Crafting a Better Future for Clients, Nature, and Society: How Architects & Their Clients Can Have Thoughtful Design and Planning When There’s Fundamental Disagreement

Yes and NoHow can architects work effectively with their clients when these teammates happen to have different perspectives of a building’s sphere of influence on the environment and society?

In order to consider this question, it is useful – for starters – to recognize that Americans have a range of views regarding the natural environment and, specifically, global warming.  According to Gallup’s 2014 annual Environment survey, over the past decade, Americans have clustered into three broad groups on views of global warming. The largest group, comprised of 39% of U.S. adults, is what can be termed “Concerned Believers” – those who attribute global warming to human actions and are worried about it. This is followed by the “Mixed Middle,” at 36%. Finally, 1 in 4 Americans – the “Cool Skeptics” – are not worried about global warming much or at all.i

Clearly, Concerned Believers and Cool Skeptics are of entirely different mindsets when it comes to global warming. The major factor discriminating these groups stems from their perceptions of the causes of global warming: 100% of Concerned Believers say the rise in the Earth’s temperature over the last century is due to the effects of pollution, while 100% of Cool Skeptics say it is due to natural changes in the environment. Concerned Believers say they worry “a great deal” or “fair amount” about the issue, while Cool Skeptics worry only “a little” or “not at all.” Concerned Believers think media reports about the issue are either correct or underestimated, while Cool Skeptics think they are greatly exaggerated. Finally, two-thirds of Concerned Believers believe global warming will pose a serious threat to their own way of life in the future, while 100% of Cool Skeptics disagree.ii

Naturally, these diverging perceptions of the causes and implications of global warming correspond to diverging perceptions about how to best design and construct buildings. Consequently, the challenge before architects and clients who happen to sit on the apparently opposing sides of this environmental divide entails additional complexity. That is, the converging perceptions about the existence (or non-existence) of an environmental crisis has ramifications on an interpretation of the social crisis as these two conditions are interconnected. Although environmental scientists have described this interconnection for decades, Pope Francis recently offered an added measure of compassion to the moral dilemma. On June 18, 2015, he declared:

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (Laudato Si’ – Chapter Four: Integral Ecologyiii)

While the scientific community largely appreciates and agrees with the Pope’s assessment of the situation, the assessment itself nevertheless is linked to the perception of the causes of global warming and, consequently, the plight of those in poverty intensifies the import of this perception.

Significantly, the difference between the Cool Skeptics and the Concerned Believers roughly corresponds to the difference between conservatives and liberals, respectively.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues these differences reflect variances in the moral values that each group tends to honor most.iv Conservatives tend to value stability by favoring loyalty, authority, and purity, while liberals tend to value change by favoring care/compassion and fairness over loyalty, authority, and purity.  He argues that societies have traditionally striven to maintain a delicate balance between stability and change, recognizing stability and change as complementary (rather than opposing) forces, not unlike the tangible dualities of light and dark, fire and water, expanding and contracting.  Thus, in this sense, when the differences between the Cool Skeptics and the Concerned Believers are appreciated as different but ultimately complementary voices, they can coexist as healthy and beneficial.

In this present epoch known for bitter contentions between conservatives and liberals, there remains a worthy yet bold challenge before architects and clients to co-create constructive narratives when profound differences exist.  Of course, the remedy to these differences is not satisfactorily addressed by simply pairing together only like-minded architects and clients, as these stories would tend to be rather pale and one-sided.  And certainly an approach with one dominant voice suppressing the other is similarly ill-advised.  Instead, an integrated approach to the creation of a healthy narrative is necessary.  And integration comes about, first, by listening.

In offering a fresh perspective on how to deeply engage with the well-being of others in this complicated age, Simone Campbell wisely observed that we need to get better at listening to someone’s story.  “The real power of story” she notes, “is to let my heart be broken by the story, to hear it from you directly . . .Then I’m never the same . . . How could I leave you out if I’ve heard your story? I can’t. So I have to make sure you’re OK.”v

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Architects need to learn to listen carefully to their clients’ stories in order to best appreciate the fundamental values at play. And given that often it’s more difficult to actually hear someone who ascribes to a different set of values, it is essential for architects to open their hearts and minds to unfamiliar perspectives. Once architects have begun to appreciate the beauty of an unfamiliar perspective, they will be in a position in which they can suggest to clients the ways in which the architect’s story can complement the client’s story. When the diverse stories of architects and clients are woven together, a rich, constructed narrative can emerge, one that is capable of addressing the client’s unique values, while also benefiting society and nature.

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The details of the process of weaving together will be explored in future blogs. In addition, if you would like to discuss how your residential design project – whether a custom home design or a renovation – can better support your unique values while benefiting society and nature, please feel free to contact me, Paul Clark.

The diversity of my portfolio reflects the diversity of my clients; after all, my architectural practice focuses on custom design.

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i  Saad, Lydia. “One in Four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming” http://www.gallup.com/poll/168620/one-four-solidly-skeptical-global-warming.aspx
Also see:  http://www.gallup.com/poll/182105/concern-environmental-threats-eases.aspx

ii  Ibid.

iii  Pope Francis. “Laudato Si’ – Chapter Four: Integral Ecology.”  http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/06/18/laudato-si-chapter-four-integral-ecology/

iv  Haidt, Jonathan. “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.”  Presentation at Ted2008, February 2008. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind

v  Campbell, Simone. “How To Be Spiritually Bold” interview by Krista Tippett On Being, June 10, 2015

1 Comment

  1. I enoyed reading this thoughtful essay. I’m studying interior design in college and I agree that getting people of different perspectives to really listen to eachother, to move forward based on what they DO agree on is crucial. I didn’t expect to read this kind of analysis on an architectural website but I can see how working effectively with people from different walks of life is one of the most important traits of a good designer. Pretty cool stuff. Thanks!

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