Occupy Design: or, Why I Joined the General Strike in Oakland


Last Wednesday, November 2nd, I joined the Oakland city-wide General Strike initiated by the Occupy Oakland movement. Among us out there were several of my engineer colleagues as well as a couple architects. We marched under this banner that we made the night before:

[We stole the design and name from occupydesign.org, which is an awesome project.]

All throughout the day we had architects, engineers, planners, and just random people coming up to us and asking us what we were all about.

The common question we got asked was – “What does Occupy Design mean? Why are you out here?”

I can only speak for myself – the occupy movement is, after all, the mashup of a million different voices and opinions – but at least some of my sentiments were shared by others out there. Friends – please chime in with your thoughts & perspectives!

Why I Joined the General Strike

I’m an engineer and, to be honest, have a pretty cushy deal going on. I like my job. I like my work. I’ll have my student debt paid off in a short while. I don’t consider my company to be “the man” (it’s a small locally owned firm) or exploitative. I wasn’t out on the streets on Wednesday because I have a problem with my workplace or personal situation. Part of why I was out there was in solidarity with those who are getting screwed over by exploitative companies and financial institutions, but that doesn’t explain the banner.

I joined the strike because I have a problem with the system as a whole, particularly the industrial system that has to do with the design and construction of the built environment.

Take a common modern building. It is an energy (and, thus, carbon) hog. It is ugly. It is car-centric, it is built to car-scale not human-scale. It is filled with carpets and pipes made from PVC, slathered in paints and epoxies that emit VOCs. It is built from materials mined on another continent, assembled on yet another continent in oppressive work conditions, shipped to the site via polluting tankers and trucks, and assembled by workers employed by a firm that put in the low-bid and needs the cheapest shit available to make some money on the project. The design of the building was cut-and-paste, including the HVAC system, which uses dirty refrigerants which will eventually get into the atmosphere and add to the greenhouse gas effect.

The standard way of building isn’t about appropriate, beautiful, useful spaces for human beings. It’s about making a profit off of construction. It’s the commodification of the built environment. We see this in the big-box stores, the tract houses, the cheap construction of our living spaces that damage and destroy our ecosystems because money can be made for the developers.

One of the things we were marching for on Wednesday was a recognition that the design professionals of the built environment are a part of this process. We want to call attention to this fact, to recognize that although almost all of us are the 99%, we’re part of a system that conveys money up the stream to the 1% at the expense of the 99% — draining our quality of life, our dignity, stripping the earth of its natural resources, filling our living spaces with carcinogenic materials, and destroying the human scale of our communities which isolates us from each other.

So that’s the problem. That’s why I’m pissed enough to take to the streets. But I’m an engineer so of course I’m thinking about solutions to this problem. What does Occupy Design mean, in this context? “Occupy” is a verb, so what’s the action?

Man I don’t know. What if we all, as professionals, refused to specify any materials (carpeting, sealants, et cetera) that have PVC in them? How hard is it, morally, to stand up and say “I will not design cancer into any buildings anymore.”?

What if we carte blanch said, no more refrigerants? No more exotic hardwoods that contribute to the destruction of rainforests? No more south-facing all-glass facades that require enormous amounts of energy to keep cool? No more ultra-luxurious McMansions for the uber-rich which no 99%’er will ever be able to afford? What if we refused to work on projects that called for the bulldozing of any greenfields, forests, or riparian corridors?

Beyond what we won’t do, what about what we will do? We will design buildings that are low-energy, use passive solar design principles, and are built at a human scale. We’ll specify local materials. We’ll only build on brown- or grey-fields, never on greenfields. We’ll design in rainwater harvesting and on-site stormwater retention systems, to increase the resilience of our buildings and communities.

The list goes on. This is all highly idealistic stuff; if professionals started refusing to do work, or designing rain barrels into apple stores, they’ll just get fired and then they can go join the local Occupy tent city. But what if we all stood up, said no more, and started agitating for real change in our industry? What would that look like?

What if in our free time (a mythical concept for some, to be sure) we organized people to come together and beautify dull in-between spaces, legality of ownership be damned? How many vacant unused lots are out there that we could transform into an urban gardens, pocket parks, stormwater infiltration basins, greywater treatment infrastructures, plazas, play areas for neighborhood kids? Guerrilla landscape architecture. Hit and run ecological infrastructure revitalization. The Green Bloc. Hostile takeover building renovations. I’m just throwing out ideas here.

