realities that produce new forms of comfort in life and health in living with the knowledge that we sustain the joy and laughter of all those who wait in the deep future?

Asking for your theory of change in this closing question asks you to reflect on all previous answers with the idea that some elements of hope for the leadership in the profession will become possible, if not in your heart, then in your imagination

Please respond: link to email here and thank-you.

The challenge is to combine design skill and construction knowledge and the progressive nature of labor unions, architecture, and engineering to create the opportunity to save us all or save anyone who looks into the eyes of a six-year-old to know that we had better try hard and start now.

AIA for Mayor

The American Institute of Architect’s New York Chapter (AIANY) released a mayoral platform to help them set the 2014 agenda: See: PDF

  1. buildings, what is built, how it gets where, for who, when
  2. neighborhoods planning and community development issues
  3. city systemic change in building and zoning codes
  4. world state, federal and international policy on cities.

Some of the details in NYC

  • 100,000 new units of affordable housing units built over next ten years building on the 150,000 produced since 2000
  • Complete the green code, passed in 2010 to support energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.  Only 29 of the 111 proposals from the draft code have been passed,
  • Build “active design” programs to make existing buildings healthy, safe and efficient.
  • Add open space throughout the city
  • Establish a position: Deputy Mayor for Design and Planning and make the Office for Long-Term Planning and Sustainability a commissioner-level position