Lack of stewardship over our public works has dealt the current generation a huge challenge. Without imagination and conviction in addressing this problem, the viability of the United States is threatened.

The unique qualities and successes of American culture are commonly credited to the ideals and values articulated by the Founding Fathers. If equality, opportunity, and democratic governance constitute the engine that propelled the United States from a simple agrarian culture to a world superpower, then distribution of advanced technology and the development of modern cities are the physical manifestations of those values. The profound innovations of the past 150 years in communications, energy, sanitation, transportation, buildings, and health have combined to make this country a paragon of modernity. It is hard to believe that in 1900, the average life expectancy was 45 years, a minority of residences had indoor plumbing or electric power, and telephones were not available to most of the population. The car and airplane had yet to be invented. Most roads were not paved.

Advances in technology since that era have led to nearly a doubling of our life expectancy and development of a physical infrastructure that provides access and convenience to the majority of the population. Both achievements are creating new challenges. The people who were born between 1920 and 1960 as well as the infrastructure built during that time are aging, creating unanticipated problems and costs. The social and economic burdens of an aging population with unforeseen longevity and associated medical problems are placing large demands on government spending. The social and economic burdens of an aging infrastructure are not as acutely perceived but also require a level of nurturing and care that does not appear in most public budgets.

No one would argue that increased human longevity or a robust public infrastructure is a negative development. Both are desirable attributes of advanced civilization. However, the market demand for improving human longevity is not matched by a demand for improving the longevity of the built environment. Indeed, the business sector responsible for creating and maintaining the built environment has taken the opposite tack of the health care and pharmaceutical industries. Instead of promoting a building life cycle of a century or more, many edifices built since 1970 were designed to endure for 30 years or less, and when their functional life expires, more problems will emerge.

Design Then and Now

The country’s inventory of buildings reflects evolving cultural standards. Corporations that once regarded their headquarters as statements of civic pride now occupy non-descript office parks in anonymous suburbs. Chrysler, Empire State, and Rockefeller constructed iconic buildings in the 1930s that are still key elements of the New York City skyline and were intended to endure for a century or more. Would anyone recognize the profile of the headquarters of Intel, Microsoft, or AOL? The office building is now an investment commodity, not a landmark. As a result, the quality of construction reflects a short-term corporate strategy rather than a long-term investment in the community. The cost of failure to maintain or upgrade poorly constructed buildings is difficult to quantify. Additionally, quality of life and sense of place are diminished when the most prevalent structures are container stores, subdivisions, office parks, and gas stations.

The act of building was once deeply rooted in community. In an earlier age, most buildings were designed and constructed by individuals who not only knew each other but knew each others’ families. Once transportation and communication developed to the point at which people became highly mobile, building construction became a business transaction between strangers. The ensuing emphasis on risk, insurance, and litigation reflects the lack of trust between participants in the construction process.

As the value of design diminishes, the role of the designer becomes more impersonal. Designers partition themselves away from means, methods, and techniques as well as many other aspects of the creation of a building. Perhaps this is a change that reflects the increased complexity of construction, but it has also changed the way designers relate to their work.

Does this new attitude anticipate a decline in our standard of living? What happened to cause a shift in national priorities from pride to indifference toward the built environment?

Highways

When the United States was first settled by Europeans in the 17th century, the most coveted real estate was arable land adjacent to a large river because rivers were the interstate highways of the pre-industrial era. Travel via roadways and overland travel in general was a risky business. It was not uncommon for colonists to prepare a will in advance of a lengthy journey over land.

The westward expansion, accomplished largely by wagon train, utilized Indian trails and river banks as navigable paths. The average wagon train traveled 10 miles per day. Road development and road maintenance evolved in an ad hoc manner depending on the priorities of each jurisdiction. The introduction of the automobile and its associated demand for petroleum created a new market for asphalt and macadam. Prior to 1900, many roads were paved with brick or cobblestone. The passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 heralded the apex of road design and construction in the United States.

President Eisenhower had a two-pronged goal: improving transportation and civil defense. The highway network was originally designed to facilitate the evacuation of American cities quickly. Originally estimated to cost $25 billion over 12 years, the actual cost was $425 billion over 35 years. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the economic prosperity of the past 50 years would have been possible without the interstate highway system.

From uncharted, rutted ground to sleek superhighways, the progress in transportation has been consistent until very recently. As state and local budgets shrink and the number of automobiles increases, the quality of roads and the efficiency of travel diminish.

Water

There are 800,000 miles of water pipe in the United States, and the country generates 12 trillion gallons of sewage annually. Up to 50 percent of treated water is lost between the plant and the tap due to leaky pipes. Some rural areas still rely on wooden pipes, over 100 years old, as part of their water supply network. The average age of water pipe in Washington, D.C., is 75 years.

