Lessons From Detroit's Power Outage

On Tuesday, December 2, a large portion of Detroit’s city-run power grid went dark, shutting down schools, fire stations, businesses, public buildings, and streetlights. This large-scale outage is an important reminder for architects, engineers, and construction professionals to work together to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

“As architects, we not only incorporate emergency systems in critical facilities to maintain operations during times of emergency or interruption. Our greater focus on energy efficient projects as a whole will continue to help minimize the strain on our country’s existing power infrastructure,” said NCARB Examination Director Jared Zurn, AIA, NCARB.

In Detroit, a $200 million modernization is already underway to fix an antiquated system. However, the threat of widespread power loss extends far beyond the Motor City. The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, recently gave the nation’s power infrastructure a D+, noting that some systems date to the 1880s and much of the system was built during the World War II era.

Time to Rethink Old and New Conventions

Cities consume 60 to 80 percent of the world’s energy, according to a new Environmental Industries Commission report [PDF] that explores the real impact of “smart cities” in the United Kingdom. The report notes that while smart cities are a good idea, they too have unique challenges. Smart technologies require data centers, for example, “which can be huge energy users and emissions emitters in themselves.”

Cooling, heating, and lighting consume huge portions of the world’s energy output, it was recently noted at the inaugural Challenge Conference held by the Harvard Center for Green Building and Cities (CBCG). Experts say it’s imperative that interdisciplinary teams of engineers, architects, business leaders, and others come together to make buildings more sustainable.

It’s time to “rethink conventions of design practice and fundamentally shift the ways humans use energy in the long term,” said Ali Malkawi, a Harvard professor of architectural technology, at the Harvard conference.

Energy-Conscious Inspiration

Here are some additional resources to further inspire your energy-conscious design thinking:

  • A series of studies released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate indicates that green cities and buildings are not only good for us, they are also more attractive to top talent and entrepreneurs.
  • See how retailers control energy efficiency by making creative use of LEED-certified stores and energy management systems.
  • Too much lighting may actually increase crime. A Canadian city uses CPTED—crime prevention through environmental design—using site-specific physical barriers and relying on even-lighting levels, with fewer dark spots, to deter offenders and reduce energy consumption.
  • The American Institute of Architects (AIA) provides a helpful resource, An Architect’s Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process.

About the Author

I love sharing stories about people, professions, and organizations that are making a difference. After starting my career as a news journalist, I joined the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), where I developed a passion for insights on the changing workplace and emerging issues in people management. At CareerBuilder, my focus turned to online career management and personal branding. Most recently, at the Georgetown University of Continuing Studies, I was inspired by professionals and educators devoted to lifelong learning. I am thrilled to be part of NCARB and a new explorer of the exciting world of architecture. Find me on Twitter @sequencecomm.