A Different, Tragic Kind of Groundbreaking

Have we, as an industry, shirked our most basic responsibilities and abandoned our ethics strictly in the pursuit of profits?

The built environment has probably never been so under the microscope as it is at present. All buildings, particularly those that provide residential shelter to billions of people worldwide, come under increasing scrutiny with rapidly accelerating frequency, and for very good reasons.

Faced with the undeniable realities of climate change and the extreme conditions brought on by natural systems stretched to the breaking point, it is no longer possible for anyone to take for granted any responsibilities or basic expectations that we have regarding the safety and security of our homes.

Each year in the United States, we see growing threats of natural disasters to individual structures, whole neighborhoods, and even entire communities. Hopes, dreams, memories, and financial resources of countless families go up in smoke due to uncontrollable wildfires, suddenly becoming submerged, destroyed, and swept away by floodwaters, or being blown completely off the ground by the fury of tornadoes and hurricanes.

Perhaps even more tragic is the realization that we have allowed our basic national infrastructures for delivering water, power, sanitation, communication, and safe transportation to deteriorate to intolerable levels. And sadly, although we have the necessary resources to reverse the decline, we have lacked the leadership and the collective will to use them.

MaimiBuildingCollapsewebAt the beginning of this summer, the nation was mesmerized by images of a collapsed 12-story condominium building in Florida that killed nearly 100 of our neighbors. News reporters and public officials asked how such a tragedy could occur with a building that was only a few decades old.

It will take months, if not years, to come up with all the answers. But already there are indications of flawed design and shoddy construction, lax regulatory oversight, and poor maintenance. 

The shocking pile of rubble was soon met with a wall of grief and vows from every quarter that this should never happen again; that no one should ever feel such heartache.

Unfortunately, part of the legacy of the building industry is that we prioritize short-term profits over goals such as durability, resiliency, performance, resource management, and standards that exceed the absolute minimum requirements for health and safety.

In recent decades we have enjoyed the emergence of products, materials, systems, and building science that combine to enable U.S. builders to construct housing that is the envy of the world. But has our devotion to craft, and our commitment to quality and value, kept pace? Or have we, as an industry, shirked our most basic responsibilities and abandoned our ethics strictly in the pursuit of profits?

I am afraid that resolving the building industry’s problems—and within the buildings that we produce—will not be found in boardrooms and shareholder meetings. Quarterly reports will continue to serve as the most important metric for most of those folks.

If we hope to never again see the heartbreaking memorial tributes and the unspeakable grief on the faces of survivors, it will only happen one home and one builder at a time.