Engineers, Stand Up and Save Civilization!

The math is simple: climate change may destroy civilization, and building energy use is a lot of the reason why. Yet a blame triangle prevents buildings from being the solution and not the problem. Developers say, “the design engineers don’t offer us better options.” Engineers say, “owners don’t ask for better designs and won’t spend more money without stronger regulation.” And regulators say, “we regulate with the consent of the governed, so without the support of designers and developers, there’s only so far we can go.” Nothing changes.

LESS BLAME, MORE SOLUTIONS

At a recent morning event, Fiona Cousins (Arup) called on engineers to break this logjam. If engineers know there’s a crisis (which they do) and know how to fix it (which they do), what is the possible excuse for not proposing solutions, other than the pusillanimous “I was just following orders?” Of course, if energy and carbon savings can be achieved in a budget neutral way, there will be few complaints. But whether or not they are asked directly by clients, given the nature of the threat, engineers must speak up.

Fiona Cousins
Photo by Tony Tsang/ASHRAE.

HOW TO STAND UP AND SPEAK UP

Doing so may require extroversion and strong interpersonal and political skills, which Cousins admitted “engineers as a whole are not that good at.” That’s not always the case; Michael Bloomberg and Jimmy Carter are both engineers, and farther back John Roebling and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were the Steve Jobs and Elon Musk of their day. But as a whole, the field’s influence has waned to the point that there are more used car salesmen in Congress than engineers1.

Acknowledging the old joke that “an extroverted engineer is one who looks at your shoes,” Cousins gave the audience specific ideas about how to encourage engineers to stand up and be counted. To gain speaking experience, volunteer for events. Say yes to speaking invites. Join the Toastmasters. And check out ASHRAE’s women’s and young engineer events.

TAKE THE PLUNGE

Penguins pushed into Arctic waters to prove it’s safe enough for everyone else to dive in.  Engineers with social skills can lead the way by being straightforward and public with their views. Regardless of their individual personality, engineers will respond to peer pressure, work expectations, or market pressures, and relatively few leaders can steer the culture.

More broadly, architects have Architecture 2030, which has helped to galvanize their profession around a long-term commitment. Could engineers do the same? Our civilization may depend on it.


1 “Seven current Republican House members either run dealerships or managed them before coming to Washington” (https://theintercept.com/2015/11/23/car-dealers-have-their-way-with-cong... and there are three engineers (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/01/17/an-awesome-diagram-of-the-113th-congress/). I didn’t track down each Congressperson reference to ensure they haven’t been impeached or otherwise removed from office since these articles were written, so don’t shoot me if my numbers are slightly off. We’d still need a lot more engineers or a lot fewer car dealers to flip the comparison.

About the author

Cecil Scheib
Cecil Scheib is Chief Program Officer for Urban Green Council.