“Soft Infrastructure” Is Crucial for a Post-Carbon World
On a recent day in Santa Monica, California, visitors sat in the shaded courtyard outside City Hall East waiting for appointments. One of them ate a slice of the orange she’d picked from the tree above her and contemplated the paintings, photographs, and assemblages on the other side of the glass. The exhibit, Lives that Bind, featured local artists’ expressions of erasure and underrepresentation in Santa Monica’s past. It’s part of an effort by the city government to use the new soon-to-be certified Living Building (designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners) as a catalyst for building a community that is environmentally, socially, and economically self-sustaining. “We have very tall ceilings, so that we can daylight the space and take advantage of natural ventilation,” Amber Richane, a senior project manager at the City of Santa Monica, explained. “It’s not an opulent building, but people come in and they’re like, ‘Wow. This is a well-defined building. It’s a place where I belong.’”
The City Hall East project should be a glimpse into the future, if recent talk about “soft” and “hard” infrastructure are highlighted at the upcoming international climate conference COP 26. Two years ago, the idea that a gap in childcare was an example of failed “infrastructure” equivalent to a structurally unsound bridge seemed crazy to everyone (except parents of small children). But the pandemic has exposed an underlying reality that the purpose of all infrastructure, whether soft or hard, is to make it possible for society to function. As Emily Peck reported in the New York Times, “[t]he Biden administration and its allies are pushing the notion that caring for children—and the sick and the elderly—is just as crucial to a functioning economy as any road, electric grid or building.”
The soft/hard infrastructure debate also points to a fundamental (but often hidden) truth about climate-responsive design. It’s not enough to design and construct a building that, on paper, is net zero and resilient in the face of climatic events. Engineers and architects must ask clients which systems make sense for the future, given expectations about how the building will be managed. In just the same way, community input is needed to identify the climate-related challenges that will be faced by future occupants.
Developer Susan Powers discovered this firsthand when her company Urban Ventures set out to convert the Sisters of Saint Francis seminary property in Denver, Colorado, into a sustainable mixed-use, mixed-income master planned community called Aria Denver. Tasked with building a community that promoted active living and access to healthy food, Powers and her colleagues sought advice from the surrounding neighborhoods. “We went out and found nontraditional partners from the very beginning,” she said. “We heard what their needs were, and we tried to accommodate them. In one instance, we found a grant to install bike racks at an elementary school. The principal said, ‘For what?’ And we discovered that the kids didn’t have bikes. So we found a source to provide a bike and a helmet and a lock for every kid in the school.”
Aria Denver includes many of the features that may become common in a post-carbon world, including a 1-acre production farm with a “pay what you can” farmstand that could also be used to bridge a disruption in the food supply chain after a climatic event, as well as a street design that encourages carbon-neutral transportation modes like cycling and walking.
Powers and her team soon realized that they needed to provide social infrastructure to support the use of the development’s hard infrastructure. “For the first four years,” Powers explained, “we had a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to fund an active living coordinator, a full-time person who organized yoga in Spanish and English, a walking group, and other support services. The biggest challenge now [16 years in] is that you need staff to make the programs available that attracted people to join the Aria community in the first place.”
The green building sector has wrestled with this question for more than a decade. When LEED for New Construction was first released, it was adopted by many in the industry with the assumption that the operational savings promised through the energy model would automatically materialize. Instead, a 2008 post-occupancy study conducted by the New Buildings Institute revealed that, while LEED certified buildings performed on average 24% better than minimally code compliant buildings, individual building energy efficiency varied widely. The high-performance buildings canceled out the low-performance buildings. Furthermore, buildings with higher LEED certification levels did not necessarily use less energy per square foot than buildings with lower certification. When researchers looked more closely to try to understand how their data could have produced such discouraging results, they found that most buildings needed to be tuned and balanced for a year after completion of construction in order to begin to approximate the energy use calculated by the energy model. In spite of strong evidence that LEED buildings need to be operated according to design criteria, 13 years later LEED for New Construction continues to require commissioning only during the design process and has never required certified projects to enroll with LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance. Why? Because capital and operational budgets are kept separate in most of the industry.
The convergence of interest in climate change, health, and social equity may finally have started to tip the balance towards integrating soft and hard infrastructure for buildings. At COP 26, the U.S. will submit an updated five-year climate action plan. Like other signatories to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the first round of policy actions proposed by the U.S. focused on centralized and heavily regulated industries, such as coal power plants and vehicle emissions. As we begin to tap out on the carbon reduction benefits that large scale, centralized policies can achieve, attention will naturally turn to the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions: buildings. It’s clear that we can tip the balance on climate action, if both soft and hard infrastructure goals are baked into the building design process.
Santa Monica’s City Hall East exemplifies this promise. Not only is the building energy and water neutral, it’s also an essential services building, designed to continue functioning even after a major earthquake. “The composting toilets work if the power goes out, although the ventilation might be reduced,” Richane says. “We have an onsite water-treatment plant, so we can process water if there is a water main break. We can adjust the temperature using operable windows. And the furniture can be taken out to convert the building into an emergency shelter.” The city hall annex’s design, operations, and intentional role in the community, combine to ground the concepts in the Paris Climate Agreement—climate mitigation, resilience, and equity—in the everyday lived reality of the Santa Monicans who use the building.
After all, buildings are the place where all of those complex societal issues meet everyday life—and sometimes break down: buildings are responsible for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions; they become a place of refuge during climatic events; but if systems fail or structures collapse, they can lead to injuries and deaths. Housing is also the greatest repository of household wealth in the U.S. The historic practice of redlining prevented many low-income and minority families from accessing mortgages, which exacerbated disparities in the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. Today, the average white American family’s wealth is eight times greater than that of the average African American family and five times greater than that of the average Hispanic family, due in part to discriminatory real estate practices like redlining.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that each of these challenges would be best addressed separately. But that’s not possible with building design. Every design project—whether new construction or renovation—synthesizes financial, regulatory, programmatic, and community needs into a coherent vision. A declaration at COP 26 stating that buildings in their context should anchor all future climate change policies would only echo a reality that an increasing number of projects have begun to recognize: that building design balancing soft and hard infrastructure is the obvious path to a sustainable future.