Your job is not to draw new buildings.


0 • Patchwork

Volume 10, Issue 03
April 19, 2024

I relearn every day that most things around me are by design; part of becoming an architect is a continuous act of noticing that the material world from pencils to neighborhoods is a manifestation of someone’s intent. Architects delight when the clean joint between window frame and wall shows a skilled hand. We complain when the sidewalk inexplicably switches sides, forcing us to cross four lanes of traffic. We are trained to notice that the world where we live is not an accident and can be improved.

It is time to expand this consciousness to include economics, deliberately including long-neglected externalities. The supply chains that snake outward from our project sites are no accident. As Jason Hickel concludes in Less is More, “the economy is our material relationship with each other and the rest of the living world,” (Hickel, 2020). It hardly bears repeating that neoliberal capitalism, the current relationship of the minority world1 with the biosphere, is dysfunctional. Out of the nine biogeochemical systems that keep our planet predictable, we have pushed six beyond safe boundaries (Richardson et al., 2023). Since 1970, the annual mass of materials we extract from the Earth has tripled, but the minority world consumes materials at a rate six times greater than the majority world (Parrique et al., 2019, p. 20; United Nations Environment Programme, 2024). What we take out of the biosphere, we do not give back – 40% of materials we extract go into expanding our built infrastructure (Circle Economy, 2023, p. 19). And as of 2020, the estimated mass of human-made stuff outweighs the Earth’s biomass (Elhacham et al., 2020).

But, these trends are not unstoppable. The economic system that we are building is not natural – it is designed just like pencils and window frames and sidewalks. Since neoliberal capitalism is designed, it can also be un-made.

For a profession that prides itself on noticing how things are designed and proposing alternatives, architects act too helpless about the social, political, and economic conditions that are making us destroy the Earth. Even if we gripe about tight budgets and breakneck schedules, we take the conditions of capitalism as “unquestioned compromises of the cultural logic that determines [our] field” (Gadanho, 2022, p. 49). Most architectural schools still teach material-agnostic studios focused on form making out of thin air; students are prepared to run the gauntlet and churn out hundreds of digital model iterations as soon as they transform into entry-level staff. Most architecture firms still strive to make a profit by translating clients’ wishes and anxieties into new buildings, be they private residences, office towers, or the vague category of mixed-use. Most architectural awards are still bestowed to ground-up buildings that twist new wood, concrete, steel, and glass into unexpected shapes, even as they attain a widening arsenal of admirable merit badges like “net-zero energy,” “healthy,” “low-carbon,” or “resilient.”

But what is this all for? Real estate value has never been higher, while profit margins in architecture stay notoriously low. How many of the houses we design in the United States are owned by real estate investment trusts who are primarily beholden to returns for investors? How many of the commercial office area goes to for-profit business? Architecture is coopted to prettify the mechanism of endless capital wealth accumulation through material extraction. We pad the pockets of clients, who pad the pockets of landlords at the expense of a livable future for everyone.

This design is a dud; let’s move on. We have the world to gain (literally) from proactively dismantling the mainstream economics of architecture (Hensy and Walker, 2020). Refuse speculative real estate development; propose community-led, cooperative projects that maintain, reclaim and densify underutilized parking lots, empty malls, and vacant office towers to create actual use value rather than capital. Stop producing renderings that advertise shiny buildings made by anonymous builders using anonymous materials; advocate for more work that traces building materials up the supply chain and shake the hands that harvest and shape them, right in our own bioregions. Spend less time on learning the latest parametric modeling software that speeds up society’s rate of material overconsumption; organize more classes that teach how to assess existing building stock for hazardous chemicals or early signs of damage, abate them, and maintain the buildings for years to come. Stop chasing economic growth; focus on equitable redistribution of gains. Turn down projects that cater to capitalist whims, and use architecture as a tool in politics to create conditions for the kinds of projects we want to do.

Our job is not to draw new buildings – it’s to imagine a livable future. Part of that future is an overhauled economic system that centers biosphere integrity and social justice over profit. It won’t be the first time that humans play a part in creating regenerative, biodiverse economies; the Amazon rainforest, for one, is a product of indigenous stewardship of soils over millennia (Pearce, 2013). There is an exciting, new world of economic ideas – Doughnut economics, degrowth, and sufficiency to name a few unifying concepts. Architects and aspiring architects who wield decision-making power in the material economy of buildings, it’s time to take note.

Circle Economy (2023) The Circularity Gap Report 2023. Amsterdam: Circle Economy, pp. 1–64. Available at:

Elhacham, E. et al. (2020) ‘Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass’, Nature, 588(7838), pp. 442–444. Available at:

Gadanho, P. (2022) Climax Change!: How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency. New York, Barcelona: Actar.

Hensy, J. and Walker, T. (2020) Case Studies and Traits of Proactive Practice. AIA Seattle Center for Architecture + Design. Available at:

Hickel, J. (2020) Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. 1st edition. Cornerstone Digital.
Parrique, T. et al. (2019) Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. European Environmental Bureau. Available at: (Accessed: 13 February 2024).

Pearce, F. (2013) ‘True Nature: Revising Ideas On What is Pristine and Wild’, Yale Environment 360, 13 May. Available at: (Accessed: 3 April 2024).
Richardson, K. et al. (2023) ‘Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries’, Science Advances, 9(37). Available at:

United Nations Environment Programme (2024) Global Resources Outlook 2024: Bend the Trend - Pathways to a livable planet as resource use spikes. Nairobi: International Resource Panel. Available at:

  1. I use this term as an alternative to “Global North” in keeping with S. Alam, “Majority World: Challenging the West’s Rhetoric of Democracy,” 2008, as a reminder that industrialized, developed nations are in the minority both in terms of population and land mass. ↩︎

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