Sunday, October 15, 2017

Architecture is Awesome #15: Building a Legacy

The Acropolis, by Leo von Klenze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture.

If architects do their jobs well, the buildings they design will be sturdy, functional, and beautiful. If they are, the buildings will be well-used, cared for, and lasting. And if the buildings are lasting, they will outlive their authors, setting the stage for many lifetimes beyond those of the original players involved in their conception. The most-cherished, most-useful, and long-lived buildings are bequests from one generation to those that follow. They comprise the legacy their original owners, builders, and architects leave behind for others to enjoy.

Architects bear a responsibility to pour their lives into the making of places and buildings that will have repercussions for many years. This responsibility is not unlike the tremendous one parents bear when raising their children; each child must be cherished and nurtured to become loving, valued members of the family and society. Parents pass on their thoughts and beliefs to their children, and they in turn to future generations, so they live on as a tradition and culture. In this sense, children are a continuation of the lives of their parents, a biologic and symbolic form of immortality. Buildings likewise provide architects with a creative symbolic immortality, as buildings have the capacity to change the lives of others long after their designers have passed on.(1)

Ultimately, only the greatest of edifices are spared from turning to dust, and their enduring permanence sometimes comes at the cost of losing the vitality spurred by their initial purposes. Whether they will last for fifty years or a thousand, the buildings we design tell as much about ourselves as they do the place, time, and culture of their origin. What we make reveals, in some measure, who we are and were. To paraphrase the Athenian statesman Pericles, what we leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. The important thing is to envision the profound and positive impacts our buildings will have upon those who will use and encounter them.

Life, as we all know, is a precious thing. We all have so much potential for good. It’s incumbent upon us to do something meaningful and beneficial with the short time each of us has on this planet. The responsibility is humbling. The legacy every architect builds during his or her lifetime should be important, respectful, and of help to the lives of the generations it will touch. If it is, that legacy becomes a significant part of humankind’s epic, wondrous, and AWESOME heritage.

Next Architecture is Awesome: #16 Skyscrapers 

(1) Read more about symbolic immortality here.

Monday, October 9, 2017

2018 CSI Certification Classes

For the 36th consecutive year, the Construction Specifications Institute –Willamette Valley Chapter (CSI-WVC) is pleased to offer a series of classes on Construction Contract Documents in addition to another set covering Construction Contract Administration. While the principal purpose of the courses is to assist those planning to take one or more of the CSI-sponsored certification examinations, they’re also beneficial to anyone in the AEC industry seeking foundational training in the preparation and use of construction documents. Additionally, the classes can be of significant value to architectural interns and to the firms for whom they work, as well as very helpful to those preparing to take the State Architectural Licensing Exams.

The evening classes begin in early January and continue weekly through the first part of March.

Click on the following link to navigate to the CCCA/CDT/CCS Seminars page and locate detailed information about the classes, dates, fees, and registration:

New this year, the venue for both classes will be the Eugene Builders Exchange, located at 2460 West 11th Avenue in Eugene. CSI-WVC is looking forward to what is certain to be a long and fruitful partnership with the Exchange.

Both courses can help students develop a conceptual understanding of the entire construction process, and concrete skills in: 

  • Construction documentation development and administration 
  • Specification writing and enforcement 
  • Product research and sourcing 
  • Communication with the design and contracting teams

The Construction Documents program provides a comprehensive overview for anyone who writes, interprets, enforces, or manages construction documents. Being able to understand and interpret written construction documents helps architects, contractors, contract administrators, material suppliers, and manufacturers' representatives perform their jobs more effectively. Understanding the roles and relationships of all participants improves communication among all members of the construction team. The Construction Contract Administration course goes further to emphasize the specific knowledge and skills necessary to administer and enforce construction contract documentation. While not necessary, some students may find it helpful to have completed the Construction Documents course before taking the Construction Contract Administration program.

