When I entered the architecture field in 1992, cell phones barely existed. My job as an architect and designer that specializes in healthcare has had to evolve at a rapid pace to be able to create spaces where science and technology can flourish. Many of the design opportunities I take for granted today, including designing buildings where robots perform surgeries and scientists grow synthetic organs, would been classified as science fiction when I started. Yet as I help to create spaces where occupants push the boundaries of medicine, I wonder how the design community could do more to ensure our future doesn’t look like the dystopian science fiction stories of my childhood.
Science fiction has mapped out many different paths we could travel as a human race, and a few of the more fantastical ideas are now edging into our reality. Specifically, stories of how technology and science can extend human life expectancies and the global devastation that might occur if life expectancy and consumption are not balanced. Logan’s Run, a novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson set in year 2116, explores a world trying to limit resource consumption by restricting individual lifespans to age 21. Similarly, in the movie “In Time,” set in 2169, a person’s age is genetically limited to 25 to avoid resource depletion. The only exceptions are the politically connected and the wealthy, who can extend their lives without limit by purchasing more time.
Science fiction shows what could happen if we live much longer lives but don’t solve challenges like clean air, clean water, abundant renewable energy supply, closed loop manufacturing, and our ever-growing mountains of waste. As advancements allow humans to live longer, the planet becomes proportionately more crowded and depleted resources require hard tradeoffs.
The longevity of life that money can buy you, as illustrated in the movie “In Time,” is not unlike our global healthcare system today. In some countries, if you have the money or the right insurance plan, you can purchase a longer life with devices like a heart transplant or a pacemaker. In 2018, life expectancy in the most developed countries was 10-15 years longer than life expectancy in the least developed countries. In the United States, growing older in smaller towns or remote areas affords you a shorter life expectancy than your urban counterparts, and Americans in poverty struggle to find qualified health professionals within driving distance of their homes.
If you were to ask what keeps me up at night, it would be this: are we headed toward the dystopian society we fear, or inching closer to the utopia we seek? And how can healthcare design help steer us toward a more equitable future?
One way we can help avoid these dystopian paths is by imagining and designing buildings as environmentally advanced as the procedures, research, and true science fiction that happen within them. ZGF is leading this charge by designing buildings that respond to the local climate with phase-changing materials, collect their own water and power, and buildings with net positive energy that give back to the power grid. We’re also excited about working on a district scale to design cities of the future. At the 2017 LA Auto Show Design & Developer Challenge, we imagined materials, technologies, communities, and systems of the future that would prepare the City of Los Angeles for hosting a global sporting event in the year 2060.
Our industry has a responsibility to work with clients across the spectrum that are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to build a better future.
Let’s put the science back in sci-fi.
Let’s explore structures that can be disassembled and reused so that a building that was once was a factory might become a vertical farm.
We need to build buildings that are flexible enough to be repurposed and upgraded indefinitely. We must imagine and create spaces that come with self-healing membranes, nano-bots that clean and repair exterior envelopes, or building skins that harvest energy and treat their own water and waste. To combat the effects of climate change, we should be creating schemas for building envelopes of the future that adapt to local climate fluctuations as they filter and clean the air around them.
Architects can help create a brilliant and more equitable future that looks nothing like the dystopian science fiction of popular culture. We only need to look to the right stories for inspiration.
David Staczek is a Principal Architect in our Portland office. His 26 years of design experience includes work in varied market sectors, such as speculative office buildings, corporate interiors, banking, retail stores, pedestrian bridges, healthcare projects, U.S. embassies, and multimodal centers. His study of the daylighting of patient rooms at the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, was the genesis of a collaborative study with the University of Oregon that explored daylighting issues unique to healthcare. David has a Bachelor of Architecture and a Bachelor of Science from Kent State University.