Sustainability remains a top focus for many policymakers and structural leaders within the District and around the globe. This year, the Earth Day theme: Invest in Our Planet, pushes each person around the world to find constructive ways of working towards healthier, ecologically sound living. The manufacture of safe, sound, and healthy, structures as well as warding off the horrific levels of carbon associated with new buildings, stand at the forefront of sustainability conversations. Legendary architect and President of Bryant Mitchell Architects, PLLC, Melvin Mitchell, sat down with the Informer to discuss the impact of climate change on new developments and methods architects are using to meet the challenges. With a nearly 50-year run leading a Black-owned architecture firm based in Washington, D.C., Mitchell also shared his thoughts on the District’s sustainability goals amid the current housing market.
WI: The world is moving toward environmentally sound structures. What does that mean for you as an architect?
MM: Well, [I’m] glad to see it coming. [It’s been a] long time, glad to see it is here. But that’s really replaced, and trumps everything else that has preceded the notion of sustainability, energy efficiency, [and] just [overall] being in peace, and compatible with the planet, the earth, the environment – that’s really what architecture is ultimately about, and how it has to be measured. I am glad to have lived to see this coming.
WI: How does the environment affect the placement of new buildings, and how stable structures and buildings now stand? How does this affect the infrastructure of these homes?
MM: Well, the District like any place else, you have to look at the bigger picture in terms of geography, geology, topology, all of those things. I mean ultimately, this still is just something built in a swamp, so a lot of things become complicated, and muddled [within] that. But in the final analysis, it is still the case here where we have got to follow the facts, and follow the reality of what really is there, and what provisions and precautions need to take place in order for what we built to be sustainable, safe, and sound. Those things have to all fall into place.
WI: D.C. is a small city, and we are now building on it at a much more rapid rate than we have seen in the city’s past. What do you think about the uptick of new housing developments being built today in the District?
MM: As an architect, my information is towards density. See, the whole issue of sustainability and environmentalism is once we crossed the threshold and became an urban society, an urban people, and once we entered this period that we are in, you have to realize that the most sustainable, from an environmental point of view, way to do things in an urban setting is through density. So, you’ve got a lot of people being accommodated.
D.C. as a landmass and a land area is really relatively small; it is less than 100 square miles, really. However, the current population which is just under 700,000 people, is still down from what it once was. If you go back as recently as the late 40s, into the 50s, D.C.’s population was approaching 900,000 people that lived within those cornerstones, those boundaries. A lot of them started to leave when you had some things happen, [as far as] school desegregation, and then the building of the beltways, and then even further the mass transit overlay – so all of these things have come into play. The D.C. and development that you are looking at now, I need to tell you to strap on because it is just beginning. It is going to get closer probably to the point of 800,000 to 900,000 people.
The problem is that during our hay day when we were starting to take off from the whole Black Power movement, we thought that the concept of Chocolate city [when the city was] 70-75 percent Black, would last forever. Well, it [has not] as you can see. As D.C. itself grows in population, the percentage of Black people here is going to continue to decrease. It has already dropped from a high of 70 percent twenty years ago to what it is now, which is just below 50 percent and dropping. It is going to level off probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 percent. However, there is something right next door which we call the 9th ward, we’re talking about Prince George’s County more specifically. That too was once 900,000, and they were practically all White. Now, as D.C.’s [Black population] goes down, it continues to go up [in Prince George’s County]. So, it is really the most fluent, and the most heavily populated Black municipality probably in the country. When you put the two of them together, D.C., and Prince George’s County, you will continue to have a substantial Black population in terms of power, culture, and all of those things. Things take different forms and shapes that we haven’t predicted, and couldn’t predict, so you have to keep all of that in mind in terms of where this is going.
WI: Let’s take a look at climate change. How would you say that climate change has impacted the way that your company designs, or the materials that are used when you build projects today?
MM: Buildings constitute about forty percent of things, which is energy consumption. That [coupled with] the whole carbon issue, and what it is doing to the climate. That is the biggest target. So, any practice, architecture, building, development, etc., that does not approach things within that framework [will eventually be] something that is not going to exist, it is not going to be reliable or able to sustain itself because all of the forces are moving in another direction. Shaping your environment, your practice, your progression around sustainability – that is not an “I would like to, or it would be nice.” That is a matter of survival.
WI: My last question for you; What, if any, would you consider to be the drawbacks to some of the new technology as far as the sturdiness and safety of the new structures?
MM: Let me give you an example for instance. You see a lot of construction happening that were once built completely in concrete and steel but are now being built as wood construction. And there are some engineering reasons in which that could be. But ultimately, even though that has the appearance of being less safe, it is not necessarily. There are technological ways of overcoming the safety issues. But ultimately, it is more environmentally sustainable in terms of energy consumption, all of these things. So, appearances are never what they appear to be. You have got to look deeper into what is really going on here.