9-22-08OrsakGimmeShelter

Engineering Innovation Can't Wait for Political Leadership


Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Imagine dropping a grizzled “physician” from 500 years ago into a major, 21st century hospital.

OK, you get the point. Medical science has made remarkable advances largely because of its importance to the human condition. And there is no better evidence than the dramatic increase in life expectancy — nearly doubled in the last century.

There is no question housing is just as important to our well-being as medicine. Why so little real progress? The critique might seem extreme from the comfortable vantage point of a modern home, but drop a “construction engineer” from 500 years ago into a large suburban housing development and he might actually get promoted based on his skills.

Yes, our visitor would be quite impressed with the central heating and cooling (and who doesn’t appreciate indoor plumbing), but the links between his world and ours should be disturbing.

Step outside your own home and look hard. It is almost surely framed with wood, likely clad in stone, bricks or faux stucco (think mud). And in all likelihood, the walls join at right angles and the roof is pitched to conform with the neighborhood — not to trap and recycle scarce water.

The stagnant state of progress in our housing industry doesn’t put an affordable, rapidly constructed, locally produced, healthy roof over the heads of a flood-displaced family in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or the millions homeless from the devastating earthquake in China — much less generations of family members struggling in a Namibian slum.

Where is the innovation that thrives elsewhere in our society? Think of the irony that a popular national public TV series today features a crew of creative designers building a “sophisticated” home using hay and mud — more of a history lesson then a giant leap forward in housing.

While we can certainly be entertained with historic construction practices, we must face the reality that billions living in squalor are crying out for radical new solutions that are not just affordable — but available. Even mud and hay are luxuries when water is scarce.

Unfortunately, the American housing industry is focused on building bigger, despite the cost — the average single family home we build today is more than 60 percent bigger than what we built in 1973, even though families are shrinking.

So here is the global housing challenge:

  • Rethink the essential purpose

  • Rethink the structure and shape

  • Rethink the (local) materials

  • Rethink the assembly

  • Rethink water, sewer, energy and

  • Reduce cost, reduce cost, reduce cost

Dwight Eisenhower championed the U.S. highway system. John Kennedy challenged us to the moon. Who is going to get our international neighbors out of cardboard shanties and our own people out of colonias and FEMA trailers? Engineering innovation can’t wait for political leadership when geopolitical stability is on the table.