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The National Building Museum wants to be at the center of the climate change conversation

A rendering of Assemble Chicago, one of two case studies that will be presented as part of the National Building Museum’s “Climate ABC” programs. (National Building Museum/Aesthetica Studio/Studio Gang)

The National Building Museum wants to solve the climate crisis.

A longtime favorite of local families and professionals in the building trades, the Washington museum is emerging from the pandemic with a program to engage visitors with social issues that are central to their lives.

Climate change will be the subject of a virtual program called “Climate ABC (Action/Building/Community).” The topics will include reducing carbon emissions, regenerating urban landscapes, managing storm water and designing decarbonized developments. The idea is to educate the public, amplify the challenges and celebrate achievements.

The choice of climate is obvious: The construction industry is responsible for nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions, and it must be part of the solution, says Aileen Fuchs, the museum’s president and executive director.

“It is one of the defining issues of our time, and it cannot be solved or addressed without the participation of the building industries. It simply can’t,” Fuchs said last week, noting the United Nations summit underway in Glasgow, Scotland, this month. “We are going to contribute to substantive solutions by the kinds of conversations we are going to convene and by the people we are going to inspire.”

As a cultural and educational institution, the museum is the perfect space for hashing out solutions and inspiring visitors to take action, Fuchs said.

“We can bring more people and more perspectives into this conversation to make actual positive change,” she said. “The hallmark of a great museum experience is that you see something about your world in a different way. We can do so many things: We can have a program, we can have an experience, we can have a talk, we can have a walk. Our medium is so fun that way.”

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“Climate ABC” begins Nov. 16 with “Reinventing Cities” in partnership with C40, a network of mayors of some of the world’s largest cities who are confronting the climate crisis. Led by consulting curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino, an architect and director of the Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, the first event will look at how building developments can reduce their carbon footprint. Two case studies, one in Chicago and one in Paris, will be presented, and there will be discussion and a Q&A, Piedmont-Palladino said.

“Our goal over the course of the year is to zero in on subtopics and bring in designers, community members and policymakers to say, ‘Here is the big question, here are some ways people are tackling it and here are the lessons we can draw from them,’ ” she said.

“The focus is trying to look at the people doing great work, the organizations framing the problems, and show that it is happening in communities all over the place. I hope everyone listening will say, ‘Hmm, I can find a situation like this in my community, in my region.’ ”

Each public program will be followed by a roundtable for industry professionals. The discussion on reducing carbon emissions will be held Nov. 23.

“Climate ABC” is the latest project in the museum’s effort to connect its mission to everyday life. Since the spring, it has hosted the Gun Violence Memorial Project, a collaboration between MASS Design Group and artist Hank Willis Thomas that explores the power of design to heal.

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It recently opened “The Wall/El Muro,” a year-long multimedia exhibit that examines the history and growth of the barrier on the U.S. border with Mexico. In the works for five years and delayed 18 months by the pandemic, “The Wall/El Muro” examines immigration law and barrier construction, and it uses photographs, maps and graphics to spotlight the changing policies at the border.

“Our border looks as it does because we built it that way,” said curator Sarah A. Leavitt. “It’s up to us to think about how to fix it, how to make changes.”

The exhibition, in English and Spanish, is intended to raise questions and spark conversations, museum officials said.

“The next time you hear something about border policy, or maybe it’s become chatter and it’s something you skip, you might stop and think about it differently, because you hadn’t put a face to it or you hadn’t thought about how a wall affects ecology and the environment,” Fuchs said.

Fuchs came to the museum in May as its fifth director and, at 41, its youngest. Since 2017, she had led the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island in New York, which encompasses 26 buildings, 14 botanical gardens, 10 acres of wetlands, a farm and a contemporary art center. Before that, she was executive director of exhibits and programs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp., where she established and led the museum and visitors center, curated exhibitions and created public art projects at the former shipbuilding site.

Six months after moving to Washington, Fuchs is presiding over a new exhibit, the launch of a virtual series and the opening of a visitors center. The three-room center showcases a small segment of the museum’s collection and introduces the different parts, from water and road works to public parks, that fall under what it calls “the built environment.”

“That ‘built environment’ term doesn’t ring true, or doesn’t ring clear, for broad audiences. But when you say the places you live, work and play, then people go, ‘Oh, okay, that’s everything that matters to me,’ ” Fuchs said. “The way things have been built, the power of design and construction, these are incredible topics and tools that can and will change our world.”

Fuchs describes the changes at the museum as “an evolution, not a revolution” built around four areas of focus: equity, environment, innovation and wonder. The approach comes at a perfect time, she adds, as the museum and the world emerge from the global pandemic.

Whether the pandemic shrank your living space to a small apartment, restricted your use of public transportation or reminded you of the value of your local park, it has brought everyone’s attention to the spaces they inhabit, she said.

“People have a relationship with public space, even if they wouldn’t frame it that way, in a totally new way, and that makes the National Building Museum absolutely ripe to attract more people who care about building beautiful, great, just, equitable places,” Fuchs said. “And climate is at the center of that.”

Climate ABC: Reinventing Cities Tickets to the live, online conversations are available at wapo.st/nbmclimateabc. Ten days after each program, free recordings will be available at nbm.org.

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More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

Have a question about climate change or climate solutions? Share it with us. You can also sign up for our newsletter on climate change, energy and environment.

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