Guilt. We all have it, for things we did or didn’t do. “Architect Guilt” – a particular brand of guilt for the places we designed that were in the wrong location, inflexible, unattractive, poorly detailed, or inadequately administered during construction – lasts a long time, perhaps as long as the building and the memory of it resides in the community. A building will stand for 25 years or longer. Guilt is a fearful goad which inspires care and attention in design.

Architects cannot bury their failures, nor forget them: the house rebuilt after a storm that floods in the next; the stout-walled enclosure that somehow permits a breach; the careful detailing that nevertheless allows moisture into the wall. These are quotidian issues, ubiquitous in a profession that tries to beat the odds in the fight to keep the weather out.  However, as climate change accelerates and advances, the baseline we accept as normal is no longer a sufficient benchmark, and our understanding of climate challenges and adaptation measures must become more ambitious to ensure safety.

There are other reasons for guilt, affecting the health of occupants: the classroom inspires boredom, distraction, and misbehavior,; the office environment that generates dissatisfaction and lost productivity; the social space that invites arguments in place of harmony.  These capacities lie within the remit of architecture, from the smallest residence to the most highly-scrutinized government building, and it is only recently that research has begun to quantify these elements of environmental health, behavioral factors, and demographic risk into principles for building design and management.  Designs to improve the welfare of occupants may include more air exchanges per hour, less artificial lighting, opportunities for movement throughout the day, individual thermal control, and appropriate mental stimulation.

Beyond the preservation of life and health, Architect Guilt is tied to the economic welfare of our clients.  A new facility embeds the responsibility for the client’s abundance.  Buildings and land are the repository of most peoples’ life savings, their retirement nest egg, their future health and happiness. Guilt should result when we design for short-term gain rather than long-term value.  Weakness in design translates directly to higher life-cycle costs to operate and maintain the building.  The inability to design beautiful and useful spaces have cascading effects, causing businesses to fail, communities to suffer prolonged periods of stagnant growth, and public services to falter as a result of reductions in property taxes.

My own deeply-felt guilt about the fate of a project drove me to change my understanding about what should be considered “sustainable.”

Gulfside Assembly was an African-American institution, the only place along the Mississippi coast there African-American families could enjoy the sandy beach and warm gulf waters. The Methodist retreat center embarked on a campaign to transform their historic campus in 2003, hoping to expand their capacity to host retreats and conferences. They turned to us to establish a 100-year Master Plan and design the first phase, a new guest housing complex.  It was completed in August 2005.  Three weeks later, the eye of Hurricane Katrina came ashore within a mile of the property, taking not only the new structure, but all of the historic ones as well, buildings with a century of history: the Andrew Jackson house, Hoosier Hall, Jones Hall, and the rest.  The site was washed clean of everything except the concrete slabs.

The guest housing had been built to comply with modern codes.  It was designed with sustainability in mind.  It was built to the required flood elevation.  It was engineered with hurricane straps and ties, but none of this was enough to withstand the 40-foot storm surge that flooded the site.  The building was not designed to be resilient, to have excess capacity to meet the increasing intensity of coastal storms. We didn’t do that, then.

The site has never recovered, and the client has never been able to re-start their mission.  The beach has never been restored, and the forest hosts invasive species beneath the broken canopy.  The 100-year Master Plan vanished into the Gulf.

The desire to avoid guilt should catalyze architects into action, spurring us into preemptive efforts to reduce harm and to make reparations for past failures.  Are we improving our clients’ safety, their health, and the well-being of our communities?  Are we extending the vitality of our blue-green planet. If not… you might want to consider your own appetite for guilt.