Satpal Kaur: The Hidden Story of Building Injustice

Satpal Kaur, a high-performance building designer, activist, and Building Design + Construction’s 40 under 40 award winner, joined this week’s Happy Hour to speak about “the hidden story of building injustice”. She began her talk by pointing out an interesting historical conundrum: as building technology has evolved to increase occupant comfort, the human comfort threshold has decreased accordingly, resulting in increasingly greater energy needs in order to meet the shrinking window of acceptability. Kaur segued from there to the vulnerability of certain demographic groups, as well as the unequal distribution of risks from climate change among the populace. In an interactive discussion, Kaur asked the audience to respond to questions about who comes to mind when thinking about vulnerable people, who are we designing for, how do we achieve design equality, and what makes a design equitable.

Historical discriminatory practices—especially redlining—have led to spatial patterns of injustice in New York City and across the country, as highlighted by Kaur using maps displaying racial demographics, median household income, access to health insurance, and several other factors overlayed across a map of New York City. People of color, those living below the poverty line, and people without health insurance were statistically much more likely to be located in former and current industrial and manufacturing zones, exposing these residents to toxic chemicals. Many of these neighborhoods are also located along the water, making them particularly vulnerable to hurricane storm surges and sea level rise. Kaur advocated for retrofitting affordable housing to high-performance standards, giving examples of projects she was involved in, where below- and at-market rate housing was designed and built or retrofitted with novel ideas about how these projects can look and perform. It takes removing preconceived notions and radical thinking in order to create well-built affordable housing, but as Kaur reminded everyone, besides being a just thing to do, vulnerability connects everyone, and when the most vulnerable are not protected, everyone is affected, making this a smart choice all-around.

Chat transcript here.

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