Sunday, January 18, 2009

Transformational Stimulus

At the most recent AIA Oregon council meeting, board members discussed the effect of the recession upon Oregon architectural firms, particularly in Portland. The American Institute of Architects is taking steps politically to help its membership mitigate the consequences of the economic meltdown. Nevertheless, I left the meeting concerned about whether our profession has the political chops it takes to compete aggressively for what will be in the best interests of architects, our communities, and the environment.

A case in point is President-elect Obama’s forthcoming $800 billion economic stimulus package. In anticipation of its passage by Congress, AIA National has developed the Rebuild and Renew Plan, which details our profession’s recommendations for the allocation of the stimulus package money. The plan calls upon the new administration and Congress to spend significant portions of the proposed economic shot in the arm on the design and construction of energy-efficient, sustainable buildings and communities. Rebuild and Renew includes an analysis of the potential impact of the economic recovery proposal on the creation and retention of jobs in the architecture profession. The problem is that the political success of the stimulus package is predicated upon immediate results. Consequently, there is an emphasis upon spending the money quickly on “shovel-ready” projects to give the economy the jolt it needs to prevent the country from falling further into recession. This emphasis will not necessarily benefit architects in the longer term if funding is not also reserved for planning the future projects the country will need to reshape itself along sustainable lines. We don’t want the stimulus money spent poorly on projects that are hastily planned and executed. We do want a sustainable recovery.

The architectural profession may lack the political wherewithal to compete effectively with other interest groups pursuing their cut of the stimulus package. There is undoubtedly an urgency shared by everyone with a hand in the pot that as much as possible must be grabbed as quickly as possible before it’s too late. As large a sum as $800 billion is, it can be split in only so many ways. Ideally, the money will be spent in a manner that is consistent with longer-term goals and strategies in mind. The problem is that our political process doesn’t necessarily favor the needs of the entire nation or world above the narrow interests of individual members of Congress and their constituents. Short-term thinking and influence peddling are the order of the day on Capitol Hill.

Obama does predict that the stimulus package will spark the creation of a clean energy economy, doubling the production of alternative energy in the next three years. He also envisions modernizing more than 75% of federal buildings, improving the energy efficiency of two million American homes, and developing new energy technologies. It’s an understatement to say that Obama’s interest in promoting clean energy and sustainable communities is welcomed by architects and environmentalists. Ironically, it is the depth and severity of this recession that has been the catalyst for a stimulus package that may do more to transform the future of the built environment than was ever imaginable when the good times were rolling.

So while I fear that the architectural profession may fail to fully secure its agenda and fair share of the stimulus package, at least the opportunity has presented itself. I’ve never been a political animal, but when I head to the 2009 AIA Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, in early February, I will enthusiastically advocate on behalf of our profession and our planet’s best interests. Despite my uncertainly about our power to shape the political landscape at the highest levels, the last AIA Oregon council meeting galvanized my resolve to try and make a difference.

For more information on the AIA's Rebuild and Renew plan, or to download the full report, visit

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