Q&A with Dr. Kwesi Daniels

By LeAnne Harvey

Posted August 9, 2021

On July 21 and 22nd, we hosted our 5th annual New Gravity Housing Conference – Accelerated Edition, with Passive House Accelerator.

We kicked things off with a Q&A with Dr. Kwesi Daniels, Head of Architecture Department at Tuskegee University and Jeremy Avellino, founder and principal of Bright Common Architecture & Design. They discussed the challenges of addressing social justice and climate change simultaneously, the role of architects in the fight for social justice, and the importance of embracing change.  

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.

Jeremy Avelino: In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin sunk deep, inspiring me to work first at confronting the racism inside myself, then inside my profession and the Passive House movement. I realized that, I need to be more intentional so I don't fall into the status quo privilege that comes along with being me, which is generally a well-meaning, very busy, educated, cisgender, white male architect. 

While this work is challenging, I have a lot of hope. Our Passive House and green building communities are made up of the very people who understand the impossibility of climate change and actually want to do something about it. We are the subversives who are turning the built environment towards a climate change adapted future towards housing for all. But if we don't see that the source of carbon emissions has as much to do with systemic racism that it does with material choices or energy use, we're bound to miss the mark.  

So I know in my heart that we are doing something right together. We're taking a movement that was largely focused on custom zero energy homes for the wealthy and expanding it to millions of square feet of the healthiest affordable housing in the country. We're helping out the most vulnerable in our society, but we must do better and that's what I want to explore.  

The New Gravity Housing Conference is about how our work as Passive House and affordable housing practitioners can be more intersectional and actually extend the work of the civil rights movement. I'll be the first to tell you I don't know how to do that exactly, but I know we can’t get there alone. This conference is an attempt to do it together so I reached out to Dr. Kwesi Daniels to share his thoughts. 

Dr. Kwesi Daniels: Thank you all for this opportunity to participate in this really awesome conversation. This idea of new gravity, what does that mean? You know, we think about the forces that are at play when we deal with climate change, income inequality, housing, and more. COVID has shown us that we have the ability to change and those of us who really embrace it have the opportunity to bring about a new paradigm for the world. If we think about what the civil rights movement was really about, it was about us coming together as humans and recognizing the inherent humanity in all of us. So I'm excited about this conversation.  

Jeremy: Great! Let's do this man! The New Gravity Housing conference is about expanding Passive House into the affordable housing industry, and primarily the low income housing tax credit industry and primarily through the vehicle of multifamily housing. What does affordability mean to you?  

Kwesi: My time with the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (NJHMFA) was an eye opener. When we see affordable housing, at least affordable housing in communities that I lived in, it was always the housing that nobody wanted to go to, or “the projects”. At NJHMFA I had a chance to see housing that even I wished I could move into. It was amazing being the Green Homes coordinator where we were running dual energy programs and new financing models. That's the power of working for a bank – you get to develop new financial products for affordable housing with green retrofits attached to.  

Prior to that, I would not have believed that the people at the lowest ends of the spectrum of society would have access to a quality standard of living. What it really opened up for me was realizing our idea of affordability is flawed. Affordability is supposed to be half of the area median income and everything else is supposed to be market rate. Well, that's kind of problematic because there's a strong racial undertone. It determines what sections of our society gain access to housing, and what sections are only relegated to affordable housing. The vast majority of society should be able buy a house. If we continue to only sell houses to the highest bidder, we are maintaining income inequality. As somebody who's lived in Philly, we know that that paradigm is shifting so rapidly and this needs to be addressed.  

Jeremy: When we first met, I invited you out to one of our deep energy retrofit sites. Can you share your experience walking through that project and how that opened you up to new possibilities?  

As a sustainability practitioner, I nerd out over this stuff man. I had studied Passive House for a long time but had never had a chance to walk through one. I was blown away – I couldn't believe it was as transformative as it was.  

There was snow on the ground and I was wearing a heavy jacket – we walked into a gutted rowhouse [it was insulated but not sheetrocked and it didn't have a heating system in yet] and it was warm inside! As a social scientist, I'm asking the workers to tell me what it's like to work in this environment. They said they’re not getting sick as often and it’s not as cold as it would have been in most projects in the wintertime. I was honestly so impressed that I did my first Facebook live at the site. That's what it's supposed to be about when you when you engage in a space that's transformative. You're supposed to stop what you're doing and share it with the world. And in this case, I have continued to share because everyone should have access, regardless of income.  

Jeremy: Absolutely. You’ve said in the past that “Architects are all trained similarly, but we don't all address the social aspect. We design jails, but don't ask why we need them. We design schools, but we don't ask why they fail.”  Can you expand on that?  

Kwesi: Definitely. We have this belief that if I just create, I’ll build an environment that everybody is going to benefit from. If I throw money at it, that will fix the problem. As architects, we're trained to walk into a space and measure conditions – you do site analysis, building analysis, land surveys – but then we go online and we look at demographics that are 50,000 feet up in the air. Most of the time, we don't actually engage with people unless the client has told us to do so. We don't believe that the user is as important as the owner, so we don't engage with the culture that's engaging in that space. We don't understand that there are social implications to our work.  

When I think about the work that I did in Philadelphia for my dissertation, I was looking at the social impact of Drexel University's expansion. There are massive amounts of developers that are taking advantage of a new market that is emerging and we say that we're being sustainable. The Brundtland Commission spoke about it - if you are going to build sustainably, it can't compromise future generations from meeting their needs. Well, if I'm creating this space that only a select few people can experience, and everyone else gets pushed out as a result of that, then I'm being a social engineer. I'm maintaining the social inequality that created these environments. It's no mystery why the population declined from the 1950s all the way up to 2000 in Philadelphia. Yet from 2000 on, the population has started to increase, but we're also seeing local residents being pushed further and further out from the city center.  