This goes beyond so-called “green buildings” or checking off a few points on a LEED template. The built environment plays a huge role in issues of social and economic justice, and it’s been corrupted by hyper-capitalists as just another method for accumulating wealth.

This vision drives me. The vision of what architects and engineers do in a world that isn’t driven by the interests of Wall Street. The vision of the projects out there that make the world better.

11 Responses to Occupy Design: or, Why I Joined the General Strike in Oakland

  1. e Solrain says:

    Your article reminds me there are so many more reasons to march, to strike, to Occupy, than there are not to. On a fundamental level, we’re retaking the public spaces, the commons, that are OURS. All of us. We Occupy that which is most fundamental to our community – in protest, in celebration, and simply because we’ve had enough of our world dictated by the needs of the ultra wealthy instead of the common person, the corporation instead of the commons.

    There isn’t an aspect of our world that isn’t affected, and as architects and engineers, we have an obligation to not only uphold principles and practices that reflect a just, equitable and safe world, but also one that inspires and connects us. We need to fight for better energy and material standards, but also approaches to the built environment that value the commons, ecology and our future.

    • Tyler Disney says:

      Right on.

      “There isn’t an aspect of our world that isn’t affected,”

      Super good point.

      I heard someone say the following on Tuesday night, and it really resonated with me: “No more complacency.”

      No more complacency… it’s been my mantra the past few days.

  2. Elyse W says:

    The nature of being an HVAC designer in a suffering economy has been an eye opening experience. Everything that you have said here about sacrificing environmentally conscious designs for profit describes my experience to a T. What I am seeing at my job is that the main driver of these decisions are by the customer and the contractors are following suit, exactly as you said. I know that there are many cases where the contractors and engineers are pushing back against customer decisions and this probably has a higher success rate on the smaller scale projects but the problem on large projects is that this usually does not work. There is too much money invested and people want what they want and feel that they are entitled to it, no matter the cost. Some kind of weird power trip I am guessing.
    It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out and if building owners eventually become environmentally savvy and aware of the “built environment” enough to shift the out of control development. I am with you man, we need to take a stand in our designs and on top of that we need to continue fighting to educate not only ourselves (architects, engineers, general contractors) but the general public (and more importantly the developers) about the repercussions of holding the dollar above all else. This is hard because no one wants to hear that what is earning them money is harming others, but if we can keep the conversation non-judgmental and strictly about our concern for our vision of a better, more sustainable world we may have a chance.

    • flowxrg says:

      I agree, I think it’s important to keep the conversation non-judgmental. Not because I’m against judgmental..ness… but because as soon as you go there people get defensive and minds close.

      But what’s the extreme here? I mean we’re running out of time, right. How much time do we have to nudge the industry?

      Will this conversation ever happen? Has it happened?

      Client: “We want this on our building.”
      Designer: “No. That’s harmful. We won’t do that.”
      Client: “Here’s money, do it anyway.”
      Designer: “I don’t care, fire me.”

      Can we start writing into proposals that we will not include in our designs any materials or practices that we view as harmful to the earth or to fellow humans?

      • Elyse W says:

        Your last idea is fantastic. And you are certainly right, we are running out of time. On the other hand, it is a challenge being a young engineer trying to promote these changes. My comments above come from this stand point but you are right, we do need to take firm stances instead of the nudge. The nude hasn’t been working. I may have a chance coming up to be included in an energy design group and I am going to try to use this a a launching off point. Including a statement in our proposals is brilliant. I plan to bring this up at the apt time.

  3. E Concannon says:

    I’m with you completely, Tyler. My first stint with engineering ended on the heels of a capitalist a-hole turning my principled and successful ideas for saving his company huge amounts of energy (not sure he even understood this part) and money into an opportunity to build another massive cleanroom using the same cookie-cutter design firm that f’d up the first one. And he told this to me while I was in the room offering our services to design the next one right the first time. This was all because it could be built faster and get product out the door more quickly if it was a copied design, even if it used 3 times more energy than it should. PROFIT was the only motivation. More widgets out the door sooner = more money in their pockets sooner…damn the environment or communities or social justice.

