US building infrastructure needs 21st century upgrades
© Greg Nash

More than half of U.S. buildings are in natural disaster danger zones. That’s according to a new University of Colorado study that determined a majority of homes, businesses, and other structures in the contiguous U.S. face significant risk from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and wildfires. And the risk is only growing as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

If we act now, we can upgrade America’s buildings to make them more resilient to structural threats and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why it’s critical the infrastructure debate move beyond the proverbial roads and bridges to prioritize buildings: homes, schools, hospitals, offices, and civic centers.

Buildings contribute about 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Architects estimate that 75 percent of existing U.S. buildings require renovation to meet the emission reduction targets necessary to mitigate climate change. Through initiatives like the 2030 Commitment, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is joining forces with engineers, developers, and civic leaders to make buildings carbon-neutral within 10 years.

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We have the technology and design know-how to get there. But federal funding is essential. In a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, even $300 billion can go a long way toward making buildings not only more sustainable but safer.

Building infrastructure funding can support seismic retrofits to protect against earthquake damage; grants to retrofit schools, hospitals, and civic centers to serve as community "resilience hubs" — safe places to shelter when disaster strikes; and incentives to increase adoption and enforcement of updated building codes. Ensuring building codes keep pace with the latest science and technology is a necessity to reduce emissions and protect communities from recurring extreme weather.

With the issue of pay-fors a sticking point for Democratic and Republican negotiators, the economic benefits of upgrading building infrastructure are pivotal. Weather- and climate-related disasters killed nearly 4,000 people and caused more than $550 billion in damage between 2014 and 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration — making inaction not just unacceptable but costly.

Resilient buildings can save lives and dollars. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that cities that adopt model codes save $11 per $1 spent, federal mitigation grants save $6 for every $1 spent, and private-sector retrofits save $4 for every $1 spent.

Making buildings more energy efficient promises to lower emissions, create jobs, and lower household energy bills as much as $2,200 per year. That’s real savings for taxpayers, and it scales up to the community level. Take schools. A 2020 GAO report found that 54 percent of public schools need at least one major building system update — with repair or replacement of aging heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems at the top of the list.

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Cash-strapped school districts can’t afford the extra costs of inefficient HVAC systems — money better spent on textbooks and computers. Policymakers should include at least $100 billion in the infrastructure package as a down payment on the $870 billion the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates schools will need by 2029 to move from a D+ to a B on its infrastructure report card.

As the COVID-19 pandemic makes us all too aware, there’s a health component to ventilation and other building systems, as well. In other words, as schools finally reopen, GAO data warns we’re sending kids into buildings at risk from poor air quality, plus potential exposure to lead, mold, asbestos, and other environmental hazards. These health design issues are a centerpiece of architects’ guidelines on COVID reopening, and they should also be an infrastructure investment priority.

That’s just one way the pandemic has highlighted the built environment’s impact on well-being. The past year has also underlined systemic inequity. While the economy is beginning to recover, the housing shortage remains an urgent issue. According to the Low-Income Housing Coalition, there are only 36 affordable rental homes available for every 100 extremely low-income renting households. It doesn’t help that federal policy freezes the amount of affordable housing supply at 1999 levels. Architects urge Congress to allocate $200 billion for affordable housing to literally and figuratively bring federal affordable housing policy into the 21st century.

It may be harder to hold a splashy ribbon-cutting for school HVAC systems or hurricane-proof windows. But these building investments exert a daily impact on environmental, economic, and community health. Infrastructure should be about more than getting from Point A to Point B. It’s about supporting health and opportunity in our everyday spaces — objectives just as critical as paving roads or upgrading rail lines. To achieve lasting infrastructure impacts, Congress must keep the “building” in Building Back Better.

Peter Exley, FAIA, 2021 AIA president. Exley is the co-founder of Architecture Is Fun, a Chicago-based architecture, design, and consulting firm. Dedicated to helping the next generation of architects, Exley has also been an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for more than 25 years.