We want to say that, as architects, ‘I'm doing good because I'm sustainable – I have LEED behind my name or I'm a Passive House practitioner or any other green term that I want to use.’ But we don't recognize that we're agents of a system that creates the inequality. We do a really good job of dealing with economic conditions, and now we do a great job of dealing with environmental conditions, but, honestly, we suck when it comes to dealing with the social challenges.  

Jeremy: That's a good segue into this next question, which is a quote from Jonathan Moody of Moody Nolan. “I am concerned around the desire to return to a ‘sense of normalcy.’ Nobody would ever say, ‘I'm excited to be average again.’ It carries an uneasy undertone that people want to get comfortable, to let go of the discomfort of last year and not learn from it. But then all the [actions and conversations about diversity and inclusion] become a part of ‘last year’, a time that many people can't wait to move past. I worry that the momentum will fizzle or die if we lose focus on the great things that were started – and there's still so much to do. And the problem is that we won't see the [impact] immediately”. How would you respond to that?  

Kwesi: We've become a society that is comfortable with things happening fast and we forget so quickly. We cannot afford to say that everything that's happened right before the pandemic and during the pandemic was a part of this pandemic period. If we do, we miss out on a great opportunity. There's this phrase that says that you can't teach old dogs new tricks, right? As Department Head of Architecture, I had a chance to work with some of our most senior faculty and they taught me new tricks. The entire world has transitioned to recognizing that we can be very comfortable with massive amounts of change.  Those of us who picked up on that – we're flying. We're learning how to engage within this virtual space, in the physical space, and to connect the dots.  

Within the last three to five years, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve had to be comfortable with the reality that black people have stood up and said, ‘I'm not going to tolerate these conditions any longer.’   

I turn on the television and see George Floyd, as you noted. Here is a human being whose murder was recorded while citizens watched. And they could not advance because the system was protecting the officer who was killing him. We all got to watch that for eight minutes and acknowledge the inhumanity of racism. So we cannot afford to wrap that up and say, ‘well, that was last year's thing and when 2022 rolls around, we're going to be back to normal.’ No, we can't be back to normal. Because the truth is that there was a mission that we were supposed to pick up on, where Doctor King left off, which was the creation of a beloved community.  

Unfortunately, we can see through policies and through the actuality of how people are living, that that beloved community did not happen. We went to sleep after Doctor King was assassinated. We need to acknowledge that, if we really had reached that point, we wouldn't have the protests and the social unrest in the streets that will continue if we don't do the work.  

Jeremy: Why do you think it is so hard to do climate change and justice work together?  

Kwesi: There's a lot of ways you can peel that apart. I'm in the South right now and there are many that don't even acknowledge climate change as a reality. But it’s easier to acknowledge the impact of human centric development on the planet. If you compare a black top with a forested area, there's a clear difference in the temperature, which is known as the heat Island effect. And if you remove the things that are supposed to absorb heat and rain and place hardscape over top of that, it's not hard to imagine the impact on the environment. There are things we can see. 

It's a little bit more difficult to see the justice related components. As Robert Bullard points out, why is it that African American communities are placed in high pollution zones? Why are communities of color placed in environments where there is no quality food, no quality housing, and the roads are torn up, or the sanitation barely works. And we want to believe that the people living there are the ones who are responsible for the condition that they're in? Now that doesn't absolve people of individual responsibilities, but we have to recognize the systems at play. We can point to the policies that created these conditions. 

I own my house and, as a result, I have been able to grow my wealth over time. But if you’re living in subsidized housing or an apartment, there is no wealth generation for you, but for the person who owns it. The truth is, the people who own were subsidized by the government. We have the documentation to demonstrate that, but it's still hard to fathom that these are the realities that people live in.  

So, when we look at climate and we look at justice, they both should be our number one priority for the future. Can you possibly do climate change work without doing justice work? What's the blind spot there? The people who are most impacted are people at the lowest the lowest echelon of society. We already know that as you have increases in temperature, the people who are most affected are the most marginalized. The people who cannot afford to hide out in their house because they do not have an air conditioning system or have to work outside because they don't have a job that allows them to sit inside at a desk, these are the people who are going to be most impacted. And that's not an individual thing. That is something that, as a society, we control.  

And that's what I find valuable about Passive House – it says if you meet these particular standards and are able to address these energy conditions, then we can reduce the energy costs of the inhabitants. People who are low income are spending 30 to 40 to 50% of their income on utility bills per month. Through Passive House, we can reduce energy costs down to $25 a month. That's a game changer. If that person is able to stack that savings, they don't have to ask the question of whether I am going to feed my children today or I'm going to go to work today because I cannot afford to pay for the gas to do both.  

Challenges that have been rooted within racialized policies from the 1940s, from the establishment of the Federal Housing Authority, all the way up to now, need to be addressed. When you have a system like Passive House, where you can improve lives from an economic standpoint and a quality of living standpoint, then all you have to ask yourself is, ‘Am I doing the work to assure that more people have access to this type of space?’ That's how you know whether or not you are doing the work for social change or you're being an agent of the system and continuing to make spaces that are inequitable.  

Jeremy: Thank you. You and I talk a lot about how sustainability has this opportunity to do some amazing things, and this is the crew that really believes that, but we need to be honest about how we got here and who has access. What is your vision for sustainability?  

That it does what it says it's supposed to do. My vision is that I look back in 30 years and I can say that we made sustainability obsolete. How about we put ourselves out of business? Let us become dinosaurs that future generations talk about.  


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