As mentioned above, both classes serve as excellent means to prepare for CSI’s certification exams. Certification as a Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) means you have demonstrated ability to prepare, use, and interpret construction documents. CDT certification is a prerequisite to CSI’s advanced certifications, which include Certified Construction Specifier (CCS), Certified Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA), and Certified Construction Product Representative (CCPR).

CSI offers its certification examinations twice annually, in the spring and the fall. Taking the 2018 Willamette Valley Chapters classes this winter would set you up nicely to register for the spring set of exams.

The classes are especially beneficial for emerging design & construction industry professionals, and to the firms for which they work. They’re also particularly helpful to aspiring architects preparing to take a State Licensing Exam.

By taking either of the classes, fully fledged architects can earn up to 20 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours to apply toward maintaining Oregon State Board of Architect Examiners professional licensure; AIA Members can earn up 20 Continuing Education Learning Units (LU) which CSI will report directly to AIA/CES.

I’ll once again be one of the instructors, along with Linn West, Larry Banks, Jerry Boucock, Tom Deines, Brian Hamilton, and Jim Chaney. Together we bring nearly three centuries of cumulative professional experience to the table, which means we have stories aplenty to share with our students. Notwithstanding that it also means we’re old(!), the curriculum for the classes is up-to-date and as relevant as ever to the challenging realities of today’s construction industry.

Hundreds of local AEC professionals have already benefitted immeasurably by taking one or both CSI certification classes. Do the same and you’ll learn about the importance of clear, concise, correct, and complete construction documents, and more fully understand how projects unfold from conception to delivery. Best of all, you’ll advance your career prospects and become a highly valued member of any project team.

If you have any questions, please call me at 541-342-8077 or send me an email at

Sunday, October 8, 2017

To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere

Photo collage by Uoregon14 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The following piece will appear as the AIA-Southwestern Oregon Committee on Local Affairs' contribution to the 2017 Design Annual (Register-Guard insert), to be published next month. The theme of this year’s edition is “Technology.”

Few shifts in the cultural landscape have so profoundly impacted our shared conception of the public realm as the advent of the Internet, smart phones, and social media. The smart phone has changed every aspect of our social interactions, with profound implications for the future of communities everywhere. Just as the automobile prompted the decline and replacement of much of the productive urban fabric of our cities (think urban renewal, freeways, parking lots, and exclusionary zoning), the Internet and, more specifically, social media now jeopardize the reversal of that decline.

The irony of social media has been an attendant rise in loneliness, depression, and a sense of detachment among its heaviest users. For the compulsively addicted, virtual spaces become more attractive than real ones, virtual exchanges more appealing than in-the-flesh interaction; entire worlds are just a keystroke or finger-swipe away. The 2,000-year-old words of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca—who speaking in his time of the price paid by obsessive travelers—now aptly describe this contemporary condition: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

Nowhere is not where anyone should want to be. Nowhere is not a place. Being nowhere means lacking the prospect of progress or success.

The risk posed to cities by a collective preoccupation with virtual communities is the possibility we may eventually forget what it takes to make real places: successful civic, public spaces that are accessible, comfortable, sociable, and truly used. We made this mistake during the Age of Automobiles and paid the heavy price; we cannot afford to make a similar mistake again. If we do, we’ll surely struggle to retain our community identity and sense of place, much of which may have only been regained and/or established in the past few years.

So, what is a realistic future for our cities, Eugene in particular? In the face of stresses that would topple dominant urban planning paradigms, how do we avoid being both everywhere and nowhere at once?

The answer is to redouble our efforts to maximize the public realm as a shared interest because it is our public spaces that most effectively differentiate here from everywhere and nowhere. This means recognizing what makes Eugene’s cultural, physical, and historical context unique. It means countering the banality of many of Eugene’s public spaces. It means stressing the importance of physical structure and identity—the vividness of unique elements and conversely a grasp of the whole—by celebrating design excellence. It means building upon the recent revitalization downtown, which is a more vibrant place today than it has been in many years.