Currently, there are 53,000 water supply entities in the United States. Almost 60 percent of them serve populations of less than 500, and approximately 1 percent serve populations of more than 100,000. The variation in approach, needs, capabilities, and performance is wide, making consistent water quality management difficult.

At the same time, water treatment and distribution problems are becoming more challenging because we are introducing new contaminants into our drinking water. The widespread use of pharmaceuticals results in measurable traces of drugs, particularly widely prescribed drugs such as estrogen and anti-depressants, in our drinking water. So far, there is no clearly understood human health risk, but wildlife has suffered. Scientists believe that the presence of male fish with ovaries in the Chesapeake Bay is due to estrogen in the water.

It is challenging for jurisdictions to generate public support to improve infrastructure. During the first week of January 2010, unusually cold weather descended on Jackson, Miss., resulting in more than 100 broken water mains. Schools and businesses were closed for the better part of a week, and residents were told to boil water, even for washing dishes. Toilets could not be flushed. Undoubtedly, substantial costs were incurred by the entire town. Interestingly, it was not the first time cold weather created a crisis in Jackson. Local news station WAPT said the city was “all but crippled by broken sewer and water lines that could not withstand the crushing contraction of the cold” after a 1989 ice storm. Yet the pipes remain unfixed.

Jackson’s problems may be unusually severe, but they are not unique. Water distribution pipes and other types of infrastructure are in disrepair, while some bridges and roads are crumbling in plain view.

Misconceptions about Money

U.S. infrastructure, which was the envy of the world only a few generations ago, has fallen victim to extraordinary neglect. It is in need of a whopping $2.2 trillion over the next five years, according to “America’s Infrastructure 2009 Report Card” prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers. ASCE gives the current infrastructure a dismal grade of D. Key components such as water pipes, wastewater, roads, and levees earn a D-. According to the report’s authors, “Crumbling infrastructure has a direct impact on our personal and economic health, and the nation’s infrastructure crisis is endangering our future prosperity.”

As the country struggles to develop environmentally sensitive processes, save energy, find ways to recycle waste products, and re-build a damaged economy, infrastructure upgrades are unwelcome diversions of attention and funds. Superhighway construction, which was once a symbol of emerging economic possibilities, is now more likely to be a belated effort to cope with urban sprawl and congestion.

In an era of economic stress, the issue of money looms large: $ 2.2 trillion is a huge sum, and because infrastructure improvement is part of public sector budgets, this number seems intimidating. However, the cost of failing to improve infrastructure is much larger. The burdens of poor infrastructure, because they are distributed among the general population, aren’t as obvious. Consider the following:

• The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated in 2006 that freight bottlenecks and delayed deliveries due to congested highways and inefficient rail and deep-water transportation systems cost the United States $200 billion annually.

• Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated in 2006 that $79 billion is lost annually due to power failures.

• ASCE estimates that Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost to the economy of $78.2 billion, or $710 per motorist. Poor road conditions cost motorists an additional $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs.

If losses from this limited list of insufficient infrastructure are $425 billion per year and $2.2 trillion will bring us to parity, the return on a $2.2 trillion investment in infrastructure will be a factor of four, assuming that the average life expectancy of infrastructure improvements is 20 years. This analysis does not include societal costs, which are hard to quantify but undermine the quality of life in this country and make the United States less competitive as a nation.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In many respects, successful infrastructure is required to avoid significant functional deterioration of buildings and the conveniences of modern culture. The success of a society is measured in part by the availability of public necessities and maintenance of public health. The viability of the United States is threatened on both fronts if the existing infrastructure isn’t consistently and steadily maintained.

The current generation faces a challenge that equals the one encountered by the Founding Fathers in the 1700s. The work confronting this generation is not the design of a new social structure but the maintenance and sustainment of the one that grew from the seeds planted in an earlier era. It is a new problem because sophisticated infrastructure did not exist in earlier eras, and the problems associated with its maintenance are approached on an ad hoc basis rather than with a global strategy.

The process of repairing or replacing infrastructure supports and facilitates the process of redefining our energy, waste management, and transportation policies. It requires imagination and a conviction that the future will be better than the past. The Americans who are aging in tandem with America’s infrastructure should leave a legacy that will support the wellbeing of many future generations: a planned and sustainable system for continuously supporting infrastructure and the built environment.

Barbara Golter Heller is the chief executive officer of Design + Construction Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that provides expertise in the areas of building industry technology and business process management. She is a leading authority on architectural and construction specifications, information management, and facilitating business process improvements through technology integration and organizational change. Golter Heller is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.