October 1, 2020 - From the October, 2020 issue

Sam Lubell: 6 Ways the Trump Presidency Has Impacted the Building Industry

Among the many economic, foreign, immigration, and other policies that have made headlines, the White House has rolled out a number of strategies that directly and indirectly affect the world of design. Published originally in Architectural Digest, TPR excerpts here with permission, Sam Lubell on the current federal administration's impacts on the building industry and its far-reaching implications for urbanism, environmentalism, and construction.


Sam Lubell

"Since he assumed office, President Trump’s imprint on urbanism, environmentalism, and construction has been far-reaching, and, according to many in the building trades, potentially quite damaging. As the presidential election approaches, we took a look back at some of the most significant influences the administration has made on the industry thus far."—Sam Lubell

Among the many economic, foreign, immigration, and other policies that have made headlines, the White House has rolled out a number of strategies that directly and indirectly affect the world of design. Since he assumed office, President Trump’s imprint on urbanism, environmentalism, and construction has been far-reaching, and, according to many in the building trades, potentially quite damaging. As the presidential election approaches, we took a look back at some of the most significant influences the administration has made on the industry thus far.

Federal Architecture

In February 2020, a draft executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” directing that all U.S. federal government buildings costing more than $50 million be designed in classical or traditional styles, was leaked to the public. Organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Society of Architectural Historians, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation opposed the proposed order, noting that it would, among other things, stifle design innovation. Though the order has not been issued, in August the General Services Administration suggested in a Request for Qualifications that a federal district courthouse in Fort Lauderdale be designed in a classical style—a move that the AIA condemned as the start of a “project-by-project replacement of the draft order.”

Environmental Rollbacks

Despite President Trump’s recent claim that he has been “the number one environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt,” his administration has torn down many of the country’s environmental protections, such as by rolling back regulations on coal use, fuel economy, open space, and air and water pollution, and upholding destructive projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Some of the White House’s most influential plans pertaining to the impact of buildings—particularly deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—have been rebuffed by Congress.

At the same time, the administration has pulled back on the practice of issuing targets encouraging agencies to reduce their own buildings’ environmental impacts, notes Elizabeth Beardsley, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s senior policy counsel. “The federal government’s engagement on climate and trying to get all the sectors on a path was accelerating, and now it has really has slowed,” she tells AD PRO. “We’ve lost some momentum that we had.”

The administration’s 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was a potent symbol of its position on climate change on the international level. Numerous cities and states have since strengthened their own climate-related policies to meet international standards, but many remain woefully behind. In 2019, Trump replaced the existing Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which could actually increase pollution at many of the nation’s plants. Other moves include the EPA’s 2019 rule allowing for asbestos-containing products (well-known carcinogens) to be considered for future manufacturing, processing, and importing.

Fair Housing Rollbacks

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that there is now a shortage of 7 million affordable and available rental homes for extremely low-income Americans. Each year of his presidency, President Trump has proposed substantial cuts to federal affordable housing programs, only to be rebuffed by Congress. His administration’s most significant housing action has been the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s recent rollback of the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which required communities receiving federal funding for housing to analyze barriers to housing—particularly discriminatory practices—and create a plan to rectify them.

“We found it to be unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson, in a statement. Several housing and construction groups opposed the rollback, including the National Association of Realtors, Habitat for Humanity, the AIA, and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

The administration’s other significant plan to address the needs of low-income neighborhoods has been the passage of tax breaks in federally certified Opportunity Zones. The areas have seen new investment, but much of it, according to the New York Times, has gone to high-return projects including new hotels and luxury residential developments.

Infrastructure and Border Wall

Despite President Trump’s campaign promises to dedicate significant resources to repairing America’s infrastructure, the country remains behind in this sector. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) last Infrastructure Report Card, released just after Trump assumed office in 2017, gave the country a cumulative grade of D+, and while the Society’s next report card doesn’t come out until this coming March, “it’s hard to imagine that it’s changed dramatically,” says Casey Dinges, senior managing director at the ASCE. The Trump administration’s $200 billion plan, designed to ultimately leverage $1.5 trillion state, local, and private sector infrastructure investment, has been held up in Congress. The ASCE recommends a far more ambitious outlay of about $2 trillion in infrastructure spending (about $200 billion a year for 10 years), which Dinges says could improve the country’s report card score into the B’s.

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Meanwhile, the President’s rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act, intended to streamline approvals for infrastructure work, has been criticized by both environmental groups and the AIA. “Rolling back common-sense safeguards of taxpayer money, like avoiding projects in floodplains, is a mistake,” noted Sarah Dodge, AIA senior vice president of advocacy and relationships, in a statement. “The AIA opposes rollbacks of policies that endanger the built environment, and more importantly, endanger the humans that live in it.”

In January, the Trump administration won an appeals court case allowing it to tap into $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build its most publicized infrastructure project: the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. That money, along with additional funding from Congress, has allowed for the construction of about 300 miles of the project as of this month. Many architecture and design groups have spoken out against the project, and the Architecture Lobby and ADPSR (Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility) even called on design professionals to sign a public pledge last year condemning “all policies that use the built environment as an instrument of torture and oppression” and refusing to work on any project related to the administration’s policies on immigration.

Building Material Tariffs

In 2018 the Trump administration imposed a 25% tariff on international steel imports and a 10% tariff on international aluminum imports. (It had already levied a tax on Canadian softwood lumber.) These materials play a vital role in construction, from nails to I-beams.

The AIA has warned that these moves could “drastically increase the prices of many building materials specified by architects,” while the National Association of Home Builders called them a “$2.5 billion tax on housing.”

It’s difficult to gauge the true impact of tariffs on the profession, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of steel mill products rose 19% and aluminum mill shapes rose 6% between January 2018 and January 2019.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing in 2019 said that 12,700 jobs had been created or saved at steel and aluminum factories since the tariffs went into place. But according to Peterson Institute for International Economics data cited by the Washington Post, U.S. consumers and businesses were paying over $900,000 a year for each job saved or created by the tariffs, given the capital-intensive nature of steel and the relatively low number of steelworkers.

Prisons and Detention Centers

The President’s policies have led to an uptick in funding for detention projects. Though the Obama administration in 2016 announced that the Justice Department would phase out private prisons, President Trump has significantly ramped up its spending on such facilities (which generally have higher rates of violence, and staff who receive less training than their counterparts at public prisons, according to a 2012 report by the Sentencing Project).

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s immigration policies have led to a sharp increase in the number of immigrants and refugees being held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facilities. To accommodate the demand, 40 new facilities have opened since 2017. According to the American Immigration Council, “Noncitizens held in CBP facilities often report experiencing frigid temperatures; unsanitary conditions; a lack of bedding; and inadequate food, water, medical care, and hygiene items.”

The AIA, as well as a slew of human rights groups, have spoken out against the conditions of such detention centers. “The conditions as described by numerous media reports and congressional fact-finding missions to detention facilities make clear that these buildings are not designed to handle the sheer numbers of people in them nor do they sustain the health, safety, and welfare of their occupants, many of whom are women and children,” wrote the AIA in a 2019 statement. “Above all, the misuse of these buildings and the impact on occupants in them are contrary to our values as architects and as Americans.”

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.