As the region’s historic center for business, governmental, and cultural activities, the success of downtown Eugene is critical to our community’s sense of identity. We commend the City of Eugene for its promising efforts to improve the Park Blocks using the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” strategy to enliven public spaces promulgated by its consultant, Project for Public Spaces. If and when City Hall occupies the location of the “Butterfly” parking lot, the Park Blocks will assume an even more important civic role than they do now. We consider the public-private partnership that brings a high-speed fiber network to 120 downtown Eugene buildings equally promising. This project capitalizes on Eugene’s emergence as the “Silicon Shire,” one of Fast Company magazine’s “Next Top 10 Cities for Tech Jobs.” We’re encouraged to see developers regarding downtown as desirable ground for housing projects attractive to urban professionals and retirees. And we’re pleased downtown at last has its new Whole Foods outlet.

Downtown is starting to work, which is good news for the entire city. We’ve made great progress but much more remains to be done. Many people still consider downtown a dangerous place filled with undesirable people. Too many restaurants still close early each day. Evening activities remain disproportionately focused on the club/bar scene rather than encompassing a more diverse range of options. In the face of Internet shopping, retail businesses aren’t likely to return and once again dominate downtown. There are still far too many inactive storefronts, including those that ring the Park Blocks. Downtown Eugene needs to evolve in response.

Growing the resident population will help. When people live in the city's core, they become caring stakeholders who take ownership of its future. Supplying free public wi-fi throughout would draw people downtown, empowering those who otherwise lack affordable Internet access. Blending shopping with authentic experiences in unique, brick & mortar settings will set specialty retailers apart from their online competitors.

To sustain real progress will require learning how to adapt to the changes that threaten to overwhelm us. Social media may be here with us to stay, but this does not mean they can or should supplant the complex ecosystem that is an actual city. We contend the presence of real public spaces is important to the existence of any civil society and democracy. So too is differentiating those spaces so they are as unique, context-specific, attractive, and meaningful as possible. Investing intellectual and monetary capital in the public realm—such as in downtown Eugene where we as a community exercise our social and civic functions—is crucial. Ideally, the public realm will always remain free to use, accessible, and welcoming to all types of people from all walks of life.

As architects, we firmly believe a sense of place can foster civic engagement. We believe in the power of design as an antidote to the social disengagement abetted by today’s smart phones and computers. We’re not Luddites, but we do prefer living in and working for the betterment of our real world, as opposed to a virtual one. We believe in being present and engaged so that we can design genuine solutions for difficult problems. For the sake of today’s iGeneration and those who will follow them, we’re committed to ensuring Eugene will never become everywhere or nowhere anytime soon.

Austin Bailey, Scott Clarke, Eric Gunderson, Stan Honn, Randy Nishimura, and Travis Sheridan

Sunday, October 1, 2017

College of Design Launch Party

This past July, the University of Oregon rechristened its School of Architecture and Allied Arts as the College of Design. According to an announcement by Scott Coltrane, UO Provost and Senior Vice President, the name change was the outcome of a process for which the stated goals were the enhancement of the school’s programs, an increase in the value of the degrees earned, and positioning of students, faculty, and staff for greater success in the future. An additional goal of the process was to improve funding and philanthropic opportunities for the restructured entity.

Central to the change is the redefinition of the former School of Architecture and Allied Arts as a collection of schools under the banner of the College of Design:
  • School of Architecture & Environment
  • School of Art + Design
  • School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management
  • Department of History of Art and Architecture
If I correctly understand the classic definitions, a university is a higher education institution comprised of two or more colleges. In turn, a college is an academic unit with a focus of several closely related academic disciplines. In the university context, a school is typically associated with only one (perhaps two) academic specialties (eg. the School of Law). As a collection of schools, the new College of Design better aligns and organizes each program within the framework of the entire university.

