Our Cumulative Achievement

Every time it rains heavily enough to make noise on the window – which is not very often in L.A. – I am reminded of standing on the roof of my house with my long-suffering real estate agent the day we closed escrow.  The roof had acknowledged leaks, and we were hurriedly spreading a tarp in a fierce downpour.  That was the day I learned what a tough job roofs do every day, the moment I really began to appreciate what it means to have a roof over your head.

At a time of year when thoughts often turn towards both appreciation for the blessings we’ve got, and assessment of what we’ve achieved, I would like to put in a word of praise for the blessing and the achievement represented by the Built Environment.  It’s hard to find a better example of the method by which the human race grows as a species, and how far we’ve taken that growth.

We grow by being able to accumulate knowledge and capabilities across generations, by being able to quantify and record what we learn, and transmit it beyond the span of our individual years.  From the time when people first realized that caves weren’t going to be enough, we have been accumulating the skill of transforming our environment to adapt it to us, the short-circuit of the evolutionary process.

For an illuminating example of this achievement, one could look to the great pyramid at Chichen Itza, the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo.  Standing 98 feet tall, it is actually a shell built over a previous pyramid, which itself was built over the original pyramid.

I once visited the inner pyramid.  It’s not on the regular tour, but we had heard it existed.  We were standing outside the pyramid when my wife saw a park employee going into a little door under the most fully-restored of the four grand staircases.  She ran up and asked if that was the way to the inner pyramid, and he agreed to take us up.

Within the door, we were in a dimly lit, low-ceilinged stone chamber.  The steps of the previous pyramid stretched upwards like a narrow, rising tunnel.  The stone treads were worn as deep as an inch in some places.  The walls sweated with little blobs of moisture that glistened in the light of the bare 40 watt bulbs strung along the ceiling.

We raced up the stairs like they were on fire, tremendously excited by this weirdly threatening place.  We arrived gasping at the top to realize that, while the Mexican government had done a great thing excavating this path and stringing the electric lights, they might have been well advised to install ventilation, as well.  We already used up most of the oxygen in the place. 

Soon our gasping turned to gaping.  Before us stood a large sculpture of a jaguar (one of the gods worshipped at this site during one of its several changes of ownership), colored bright red, with three large stylized spots made of a green stone that looked like jade.  Its back was flattened in a way that strongly suggested it was a sacrificial altar.

The tiny chamber we stood in had once been the exposed top platform of the previous pyramid.  The tiny room in front of us was the previous inner temple. I reflected how much grander the current top platform and inner temple – above our heads – were, how the capabilities of these people to move, shape and build with stone had advanced from one civilization to the next. Within this man-made stone cavern was the reflection of one large page in the story of civilization, written over hundreds of years.  Then, the page turned, but the building that characterized it lived on.

I looked upwards and realized we were beneath tons of stone, and I had no idea what was holding them up.  Yet I had confidently taken my life in my hands and raced up that staircase in complete faith that whatever held them up was going to perform as expected.

Not to belabor an obvious symbol, but all of the built environment is constructed on top of the achievements of the past.

One could examine the latest and greatest architectural and engineering achievements to understand how far we’ve come.  A modern building has so many different kinds of technology that make it perform.  It protects its occupants and contents against wind, water, fire, and earthquake. It provides locations for all manner of human endeavor.  It modifies the (interior) weather.  It gives light in the darkness.  It has hot and cold running water.  It transmits communications.  And there are so many levels of concept embodied in it that allow it to serve the functions required of it.  It is logical.  It is expressive.  It offers the visitor a multi-sensory experience.  It creates functional spaces.  It provides confidence, comfort, safety, and security.

I would suggest, however, that perhaps the most illuminating example of what “cumulative achievement” really means, in terms of the built environment, is the network of standards that have been developed for construction and for building materials.  Those standards represent the length, breadth, and extraordinary depth of our knowledge, but that’s not all.  They represent our commitment to accumulating, quantifying, and transmitting our knowledge and hard-won achievements.  They further represent our commitment to our fellow human beings, to provide reliable structures for today and the future. After all, we pass along not only the knowledge, but the buildings themselves.  The inner pyramid at Chichen Itza, for example, is over 1500 years old.

Construction standards are, I believe, our most sincere expression of pride in our work, our determination as an industry to do the right thing on every project, and to continue thousands of years of advancement.

People who work in the construction industry are part of one of the signal endeavors of our species.  We have a right to be proud.  We have a responsibility to be careful, thorough, and to work by the rules, because we are, quite literally, building the world.