Follow the supply chains of architecture and you’ll find not just product manufacturers but also environmental polluters and elusive networks of financial power and political influence.

In the corporate literature of Georgia-Pacific, the slogan “What You Don’t See Matters” refers to the branded building products — DryPly, Ply-Bead, Plytanium, PlyFrame, etc. — that are used in countless light construction projects. In the larger contexts of industrial-capitalist supply chains and environmental sustainability, the phrase takes on new meaning. “What you don’t see” in the production of these plywood components includes four tons of sub-bituminous coal leaving a single mine in Wyoming every second; 22 tons of coal burning at a single power plant in Georgia every minute; and, 62,000 tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere every day as a result of these processes. Needless to say, it “matters.”

Here I would like to argue that it matters in particular for the profession of architecture: that any full accounting of environmental, economic, or social sustainability has got to consider not merely individual buildings and sites but also the intricate product and energy supply chains that are crucial to their construction. Equally important are the elusive and often secretive networks of financial power and political influence that are underwritten by the billion-dollar construction industry.

Follow the Coal

It is revealing, for instance, to consider the extractive operations, transport networks, and material transformations that must be activated in order to produce a piece of plywood. The place to start is the Powder River Basin, a landscape of rolling grasslands in northeast Wyoming that is home to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine, the largest surface coal mine in the world. In 2014, coal production in the United States topped one billion tons, of which 400 million came from the Powder River Basin, and 120 million from North Antelope Rochelle. 1 Resource extraction of this magnitude requires not just sophisticated technology and specialized knowledge; it requires also  the historical and cultural conception of resources as valuable. Here is an early assessment by the United States Geological Survey, from 1883, when the country was emerging as a modern industrial power, and coal mining fueled the national economy.

It is a somewhat trite but true statement that coal is the most important of all mineral substances in its bearing upon the material prosperity of any country, and it is none the less familiar that coal is the principal mineral product of the United States. … This country is now second on the list of coal producers of the world, and it is a question of no very distant time when it shall have achieved the first place in point of annual output. It possesses within its borders a larger coal-bearing territory than any other (at least with the possible exception of China, whose coal is undetermined), and the production will no doubt continue to grow. 2

Follow the supply chains of architecture and you’ll find not just product manufacturers but also environmental polluters and elusive networks of financial power and political influence.

The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant, located on 3,500 acres in Monroe County, Georgia, is the largest coal-fired power plant in the United States. Each year, Plant Scherer burns nearly twelve million tons of coal, all of which comes from the Powder River Basin, more than two million from North Antelope alone. 3 The plant, which opened in 1982, is also the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the nation; Environment America has labeled it America’s “dirtiest power plant.” 4 The North Antelope coal that arrives at Plant Scherer is transported from Wyoming to Tennessee via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, the largest rail freight network in North America; there it’s transferred to the Norfolk Southern line for the trip to Georgia. As the train approaches the power plant, the tracks gradually rise and the train makes a grand loop in front of the facility. Once elevated, the hopper cars release their cargo from below, much like the silos that loaded them. While on this loop, the train does not stop, depositing a constant stream of fuel into what is known as “the pit.” John McPhee captures this scene in his book Uncommon Carriers , where he describes “a long yard with five parallel tracks, where five coal trains could, if necessary, be parked, or ‘staged,’ waiting to advance and drop their coal at Plant Scherer.” He continues:

From this immense “infield,” the million tons of coal are conveyed into pulverizers that crush it to a fine powder. This powder is then blown into a central furnace where it burns at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, converting water into steam that powers four generators. At full capacity, Plant Scherer consumes 8,000 gallons of water per minute to produce 3,600 megawatts of power, or approximately four billion gallons of water and 20 million megawatt hours of electricity annually. 6 One of the largest consumers of electricity in the state, and in fact in the whole United States, is Georgia-Pacific. 7 Among its many manufacturing facilities is Madison Plywood, about 50 miles north of Plant Scherer.

Today, mining at North Antelope begins with a fleet of bulldozers scraping the vegetation and topsoil from the gently undulating landscape and exposing the gray loamy soil beneath. Draglines remove millions of tons of overburden, which are then transported by haul trucks to the edges of the deepening pit. When the coal seam is exposed, electric shovels move the coal from its prehistoric bed to the trucks, which take it to the crusher. After being pulverized into two-inch pieces, the coal is put on a conveyer belt and deposited into storage silos. Once the coal is purchased and orders are processed, the coal flows into the hopper cars of freight trains which pass through the belly of the silo. One of the largest orders of sub-bituminous coal from North Antelope comes from Plant Scherer, more than 1,800 miles away.