To celebrate the rebranding and kick-off the new academic year, the College of Design invites all students, alumni, friends, and colleagues to celebrate at its Launch Party this coming Friday, October 6. The College promises food, fun, music, and more, so mark your calendars and join the celebration. The price is right too—It’s a free event! See you there!

When:  Friday, October 6 at 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM

Where:  Lawrence Hall courtyard, 1190 Franklin Boulevard, Eugene, OR

Cost:  Free 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Better AIA in Oregon?

AIA-SWO chapter meeting at Sam Bond's Brewing Co., September 20, 2017.
Delegates from AIA chapters within the state and the staff of AIA Oregon have spent the better part of the past three years working on a proposal to unite the state’s four separate chapters into a single statewide body. That proposal is now nearing the point when each chapter’s membership will vote on how to move ahead. It behooves our state's AIA members, associate members, and affiliates to be as informed as possible before helping render a crucial decision that will set the course of our professional association for years to come.

The principal rationale favoring a single statewide chapter is that it would provide a better return for every membership dollar while strengthening the Oregon architectural community and the voice of our profession. The proposal on the table would dissolve the four present chapters (AIA Portland, AIA Salem, AIA Southwestern Oregon, and AIA Southern Oregon), retaining AIA Oregon as the sole chartered, corporate association in the state. Replacing the regional chapters would be five local “sections”: Portland, Salem, Eugene, Bend, and Rogue Valley. The proposed new structure would free up local leaders to focus on building community and sharing ideas through their local section “council.” Each section would serve as the primary vehicle for producing local events, education opportunities, awards programs, and more, much like each chapter currently does, while also enjoying access to greater resources.

The expected benefits include consolidating the structural functions associated with every AIA chapter, such as the obligations of being individual corporate entities and the onerous reporting and paperwork often associated with them. Consolidation would lessen overhead costs concomitant with paid staff and/or the duties performed by volunteer board members serving each separate chapter, as well as the duties and liabilities associated with maintaining separate corporations. Currently, with four chapters plus the AIA Oregon council, there are five boards of directors including 65 total board members. The proposed arrangement would simplify this structure, reducing it to a single board of directors comprised of five directors (one from each section), two at-large directors, plus five executive officers elected by the directors—12 total board members.

Additional reasons favoring the plan include the probability of a stronger, statewide advocacy effort, enhanced support for local events and educational programs (including significant investments in online presentation technologies facilitating high-quality productions accessible from anywhere in the state), and streamlined communications and decision-making. Each section would receive discretionary funds to be used to meet local needs (such as for programs like the recent Parklet competition or the Register-Guard Design Annual). A Statewide Allied Partnerships plan would benefit our membership through increased levels of sponsorship support while providing the allied partners with access to a larger audience.

Members would pay dues to only two AIA components rather than three as is the case now. The new dues structure would ensure as many members as possible have access to core member services (continuing education, professional development, and advocacy) meeting AIA National standards. The current rates for local chapter dues range between a low of $97 (AIA Salem) to the high of $250 that AIA-SWO members pay. Combined with our state dues, the combined local and state assessments range from $217 to $370. These would be supplanted by a single, across-the-board state dues total of $349. Under the proposed schedule, AIA-SWO members would actually pay less than before. According to the plan, the increase in dues for current AIA Salem and Southern Oregon members would be incrementally offset over a three-year period.

As important as the question of whether we should unite Oregon’s four AIA chapters should be for all AIA-SWO members, the turnout last Wednesday evening for a town hall meeting at Sam Bond’s Brewing was disappointingly small. Nevertheless, the discussion among those there was lively and thought-provoking, prompted by the tag-team presentation of AIA Oregon executive director Robert Hoffman, AIA Oregon president Alene Davis, AIA-SWO president Katie Hall, and AIA-SWO delegate Seth Anderson.

