With the built environment generating almost half of the world's greenhouse gases, the disciplines responsible for that pollution came together in 2009 to start a new non-profit organization, the National Academy of Environmental Design (NAED) that would look at how the design and planning fields could help us all reduce the impact that buildings and development has on our air, land, and water.
The NAED had several early successes. It convened three pilot research studios across the U.S. to explore such diverse topics as sustainable sites, water management, and low-impact building materials. And it partnered with organizations ranging from the National Research Council, the National Building Museum, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the National Collaborative for Childhood Obesity Research to hold exhibitions and workshops on subjects such as intelligent environments, healthier schools, and disaster-resilient design.
With initial staff support from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture in Washington DC, the NAED eventually moved into office space owned by the Luck Development Partners in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Which is when this tale turns tragic. Luck Development planned a new development - Ni Village - on land that it owned in the county, and began negotiations in 2010 with the NAED to set up its offices in a building there, as part of a larger Center for Sustainability and Green Technologies. But with the Great Recession underway, both Ni Village and plans for the Center stalled.
Initially, the leaders of Spotsylvania County welcomed the NAED. They recognized that the organization would serve as a magnet to attract other sustainability oriented organizations and increase economic development in the county. In 2012, the county committed $200,000 from its Economic Development Agency for staff support, with Charles and Lisa Luck providing $100,000 and with $50,000 from other sources to build out the office space. The NAED, under the leadership of a new Executive Director, seemed on course to thrive.
Until some Tea Party candidates won in a county election and came to power. Not only did the county not approve the second installment of a promised $500,000 in funding over a 1 ½ year period, but it demanded the already expended first $200,000 back because the NAED had not met the exact letter of the initial agreement: hiring a part-time rather than a full-time staff person because, concerned about the county's commitment, the organization did not want to bring on more staff only to have a lay off a month or two later.
Faced with a lawsuit, the NAED's board, led by some of the leading deans from major research universities in the U.S., decided to declare bankruptcy and disband the organization. And with it went one of the best chances we had in this country to connect the design and planning disciplines in a way that would have greatly advanced our knowledge of how to protect our nation's precious resources through a more environmentally responsible built world.
One of the ironies of this story occurred late in the game, when the NAED offered to pay back the initial $200,000 that it no longer had by showing Spotsylvania County how it could save at least that much money by not wasting resources. The county did not accept the offer, even though it would have been a much better way to steward taxpayers' money than wasting funds on a lawsuit that ended up not recouping the initial investment anyway. A pyrrhic victory in court won out over a practical vision of how environmental research can produce real economic benefits.
While other parts of America may not have the same short-sightedness, let the story of the NAED serve as a cautionary tale of what ails our country. We have some of the greatest universities in the world, all of them in pursuit of useful solutions to the so-called grand challenges that face us all. But unless we find ways to protect that work and well-intentioned entities like the NAED from political ideologues and their pusillanimous lawyers, we will relinquish our advantage to other countries and continue to waste the resources and damage the environments that we cannot afford to lose.
Thomas Fisher is the Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota.