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Technology & Design

The Commodification of Architecture

Catastrophes of the built environment, like the Bangladeshi factory collapse, expose the true cost in public suffering when we fail to build resiliently.

As disasters like the recent Rana Plaza building collapse—and the 1,127 people who perished as a result—in Bangladesh remind us, industry is increasingly incentivized to rely on cheaper labor and cheaper infrastructure abroad. The invisible hands whose work defines the Bangladeshi garment industry tell a different story of the globalized economy: Growth remains far from inclusive. But while the media moves quickly to malign big industry for poor wages and working conditions—justifiably—we overlook the role of the built environment in these catastrophes. This injustice assures that buildings continue to be built based on a narrow timeline of investment recovery, rather than the long-term costs and serious hazards of poorly designed architecture.

The bare minimum, symbolized by quick build timelines and cheap materials, and compounded by limited consideration of environmental conditions such as light, air, and temperature, epitomize the moral hazard of global trade. And as the dust settles in Rana Plaza, we are reminded that when we design buildings based only on how cheap and how fast we can build them, the human element of the built environment is rendered secondary, and the public is left more vulnerable.

The Bangladeshi economy is completely dependent on the garment sector, leaving the nation in a precarious development position. The race to maximize growth has inevitably incentivized policy shortcuts—Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina estimates that as many as 90 percent of industrial spaces are structurally noncompliant, leaving a frighteningly dangerous built environment as the stage for “economic growth.” In the face of big industry and in-country institutions striving to meet development indicators, local efforts to galvanize political will and improve conditions consistently find powerful foes.

Disasters like the 2010 Haitian earthquake similarly reveal the vulnerability of our built environment. In Haiti, 250,000 people died not because of an earthquake but because of the poorly built buildings that collapsed on them. As in Bangladesh, a near non-existent inspection process and pervasive poverty renders compliance with international building codes a low priority.

Yet disaster from poor design is not only a problem in the Global South. In New York City, extremely well-constructed buildings—with some of the most strictly regulated codes and technologically advanced systems in the world—still failed during Hurricane Sandy; the region that contains the largest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in the world still cost an estimated 72 lives. As urban planner and developer Jonathan Rose pointed out following Sandy, Manhattan buildings were meant to be sustainable as opposed to resilient—that is, “to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment.” The risk in developed economies is different yet equally dangerous: An inflated housing market is largely structured on the fragile end game of a quick ROI, rendering the safety, protection, and dignity of the humans that inhabit structures negligible.

In each of these cases, buildings were treated as mere commodities, built to maximize profits by minimizing up-front construction costs. The resultant loss of life (250,000 + 1,127 + 72 in our examples here) and long-term costs (Sandy cost the US government $60 billion) far exceed the cost of better design at the outset, both in dollars and in lives. The question that factory owners, developers, and regulators should ask is not “What is the cost of resilient architecture?” but instead, “What is the cost of not building resilient architecture?” The true cost of architecture often reveals itself most clearly after tragedy.

What to do? Common responses suggest that to reduce vulnerability, we need to force compliance legally with more codes and improved regulations. Others argue that new technology and smarter, pre-fabricated, rapidly constructed structures will protect from disaster. However, codes matter little if inspectors do not exist or cannot get adequate training. And prefabrication largely succeeds by reducing the amount of builders necessary to build; this lessens the potential to employ people during construction, and with that, the knowledge necessary to replicate and scale results.

Safe buildings are as much about the people and the process of building as they are about the bricks and mortar that keep them standing. To invest in better buildings is to invest in better builders, and that means investing in the laborers and craftsmen to build safely. It also means recognizing and calculating the impact a new building could have on a community, both its ability to connect people and protect them. 

In a recent New Yorker article, Erik Klinenberg argues that people fare much better in the face of disaster when they are connected to their community through strong social ties. Social infrastructure—like the civic spaces of shops, parks, and community centers—make community physically tangible, creating a sense of protection.

If catastrophe is the risk of a poorly built environment, then we must work to value the long-term savings that a well-built environment can offer. When treated as a commodity of fixed cost and time, architecture is left to the caprices of builders; it’s an afterthought, not a response to a public. Conversely, when it is treated as a living system, architects will demand that their structures reduce vulnerability and dignify communities. If we continue to commidify life instead of truly lifting people from poverty, this devastating cycle will only repeat. This is the true cost of not investing in a better-designed built environment.

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