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The Need – and Opportunity – For a Rural Renaissance Has Never Been Greater

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News via AP

Have you ever wondered why so many school buildings throughout the nation lack windows? This architectural style -- if it can even be called that -- traces its origins to the 1970s when Americans were becoming increasingly energy conscious during a long embargo by oil-producing countries.


But while buildings like that may have resulted in energy savings, it’s hard to argue that windowless buildings provide the best environment for learning. Indeed, studies have shown that a window with a view of nature can help maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, promote physical growth, reduce anxiety, and – yes -- foster learning.

Aging infrastructure is a common challenge of many school districts across the country, particularly urban and rural areas, where resources are already stretched thin. In fact, the US Governmental Accountability Office national survey estimated 54 percent of public school districts “need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools.”

But the problem with aging infrastructure is hardly limited to schools. The pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on a grim reality in middle America: many of the buildings we spend most of our lives in – office buildings, apartment complexes, and so forth – are old and sorely in need of modernization. Homes built decades ago don’t meet modern health or other standards and could greatly benefit from new research and technology seeking to cure so-called “sick buildings.” 

This reality has been driven home as businesses and communities grapple to reconfigure many of these old structures to adjust to health threats, either from something as big as COVID or as small as bad ventilation. With people gradually returning to their normal routines as communities across the country re-open, we should seize this moment to reimagine, reshape and upgrade the spaces around us.


Indeed, we have an opportunity to field-test new technologies -- and create new markets for jobs in the process. This could mean investing in touchless technologies -- including voice-activated elevators, automatic doors and hands-free light switches – to contain the spread of diseases in public places. It could mean introducing partitions into open office spaces. It could mean installing ventilation systems to clear contamination from the air. Or it could mean installing futuristic, self-disinfecting bathrooms.

Perhaps nothing underscores the urgency of the situation than the deteriorating state of housing stock throughout rural America. Anyone who doubts that should consider that of all homes in rural America, 63 percent were found to be 30 years old or more in one study from 2013. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a disproportionate amount of the nation’s occupied substandard housing is located in rural areas, where 1.5 million homes are considered either moderately or severely substandard, according to the Housing Assistance Council. Furthermore, more than 30 percent of the nation’s housing units lacking hot and cold piped water are in rural and small-town communities. 

So the need for modernization is no academic matter – and leaders in communities like ours can either muddle through or take this unprecedented moment to advance existing buildings into healthier 21st Century spaces. 


Now, all this is happening as so many city dwellers flee for the greener pastures of suburban, exurban, and rural America. Millions of Americans moved out of rotting cities during the last year and a half, notably New York – bringing with them both the need for housing and an fresh influx of capital. This is after President Trump successfully brought high-speed Internet to rural America, so companies could outsource within their own countries.

Both the need and the opportunity for a Rural Renaissance has never been greater. 

One group that is leading the charge on a 21st Century rebuild is the International WELL Building Institute, an organization that administrates the WELL Building Standard and the WELL Heath Safety Rating.  Two programs that help guide architects, building owners, operators employers and others to help make buildings healthier for the people inside. Their research covers everything from air quality? to ?work productivity, from the effect of? daylight on cognitive capabilities ?to, of course, the?coronavirus. The goal is to guide architects and others seeking to make sick buildings a thing of the past – those marred by poor ventilation, inadequate lighting, and cumbersome floor plans. 

Likewise, a handful of high-tech companies are entering the construction industry and potentially transforming it with the promise of shortened project schedules and lower costs. With innovations like 3D construction technology, these companies can provide overdue solutions at a time when the average cost of building a single-family home has ballooned by more than 15 percent after inflation.


Of course, these are just a few ways that we can harness technology to make the spaces that we live and work in safer and more comfortable. But none of this replaces the need for insightful planning, and there is no time like the present to get started.

Kim Coleman is a former Utah State Representative, Planning Commissioner and Founder/Director of Monticello Academy Charter School. She is currently the co-founder and Executive Director of the Children First Education Fund scholarship granting organization.

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