Change is often difficult to accept, and prompts anxiety and resistance, especially if you’re entirely comfortable with the status quo. No doubt underlying the concerns of some AIA-SWO members is a belief that a single AIA Oregon chapter would inevitably become Portland-centric. Portland is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Would the needs and advocacy objectives of Portland architects eclipse those of members from Oregon’s smaller communities? Would educational programs primarily address the interests of larger firms? Robert admitted AIA Portland’s liabilities, which include the ongoing debt service for the Center for Architecture building, are an issue that must be addressed in a manner equitable for all AIA Oregon members.

The reality is our smaller chapters—AIA Salem and AIA Southern Oregon—have relied too much on the blood, sweat, and tears of too few, and are struggling to be relevant and of adequate service to their members. Both would likely fail to meet AIA National accreditation requirements for individual chapters if they sought charters today. AIA Southwestern Oregon members have enjoyed the benefits that accrue from being a larger chapter (relative to AIA Salem and AIA Southern Oregon), so the argument favoring a single statewide component may not be as compelling to many. On the other hand, what AIA does on behalf of each of us can only be enhanced when all members in Oregon have equal access to the organization’s full suite of support and services. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Other states, like Colorado and Wisconsin, are single component chapters (with local sections) and serve as models for us to learn from and emulate here in Oregon. Based on anecdotal comments (including those by Bill Seider, FAIA, and others) AIA Colorado and AIA Wisconsin have acted with efficacy as portals for their members to engage in all levels of AIA. 

I support the proposed move. The advantages associated with consolidation make too much sense to me. I do believe the net result will be a stronger and more responsive organization, one that will attract an increase in AIA membership in Oregon. As a past AIA-SWO board member, chapter president, and AIA Oregon delegate, I also appreciate how the plan attempts to address the demands imposed upon volunteers by AIA service and the burden that commitment imposes on the firms they work for. Note that the proposal includes funding for a full-time AIA Oregon staff person here in Eugene.

Robert, Alene, Katie, and Seth have so far hosted town halls in Medford and Eugene, and will soon take their road show to Salem and Portland. The chapter boards will vote to adopt the plan for merger later this fall. If all the boards concur and ratify the proposed merger, the membership of each chapter will then vote sometime next spring on how to move ahead. If I understand correctly, a majority vote of “no” from any one of the chapters would result in the plan’s defeat. It’s an all or nothing proposition. If all the chapters support the merger, the transition would occur sometime in 2019.

Now’s the time to make sure you’re informed about the proposed change to a single AIA for all Oregon architects. If you have questions, call on Robert, Alene, Katie, or Seth for answers. Once you feel you adequately understand its intricacies, spread the word and encourage your colleagues to likewise educate themselves. Be prepared and vote wisely.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day

Rome; painting by Rudolf Wiegmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Leuck is one of the owners of Contractors Electric LLC here in Eugene. He’s also a past-president of the Willamette Valley Chapter - Construction Specifications Institute, and like me a member of the Emerald Executive Association. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, with a tirelessly curious mind.

Steven recently passed along a link to a CNN article about young architects from Europe who chose to pursue their careers in China immediately upon graduating from architecture school. What the article said did not surprise me. What was most startling (and telling perhaps) is how much misplaced trust was laid at the feet of mere babies (architecturally speaking). Designers right out of school do not know what they don’t know. The Chinese boom-era predilection toward “xenocentric” buildings, as President Xi Jinping called them, exacerbated problems. Those projects betray a certain insecurity toward more traditional or conservative design approaches in favor of shiny new objects as if to proclaim how “modern and progressive” China’s contemporary culture is. As the article says, that trend is now being tempered. I’m no expert, but my sense is China has been through a period of excess, over-speculation, and profligacy that had to end at some point. China is maturing and will increasingly focus on making its new cities more attractive and coherent: cleaner, people-friendly, with vibrant streets and neighborhoods, as opposed to assembling collections of anti-urban, Jetsons-like trophy buildings that clamor for attention.

