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Architects to policymakers: Buildings are infrastructure, too

Left out of this ongoing national debate over infrastructure are the nation’s other public buildings: the libraries, community centers, courthouses, community college buildings, affordable housing developments, and justice facilities.

October 11, 2017 |
Aerial view of a city street

America’s crumbling roads, decrepit bridges, aged water systems. Our deficient dams, underserved levees, and woeful wastewater treatment plants. For nearly three decades, the American public has heard ad nauseam about the dreadful condition of the nation’s infrastructure—from airports to railways to hazardous waste facilities.

Since 1988, the American Society of Civil Engineers, through its Infrastructure Report Card, has shone a spotlight on the alarming shortfall in funding and resources to operate, maintain, and modernize the country’s infrastructure network. ASCE’s latest report card, released in March, scores the nation’s overall infrastructure at a D+ (it’s never scored higher than C). The price tag to modernize the country’s infrastructure systems: a whopping $4.59 trillion over 10 years, more than triple the cost from the 2001 report.

Of the 16 infrastructure sectors that ASCE evaluates quadrennially, only one—K-12 schools—is buildings-focused. The trade group scored the nation’s 100,000 public school buildings at a collective D+, citing an annual investment shortfall of $38 billion to maintain and upgrade facilities and a backlog of necessary improvements (53% of schools require upgrades to reach “good” condition).

Left out of this ongoing national debate over infrastructure—and the trillions of dollars of public funding that is expected over the next few decades—are the nation’s other public buildings: the libraries, community centers, courthouses, community college buildings, affordable housing developments, and justice facilities.

These, too, are critical to the safety, security, and vibrancy of cities and communities. And as is the case with the nation’s public schools and major infrastructure sectors, these so-called “social infrastructure” buildings are being neglected, with years of deferred maintenance, patchwork repairs, dwindling CapEx and OpEx budgets, and even the weakening and repeal of building codes—especially those related to resiliency and sustainability.

Thrusting the nation’s social infrastructure into the spotlight has been a recent crusade of the leadership at the American Institute of Architects. AIA kicked off this initiative in November 2016 with a national poll of 2,108 U.S. adults to assess the importance of public buildings to their communities. The findings: more than 80% see public buildings as part of the nation’s infrastructure, and 94% agree that well-supported buildings are important to their communities (whether they’re willing to open their wallets to help fund such
efforts is another question).

AIA has had its share of controversy during the past 12 months, most notably the post-election statements that riled some of its members. But AIA leadership deserves a pat on the back for its efforts with this campaign. Let’s just hope their proclamation resonates with the nation’s policymakers.

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