Buildings that kill people

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Example of “Sick Building Syndrome” atop article by Lance Hosey. (commonedge.org)

I didn’t want to be the first to say this. Thankfully now Lance Hosey, chief sustainability officer and a principal of the design firm Perkins Eastman, has written “Buildings That Kill.” His piece ran yesterday on CommonEdge.org. He is identified as serving “on the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group and the AIA Energy Leadership Group, and he chairs the USGBC’s LEED Advisory Committee.”

So you heard it from Hosey first, though you’ve heard the existence of killer buildings intimated here, on this blog, many times.

Hosey opens citing the call by Raphael Sperry, president of Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility, to boycott commissions for buildings where killing happens, especially prisons. “Which is worse,” asks Hosey, “buildings that are the setting for thousands of deaths, or buildings that are the cause of millions of deaths?” Good question! He notes that

Amnesty International reports that from 2007-2012 nine countries with capital punishment (excluding China, which puts to death thousands annually) executed a total of 6,221 people. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2012 alone buildings contributed to the deaths of 4.3 million people. All of these were due to a single cause: indoor air pollution.

But isn’t there a difference between buildings where people are killed either intentionally or by the predictable outcome of their purpose, and buildings that kill people unintentionally, as through Sick Building Syndrome? Hosey answers that question: “Maybe not on purpose, but arguably the unintended consequences of indoor air pollution are significantly more harmful.”

The word “unintended” is not a very effective blame-shifter. How can the consequences be unintended if they have been warned against time and time again, with all warnings brusquely ignored?

Buildings with HVAC systems that spread deadly germs are legion. The effectiveness of such systems at recirculating germs is exacerbated by inoperable windows, which prevent germs from drifting into the outside environment. Inoperable windows are an invention of modern architecture, and arise from its ethos of machine architecture and its rejection of tradition. Among the traditions given the heave-ho by modern architecture are those that used nature and climate to regulate the heating and cooling needs of buildings for centuries and centuries. Before the Thermostat Age, these techniques were honed by trial and error, with the best practices handed down from generation to generation.

There are, so far as I am aware, no sick buildings that have windows that open and close. Insofar as the circulation and recirculation of germs is a problem that modern architecture has failed to solve – and certainly the notion of revisiting some of the old building technologies that modernism has junked has been met with scorn – maybe modern architecture is not so easily absolved of millions of deaths a year.

Of course, modern architecture has created a built environment whose detrimental effects on societies around the world victimize populations whether millions of deaths are attributed to Sick Building Syndrome and blamed on (modern) architects or not. Architecture has clearly abandoned its age-old concern for civitas – for firmitas, utilitas and venustas of street and city as well as of the single building.

It’s more than just stadiums that look like vaginas in nations whose women are barred from revealing their faces. It’s more even than the role of modern architecture as the brand of crony capitalism. It’s the rape and pillage of the cultures of the great societies of the world, from London to Timbuktu, that is the chief crime of modern architecture.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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