As the article goes on to say, the end of the Chinese “gold rush” has been accompanied by a lessening reverence toward Westerners and an exodus of the young European architects drawn to China by the promise of creative freedom and the projects to lavish it upon. The legacy of this period includes eerily empty and vast, instant “ghost cities” such as Ordos New City (Kangbashi) devoid of not only people but also of any sense of place or history.

Changfeng footbridge on Fen river and Shanxi theater, Taiyuan, Shanxi, China. Photo by Emdx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What lessons, if any, should we here in Oregon take from the Chinese experience? Certainly, the scale of development there dwarfs anything that might ever occur here, so perhaps we needn’t be so concerned. On the other hand, it does not take especially large projects to have an outsized impact in a community like Eugene. The recent wave of large student housing developments is a case in point. For better or worse, projects like The Hub and the Capstone apartments (13th & Olive) have irretrievably transformed downtown Eugene. Even much larger American cities, such as the would-be Amazon suitors, should be wary of the potentially destabilizing impact of massive projects drawn from whole cloth.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. No city aspiring to greatness or simply mere pleasantness can be. I’m not exactly sure what the best mechanisms are to ensure future development occurs in easily digested increments; however, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of others. Wisdom is a byproduct of experience, something most twenty-something architects lack. The Chinese undervalued prudence as well as its own history and culture, paying a heavy price for doing so. Growth may be inevitable but Eugene can achieve the grace and style we hope for, even as it grows. What’s important is to value experience, whether it is our own or comes from others far away.

Thank you Steven for sharing a thought-provoking article!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Guest Viewpoint: Ujjval Vyas

Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D.

Ujjval K. Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. is the principal of Alberti Group, a consultancy specializing in matters related to sustainability, risk management, and emerging technologies and new product development in the built environment. Prior to founding Alberti Group, he was an attorney representing contractors, design professionals, and other in the construction process (he remains a licensed attorney in the State of Ilinois). He has also taught architectural history, theory, design, and ethics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in the United States and Canada. He received his J.D. with honors from the Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s interdisciplinary Committee on the History of Culture.

I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered anyone before who has so thoroughly challenged my understanding of the proper role of the architect as a design professional, the necessity of critical thinking, and the objective analysis of facts. Even though Ujjval and I have yet to meet in person, we have frequently engaged in spirited debates via Twitter and email correspondence. His intellect, reasoning, and perspective are unassailable. He is quick to point out when I have failed to overcome biases and when those biases are potentially to the detriment of my professional duties, particularly when it comes to the concept of a client’s informed consent. First and foremost, he believes architects must confront difficult decisions with “as much objective, credible, and transparent information as possible.” In his mind to do otherwise is to fail to act ethically.

What Ujjval believes is necessary of architects is akin to the medical profession’s transition from a field of generalists to a disaggregated world where the general practitioner acts as a useful gatekeeper to more specialized and advanced professionals with relevant knowledge. In his analogy, the architectural profession must experience a similar shift to serve its clients in a manner more consistent with its responsibility to decrease risks. This shift contributes toward ensuring the formation of more robust design teams with the capacity, knowledge, objectivity, and judgment to allow clients to make informed decisions in their best interest.(1)

A licensed member of a learned profession must provide the benefit of his or her objective judgment in the service of the client’s wishes, but can never substitute the professional’s own judgment for that of the client in any material way. As Ujjval attempts to explain in the piece below (which dates to 2009), advocacy-driven activity in architecture is a deep problem, especially when it comes to the subject of sustainability. Our challenge is to avoid capitulating to confirmation biases bred into us by way of our training, those that prejudice us toward inadequately examined and unchallenged beliefs. How do we know what we think we know? If we cannot answer this question, have we merely adopted positions because they are easy, convenient, and self-inflating? Read on:

Hard Sustainability
The era of easy sustainability is over. Until now, easy sustainability has been the norm mostly because of our laziness, and because we have succumbed to the Siren song of simplifications. Green washing, green hype, green marketing machines, and green greed are all tempting us with their songs, but what is at stake is too important to leave to easy solutions. It is time to acknowledge that meaningful sustainability will require hard work, both in thinking and in action. But this is as it should be; ill-defined as it is, sustainability is the current watchword to call ourselves and others to create a more equitable and environmentally responsible future. It is first and foremost a proxy word for ethical action in the current state of the world.

