Erica Cochran Hameen, Assoc. AIA, is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, where she directs its equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, and co-directs the Center for Building Performance & Diagnostics. She holds a B.Arch. from Virginia Tech and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon in Building Performance & Diagnostics, and serves as the Track Chair for the Doctor of Design degree program. Hameen observes that this generation of architecture students arrive at their first year studios with a greater sense of agency than before. That’s good, says Hameen, because they’ll need it to make a difference as the next generation of architects, engineers, and designers.
As someone who trained to be an architect and now helps designers consider their pathways, how would you characterize the professional landscape today?
In terms of students, they’re coming into the university with more agency than before. It’s exciting because we see students from multiple demographics who are expressing the intricacies and qualities of their demographics, and asking questions about how they can bring their experiences into design. We haven’t always seen that, and we see it today more and more. I see this with undergraduate and graduate students—they’re thinking about things from a global perspective. They’re asking how they can help people in the tropical global south—and these are students in Pittsburgh— who recognize that certain regions are disproportionately suffering from climate change. So, I see a generation of students who are thinking that way—about regions outside their own and regions beyond their experience.
What is the ethical imperative of architecture?
Making our buildings sustainable—and when I say that, I don’t mean just solar panels. We must think about it holistically. Sustainability deals with diversity, economics, and inclusivity. If we’re talking about Pittsburgh, African Americans here have the second highest energy burden rate in this country—which means you are spending a disproportionate amount of income on your appliance, taking buses and rides, cooling and heating your home. It is important to ask: Are you living in a place where your R-value is compromised because of your leaky roof? Are your children learning in a school where the air filters haven’t been cleaned lately and whose walls are crumbling? Do you live in a place where, 50 years ago, a highway was brought through the heart of the neighborhood? All of these things have an impact on our physiological health, our emotional health, and our mental health.
Before the pandemic, we spent 90 percent of our time indoors. As we migrated to spending more and more time indoors because of the pandemic, it rose to 95 percent. For those without means, low-income Americans—it’s imperative that they have opportunities for quality design. As architects and designers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our buildings don’t leak, have the right R-values, are airtight, and are properly ventilated.
How can architecture co-opt the concepts and practices associated with justice in a way that is meaningful?
Changing our building codes and making certain things a requirement. If we want to right wrongs, that’s what we have to do. If you’re designing housing or schools, it should be a requirement that you’re awarded LEED Gold. All low-income housing should be zero-energy housing. These are people who don’t have a lot of money and disposable income, so why should they pay energy bills? That’s one way to right an economic wrong. Another thing we can do is make post-occupancy evaluations a requirement—as part of our design process. It’s not enough to finish the project. We have to return to it and make sure what we designed is working the way it should. Thermal, acoustical, spatial—all the dimensions. Architects’ fees should be tied to it—and they shouldn’t get the last paycheck until the building is verified to be working as designed.
I teach a course on Indoor Environmental Quality, or IEQ, and in the second half of the course, students go and measure building environmental conditions—in disadvantaged communities. For one of the class projects, we went into a newly renovated school where we measured CO2 levels 400 percent higher than it’s supposed to be. The facility manager said, “Yes, in this classroom—the kids are very sleepy and the teacher complains about headaches,” and it was because that room had zero fresh air. Windows were sealed and nobody there knew had to adjust the mechanical system to receive fresh air. If there was a requirement for a post-occupancy evaluation and a provision for facility manager training on new systems contingent on the final design and construction payment, the poor air quality conditions could have been alleviated.
What are some concepts that you think the next generation of architects will have to redefine or, in some cases, define for the first time?
On the technical side, the next generation will need to address where to put the vapor barrier—and this is me wearing my techie hat. The maps that were drawn for America in terms of climate and temperatures are different now. It used to be that we always put the vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall, but what do you do for walls constructed in a colder region with a climate that is now much warmer than 30 or 50 years ago? The weather data files we were using in our energy modeling simulations were based on temperature ranges and climate data over a 25 year period almost 20 years ago, from 1991 to 2005—the weather files have had to change because our climate today includes noticeably warmer temperatures and precipitation variances. The next generation is going to have to identify what we’re going to do with our existing building stock—how do you retrofit them to prevent mold? I don’t know the answer, but I think my students will figure it out.
Also, I think the demographics of our cities are changing quickly and there are greater desires to recognize and express individual cultures. We must understand that different cultures have different needs—and if you have a client that’s of a different culture than yours, how do you identify and respect what’s important to them, and bring it into your design work? In terms of gender, I challenge my students on how they design bathrooms—why can’t there be gender neutral restrooms everywhere? Why can’t we have changing tables and spaces for nursing and breast pumping in every building? Quality design is also about empathy, and the more we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes—as people and as designers—the more successful we’ll be in redefining architecture.
William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC.