America's Architecture and Construction Industry Is Broken

Is the United States incapable of rising to the compounding housing and climate crises?

Fussgaengerzone (pedestrian zone) in Landshut, Germany
Fussgaengerzone (pedestrian zone) in Landshut, Germany.

Mike Eliason

Having worked as an architect in both Germany and the United States, I have grown to believe that the architecture and construction industry in North America — and especially in the United States — is broken. It seems there is no longer room for innovation or experimentation.

Our construction costs, one of the highest in the world for some of the lowest quality, should seemingly induce some sort of innovation on cost-saving. Yet, they do not. Our building codes are overly restrictive, stifling incredible solutions found in other countries. Our narrow procurement processes do not lead to an abundance of innovation or high-performance buildings.

Is our industry incapable of rapid change? Is it incapable of rising to the compounding housing and climate crises? 

The most minimal, high-performance sliding doors aren't even made in the United States, but rather, by Swiss company Sky-Frame. It produces elegant, energy-efficient 2- and 3-pane sliding door systems that outperform anything manufactured in America.


Lloyd Alter

The highest performing windows in the world? As a Passivhaus consultant and advocate for over a decade, it is sad to report that they are also not found here. They are manufactured in places like Germany and Austria, which are notorious for conservative industries that are adopting increasingly stringent energy codes. Smartwin, from Bavaria, Germany, makes some of the highest performing windows in the world that are also quite stunning.

Even regions where the industry is less conservative are producing Passivhaus windows that outperform nearly anything made in the United States. China is absolutely overtaking us in the high-performance windows department, with 110 certified frames listed on the Passive House Institute’s component database, to our 10.

Insulated concrete is a product that was invented in the United State, but has been perfected by nations like Germany and Switzerland.

Innovative concepts like prefabricated, robotically-tamped rammed Earth walls are possible in Austria but not here. You can even add insulation: Schaumglas (foam glass) can be placed under concrete slabs in lieu of petrol-based foams. It is gorgeous, but not yet manufactured in the United States.

When it comes to thermally broken components, Germany has been the industry leader on a lot of this — pushed by regulation; backed by the government and industry-funded research. No one batted an eye when I mentioned we would need Shoeck elements when I was working in Bayern, Germany.

stairwell single egress exit

Lloyd Alter

There is virtually no jurisdiction in the United States where the building code would allow a seven-story building served by a single means of egress. Meanwhile, in parts of France, Germany, and Austria, buildings with 8-10 floors can be built with a single means of egress. This includes mass timber hybrid buildings, like Kaden + Lager’s Skaio, a 111-foot wooden high-rise in Heilbronn, Germany.

The 280-foot tall Mjøstårnet, an 18-story mixed-use structure, in Norway is the tallest purely mass timber building in the world. The recently codified International Building Code’s mass timber type will only allow buildings 85 feet before an unsightly level of encapsulation. Vienna’s 24-story HoHoTurm also features exposed mass timber elements well above the 85-foot level. Our codes in the United States are overly conservative and will largely prevent firms from meaningful contributions on this front.  

Speaking of innovation and mass timber, CREE by Rhomberg's LCT ONE, an eight-floor prefabricated mass timber demonstration project in Dornbirn, Austria, also with a single stair, is now nearly a decade old. They recently expanded their relationships in the United States, raising the question of whether this is how we will start to see innovation in construction.

Yes, mass timber is popular in the United States but it has been a thing in the European Union (EU) for over 20 years. Guess where most of the CLT machines are made? A hint: One of the most common, Hundegger, has the following for their motto: innovationen fuer den Holzbau (innovations for wood construction).

R50 Baugruppen, Berlin
Baugruppen, Berlin.

Lloyd Alter

When it comes to housing, the situation is just as gloomy. A dense, architect-led, family-friendly, community-oriented, low-energy social housing (like Baugruppen) is virtually non-existent in the United States. Good luck even finding a multifamily development here that is not primarily a studio or 1-bedroom unit. You will; however, find them in Vienna, Italy, and Berlin, Germany.

In Amsterdam, a group of architects has developed a manifesto that has informed stunning, flexible, architect-led urban development. I can take a guess why, but where is the United States version of the Dutch Open Building?

Where in the United States can an architect develop a six-story urban building using prefabricated, standardized concrete components? Where are the zoning and financing options that would enable and allow this? Or a concrete plant that manufactures them? Yet in Berlin, this is already a reality. The current International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Stuttgart, Germany is re-orienting the region as a productive, compact, sustainable, and livable one.

I could point to numerous undertakings in the EU spotlighting innovation on energetic retrofits. Where is our Energiesprong? Where are the banks working to make this financially feasible? Germany's KfW bank (a state-owned development bank) has also funded numerous energetic retrofits, as well as new low-energy buildings. What will it take for the financial components of our industry to start to lead on this issue?

These are all things that I have been harping on for over a decade now and yet we still only have one certified multifamily Passivhaus building in Seattle, Washington. To date, we have zero multifamily mass timber buildings. Incredibly, we cannot even build duplexes in most of the city!

There is not a single pedestrian zone here — this is also true for most of the United States. In comparison, nearly every Austrian or German village now has a pedestrianized street, if not a pedestrian zone

Do not get me started on eco-districts. I spoke to a colleague recently who has been trying to work on them directly and indirectly for years. They had little hope for any sort of uptake on them in the United States — our zoning codes do not foster them, neither do our financing structures. Perhaps most importantly, there are virtually no incentives for them and we have no political leadership on this issue. Meanwhile, I could point to a hundred or so car-light developments underway in the EU — at various scales — with ample social housing, people-oriented streets, open space, and amenities. 

Perhaps a large part of the problem is that in the United States, an industry-connected non-profit is writing building and energy codes instead of the government. Also, due to the disjointed nature of our jurisdictions — even our strongest energy codes are still a decade behind the EU and its nearly Zero Energy Buildings Requirements — in effect today.

Fifteen-minute cities, circularity, and ultra-low energy buildings will all become much more prominent in the EU with the recently-passed European Green Deal, which includes large support for industrial change. The rapid uptake and expansion of the mass timber and value-added timber industry in Europe will also see a sizable boost with the New European Bauhaus. (I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up for anything like that here, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.) 

I do not know the solution to these issues but can only hope for developers to build sustainable buildings, for architects to design sustainable buildings, for banks to finance sustainable and affordable buildings is insufficient. Looking to the EU, it's clear the United States requires deep and strong mandates, paired with incentives, and more research to bring our archaic industry up to speed. We need building components that are efficient, affordable, and decarbonized — and we need them today, not 20 years down the road. There is also a necessity for political leadership that will fund and champion these issues. 

Thus far, there is so little movement in resolving these problems in the United States — it is both unnerving and unreal. Since coming back from working in Germany, the disparity I see between our industry and the EU has only grown. I should not have to look to European manufacturers to obtain the most efficient or innovative products, yet that is our present reality. I have so much angst around this, around our systemic inability to do anything about these issues.

We are a country pretending the status quo is adequate when we need massive, systemic change: There's so little time and so much to do.