Acting ethically is difficult. Just examining our own day-to-day existence tells us so if we are honest in our reflections. The difficulty of ethics arises not from the lack of recognition of the correct position or even from a lack of willpower. Rather, as the historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin cogently pointed out, the difficulty with ethics is that by its very nature it arises out of a conflict of values, both within cultures and between cultures. When we strive to act ethically in the world, we can’t just follow some easy set of rules or oft-repeated slogans. Instead we must recognize that a choice has to be made under difficult circumstances. Equality may be a worthwhile ideal, but what happens when it meets the problem of merit? Equality before the law may lead to injustice. Freedom is a cherished ideal, but it has its limits as any parent knows. Deciding where to draw the line between equality and reward for the meritorious, or between freedom and necessary control over others puts us into the hard world of ethical choices. Sloganeering about freedom, equality, merit, and paternalism does not provide meaningful guidance when hard choices must be made between competing values.

Examples of values in conflict are easy to conjure. Are the recent wars in the Middle East the result of American addiction to fossil fuels and the resultant geopolitics, or are they the result of a moratorium on pursuing nuclear power that removed a viable option to help break that addiction? A similar argument could be made that nuclear power could significantly decrease CO2 emissions and reduce our need for coal-powered electrical generation plants. On the other hand, the drawbacks of nuclear power must be accounted for in these public policy debates. These are not easy choices and simplistic answers from either the pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear lobbying interests provide little help. When it comes to sustainability, we need open-minded, thoughtful, and intelligent arguments that engage in the difficult task of a risk adjusted cost-benefit analysis which accounts for both the import of human equity and environmental value.

As human beings, we are limited in our capacities. Therefore, when faced with making the difficult choices, it is useful to have before us as much objective, credible, and transparent information as possible. Science is the name given to the aspiration to acquire such information about the empirical world and there is no reason why this same standard shouldn’t apply to ethical choice-making. For example, if we know through sound methodological techniques and full data transparency that solar thermal provides a better return on investment than photovoltaics, this may productively guide public policy. Without this approach, public policy in sustainability remains blind guesswork or, even worse, falls victim to the lobbying efforts of vested interests.

Hard sustainability recognizes that even with the desire to act ethically and to acquire information to properly validate our choices, it is crucial to remember that as individuals and as groups, we may still be very wrong. Our own personal experience shows us this in spades. What we once thought was absolutely beyond doubt at the age of twenty seems thoroughly absurd at fifty. History gives us far too many examples of groups and cultures that caused great harm even as they tried to do the right thing.  Enthusiasms and certitude are the stuff of the Siren song. Hard work and an avowal of human limitations are the context for the difficult voyage ahead. It is best, then, to maintain some level of skepticism to protect against ourselves. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, one should not confuse certitude for certainty.

Sustainability requires the best in us as human beings and this means wrestling with difficult questions, conflicting values, inadequate understanding of the empirical realm, and accepting the potential for mistakes both grand and small. Sustainability requires that we ask deeper questions and fight against the easy answers—persuasion should be the watchword, not consciousness-raising. It is a call to arms to think more critically and dare to go against the grain of cultural shibboleths and personal sentimentality. To paraphrase the great music critic Charles Rosen, hard sustainability is not for everyone but for anyone. 

(1)  Refer to the chapter Ujjval wrote entitled “Matching Owner and Architect Expectations: Green Advocacy and the Necessity for Informed Consent” in Green Building and the Construction Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Transactional and Litigation Issues, ABA Forum on Construction Law, 2014, p. 126.