To Foretell the Future of Design, Look to Policy—and This Website

    Written by Ned Cramer

    Infrastructure has been on a lot of minds lately, though nobody seems to agree what it means. A progressive may consider infrastructure spending as a way to expand the social safety net and tackle climate change. A conservative might say it’s a publicly funded inducement for private enterprise and the nation’s overall economic competitiveness. Both would probably think it’s good for creating jobs. I believe it could have a net positive effect on our buildings, neighborhoods, towns, and cities.

    Lately, the political class has been working toward a mutually agreeable definition, mostly in the form of dueling position papers and public statements. Whether Congress ultimately can broker a deal and get an infrastructure bill onto President Joe Biden’s desk remains to be seen. But one thing does appear to be clear: Whether through direct legislation or the procedural side door of budget reconciliation, the United States will be spending hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars on construction in the coming years.    

    Setting aside the admittedly big questions of what yet another massive outlay may do to inflation and the national debt, a federal cash injection should be welcome news to the building industry and the economy as a whole. Our infrastructure certainly needs the help, if the American Society of Civil Engineers’ oft-cited Infrastructure Report Card is to be believed (the 2021 score is a C-, up from D+ in 2017). 

    The 1936 Clay County Courthouse in Liberty, Missouri, exemplifies the sober Stripped Classical style of New Deal–era architecture. Credit: Bob Weston/iStock

    FDR’s New Deal combatted the Great Depression and brought Art Deco, Art Moderne, and Stripped Classical architecture to practically every community in the U.S., in the form of post offices, swimming pools, courthouses, and myriad other building types. The new New Deal, or whatever name it takes, will probably be less prescriptive aesthetically—current Federal guidelines prohibit an “official style”—but it has the potential to be even more broadly salubrious, depending upon how the policies are ultimately written and interpreted.

    Advances in machine learning, material science, building systems, and other technologies now allow for buildings and urban plans as operationally sophisticated as a Tesla. On-site greywater treatment, microgrids, and mass timber construction may seem less sexy than a self-driving electric vehicle, but such innovations have just as much potential to be revolutionary and impactful—especially if their adoption is supercharged by federal policy and funding. 

    This site, COLUMN, is designed with precisely those innovations in mind. It builds upon a foundation of industry research and intelligence from Dodge Data & Analytics, for an audience of architects, contractors, developers, engineers, and other professionals—united in the desire for a more efficient, economical, healthy, sustainable, and just way of building.