Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President

If you’re among the shrinking crowd who still read the daily paper in print, you might have seen the “Declaration of Energy Independence” advertisement that appeared this past summer. Below the headline, the copy read: “It’s time our nation’s engine was fueled from within.” How? By breaking OPEC’s “38-year stranglehold on America.”

Yet is the road to energy independence the one proposed by the energy companies—biofuels and hydraulic fracturing—the only (or even the best) route to take? Will additional acreage devoted to corn and fracking truly make our nation more secure? As an architect, I’m not convinced.

Last month’s Perspective column was written in the shadow of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. My point was that the physical security of the built environment is a matter about and for design thinking. In this issue of architect, with its focus on sustainability, I want to carry that line of thinking further: If energy independence is key to America’s security—and I believe it is—then here, too, design thinking is surely relevant. We can and should boldly say that to achieve energy independence, the architect’s role is at least as important as those who drill or plow the land.

Making the case for sustainability and managing energy use in the built environment has tended to focus on virtue (“It’s the right thing to do”) and a promise (“The initial investment in sustainable design will pay off in the long run”). Both arguments have achieved limited results. Now, powerful voices have emerged from two sectors—economics and science—underscoring the AIA’s call for an integrated and designed approach to how we shape our communities and regions.

The Great Recession lately has exposed the downside of business as usual. We have seen the economy and our work stall every time the price of energy jumps. An economy that lacks the resources to pay firefighters, police, and teachers—let alone construction workers—doesn’t strike me as a favorable precondition for a more secure country.

Buildings consume 40 percent of our nation’s energy. Getting a handle on that not only lessens our dependence on imported or manufactured sources of energy, it’s good for the economy. It’s no small irony that tight budgets have focused the attention of our clients, led by our nation’s cities, to embrace sustainability as a sure way to save money.

In addition to the cost of energy that comes in a barrel or pipe, there’s the matter of the residue—the pollution. This is where science comes in.

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist (May 28–June 3, 2011)—not exactly a forum for wild liberal ideas—displayed this headline: “Welcome to the Anthropocene.” The argument inside was straightforward and blunt: For the first time in history, man is a coequal with nature in determining the future of the planet. The magazine cited the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and nitrogen fixing in the oceans as a consequence of the rise in the world’s population and the demand of emerging nations for the luxuries of America and Western Europe, a point noted by Thomas L. Friedman last May in New Orleans. These are not idle theories; they’re facts.

Living in a climate shaped by human activity will no doubt produce a few winners (a wine industry in Canada, perhaps), but the larger disruptions triggered by natural disasters and famine in an increasingly interconnected world pose risks to national security far greater than the actions of terrorists. Just this past spring and summer, our nation’s most productive agricultural land (and, not so incidentally, a source of biofuels) has experienced the double blow of unprecedented flooding and drought, this at a time when the recovery of our economy is so fragile.

Shaping the places for human habitation that are more secure because of their sustainability is the great challenge of the 21st century. As a nation, we would be better qualified to serve as global leaders not by exploring ways to wring new sources of energy out of the Earth, but rather in focusing our human energies on charting a sustainable future for the planet by design.

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President