How investing in architecture now will set us up for future success.

Over the last month, we’ve seen the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, as in many other parts of the world, we’ve seen the economy shut down while we work from home. As governments provide the much-needed support to people, small businesses and industries to deal with the day-to-day realities of this situation, we’re starting to see calls for re-opening businesses, even in phased approaches, to kick start the economy. The calls for “shovel-ready” projects are already being heard loud and clear.

We still have a housing crisis: people can’t afford their homes and, notwithstanding a collapse in AirBNB rentals, there’s a desperate need to build more affordable housing, and create housing affordability across the country. Some cities have transformed vacant hotels into temporary housing for the homeless while other cities have created temporary respite centres for people who have nowhere else to go. Some cities are sitting on land, waiting for the capital to build desperately needed housing near new and under-construction transit systems.

Long term care centres have been a known crisis for years, with cramped rooms and inadequate numbers of people forced to cohabitate in substandard conditions. Waiting lists for access mean that we don’t have enough capacity, and those who are waiting are filling hospitals.

There are still billions of dollars in backlogged repairs to schools. Cities have growing lists of repairs and upgrades needed to libraries, recreation centres, pools and other community infrastructure.

Underlying each of these is the ever-present reality of climate change. We know that buildings have an enormous impact on society when it comes to energy use and making a difference in climate change. Estimates vary, but the urban environment can account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with buildings being 40% of that figure.

Each of these challenges is an opportunity. Architects can make a difference in the lives of people across the country. Here’s how to tap into a potential that has as much as a 14% impact on the Ontario GDP every year:

  1. Architects can lead design teams, including engineers, landscape architects and others, while working with surveyors and other professionals to design solutions to these problems while working remotely. Our work can set out the scope of work for repairs to schools, which we can visit, since they are largely empty anyway.
  2. We can design new housing and undertake studies to repair, renovate and make accessible the community infrastructure we need in our society. Creating plans to make every library, pool and community centre in the country universally accessible would be an amazing opportunity to meet 2030 accessibility targets.
  3. At the same time, creating plans to undertake deep energy retrofits to every publicly owned building in Canada would set up a target for how we decarbonize the built environment.

Some of these projects might result in studies that lay the groundwork for future projects, while others would complete projects that can be constructed in the near future. Some projects might be realized as design competitions; creating respectful, socially engaged, solutions to housing and infrastructure in remote, northern and indigenous communities, providing an opportunity to put key action to calls in the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report.

Governments are looking to make this investment now. Billions of dollars in construction that will forever alter the lives of Canadians in positive ways starts with an investment in architects and engineers. That investment might be 10% of the total construction cost and, if done right, can have a lifetime of positive payback in energy-efficient buildings that affect our socio-cultural world for generations to come. Spending that money today means there are shovel-ready projects to roll out in three, six or 12 months, and provides a backlog of projects that could be paused if we need more time for pandemic restrictions on construction.

A key step in this is how we go about hiring these professionals: current procurement models mean adding months, if not years, to the hiring process, and reducing the value of the investment. We have better tools available that produce better results, faster and create value for Canadians. Use Quality Based Selection to hire professionals. Use design competitions to solicit ideas and spur a public dialogue on solutions. The result is a built environment that is beautiful, safe, healthy, equitable and supports the social outcomes we aspire to.

Architect Toon Dreessen is President of Architects DCA and former president of The Ontario Association of Architects. For samples of our previous work, explore our portfolio