    I’m back at engineering primarily because it is the best situation for my family right now and because I am blessed to work for firm that is intellectually and philosophically positioned to lead the charge should deeply sustainable design win the day and become the norm. I have never lost my ambition to bring about a sustainable world, but being a part of a system which funnels money to the super-rich and the greedy-rich makes my stomach lurch…did you hear that? It just did it again.

    I want to believe that change is possible if we all drive the sustainable vision (and the crazy ideas) forward, but the momentum of numerous millions of people and corporations who are part of the profit-driven building industry seems impossible to alter substantially. We are going the wrong direction and everyone can see the flaming abyss ahead, but easy money has blinded them to the danger. Most of the industry is praying for a timely escape route (a la Indiana Jones) that isn’t there and isn’t interested in making the abrupt u-turn that is required because they know most people on the train, including them, will not be able to hang on. Just imagine a VW bus clown-car with 200 clowns holding on, frolicking and laughing, which is suddenly forced to make a hairpin turn, without slowing down, at the edge of a yawning cliff. Many to most of the clowns will no longer be on the party cart, not frolicking, not laughing, and definitely not making gobs of money.

    Ah, maybe I’m just tired of fighting the “good fight” on behalf of the world. Tired because it has consumed 20 years of my life, because I have more pressing responsibilities to communities much closer to home (my family, my neighbors), but who are blissfully ignorant of most of what you and I know happens to bring a building from idea to occupancy. Tired because getting the clown car to turn around in time seems impossible now.

    I’m proud to know folks like you are taking up the banner, literally, and know that you have my utmost support even if I never find a good time to say it to you directly.

    Cheers, Eric C

  4. flowxrg says:

    Whoa. Thank you for that message Eric… heavy stuff. My stomach lurched just now too….

  5. Hi… from Turkey. We have read your text and understand why the people of the US create a movement like “occupy together” better. i want to thank you. And our solidarity with all of you…

  6. Clifton Lemon says:

    Very cool. The biggest thing I’m getting from this is the largely unrecognized power of primacy of design as a driver in the economy. An since it’s now clear that everything is political whether we want to admit it or not, why not make design explicitly political as well? I’ll vote that ticket! I don’t mean Republican or Democrat- the 2 party system has been broken on many levels for a long time, that’s part of what Occupy is all about, duh. And I sure don’t want to be part of the upstream conveyance to the 1% anymore- we should work with that message more, it has a lot of potential.

    Working @ Integral I remember that everything we did, literally everything- even buying paper clips- we assessed for its scale impact and downstream impact. This kind of focus is rare in businesses. Most designers just follow the money- bottom line, not only do we want to survive, but emotionally we want to please the client. Designers are mostly altruistic, this is a good thing. But following the money even happens at Integral- a lot of tradeoffs and difficult decisions have to be made everywhere these days. Sometimes the fight takes too big of a toll on your soul- Eric C’s comment testifies to the weariness that can set in around this daily struggle. I’m writing about this -what I call Green Battle Fatigue.

    There are so many ways to change inefficient destructive practices within the framework of capitalist business. Your suggestion about contractual language is very close to home for me, the guy who wrote so many contracts for so many big projects. Excellent thinking there. Protest is crucial now, to draw attention to the urgent need for change, but constructive measures are more important for the long term, and as designers we know how to be constructive, it’s just that we now have to apply this kind of thinking to social and economic processes instead of just buildings, cars, or products. We really haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible, and as people in charge of shaping the environment, we have a lot of power to affect outcomes. We’re not just lackeys for guys like Donald Trump or the Koch brothers.

    One thing the designers can do very deliberately is to engage the local communities they work with in the design process- my wife is working at a non profit architecture firm (there is such a thing, believe it or not) that calls what it does “Design for Community.” True green design creates jobs at the local level and provides multiple benefits like affordable housing and location efficient development in addition to saving energy and water.

  7. […] been incredible connections and moments throughout this past month. I have gotten to connect with architects that want to change the way we design buildings to web developers that build tools that allow all of us to make our voices heard. I can’t […]

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