The AIA 2030 Commitment: Are We There Yet?

Who doesn’t like good news once in a while?

With this post, I’d like to diverge a bit from reporting on Bergmeyer’s progress towards completing our first year of AIA 2030 Commitment compliance.

A cheer went up last week when Environmental Building News posted an article titled “2030 Carbon Targets May Be Within Reach”. The article linked to a report from Architecture 2030 that laid the provocative claim “Mission Accomplished? Not Just Yet, But We Have the Momentum”.  

The upshot: energy use in the US building sector is increasing much more slowly than anyone anticipated. The 2011 Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) prepared by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) showed that across the US, actual building energy use in 2011 was almost 70% less than what it was predicted to be in 2005.

The report gives some credit for this rosier-than-expected picture to a slow-down in construction. But considerable credit is also given to more energy efficient building design and – one could imply although it’s not stated – the work of Architecture 2030 to mainstream 2030 thinking. And although the report contains appropriate cautions about resting on laurels and the need to re-double efforts, it also throws several specific strategies out there as ways to keep these reductions on target. The report concludes that if we (architects, builders, owners) make widespread use of “best available technologies”, a carbon-neutral building sector by 2030 could be had.

Combine that with a story on NPR this week (March 22, 2012) that said US gasoline use is now declining. Howard Gruenspecht of the EIA was quoted as saying we have already passed “peak demand” for gasoline in 2007 and both demand and price are downhill from here.

I’m an incontrovertible optimist. Mister Glass Half Full. And this certainly sounds like the best news we climate-change activist architects have heard in a long time. Almost makes up for the fact that my ski season has been a colossal dud. But really, this report makes me nervous. When I look at the challenges we architects face, I see a roomful of surly 600-pound gorillas that aren’t being acknowledged. Nobody’s head is in the sand, but in my humble opinion there are some major hairy obstacles out there that we (hard-working architects trying to think sustainably within the practice) just don’t know how to deal with. Ferinstance:

The status quo of the “green team”. I hope this isn’t the case where you work, but my subjective and unscientific conclusion is that sustainable design is still considered to be a specialized expertise in a lot of firms. Sustainable thinking is not pervasive. We all have our LEED AP’s and have projects that are LEED Certified, but if our clients don’t ask for it it’s business as usual: just meet code. You have to sympathize with this approach to an extent. Architecture is a tough business. Just keeping up with the competition is a considerable challenge. Getting outside your standard corporate mission to help transform an industry and address the crisis of global climate change is a very tall order.

Existing buildings. This may be myopic and urban-centric, but the reality is that more and more of our work is not new “ground-up” construction. It’s done inside existing buildings, either as tenant work or through adaptive-reuse. And yes, we know that the greenest building is one that already exists, but when I look out my window I see millions of square feet of building that are a). generating rent for their owners somewhere and b). not very energy efficient. Don’t get me wrong. I live in Boston. I love old buildings. But making those existing commercial buildings built in the 60s and 70s substantially more energy efficient is another very tall order.

How can we make deep-energy retrofits feasible in existing commercial buildings? The Chapter 179D Building Energy Efficiency Tax Deduction? A great idea but not nearly ambitious enough to move the market.

Fear of progressive energy codes.  The best way to stop a conversation in a real estate networking event in this town is to say the words “stretch code”. In 2007, the City of Boston passed a first-in-the-nation zoning ordinance requiring all projects going through major project design review to meet the conditions of LEED Gold. From the outcry, you’d think we had just outlawed glass and air-conditioning. With the Green Communities Act in 2008 came our adoption of the International Energy Conservation Code. Outrage ensued. And then in 2009, communities in Massachusetts were allowed to vote to adopt a slightly more stringent building energy code (AKA the “stretch code”) as a condition of becoming a Green Community and getting funding for things like local sustainability initiatives.

You thought the Red Sox and Yankees were bitter rivals? Professional battle lines were drawn. Those of us with bruises from stretch code cage matches now look at the International Green Construction Code (the “silver bullet” of codes) and swallow hard. This is gonna be a really tough sell.

Distributed generation regulation and a not-smart grid. You can’t get to net-zero energy building without renewable energy. And you can’t get to a carbon-neutral society without utility-scaled distributed generation and a “smart” power distribution grid with uniform interconnection standards. With the passage of the Massachusetts Green Communities Act in 2008, small-scale (up to 2 megawatt) distributed generation (DG) was finally made legal! In 2008! And when you zoom out and look at the New England region (about the size of the state of Washington) each one of our six states have different DG regs. Then within each state is a crazy-quilt of public and municipal utilities, each of which has different interconnection standards.

And the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) in the 6th edition of its white paper “Connecting to the Grid”, leads with a somber disclaimer that distribution-level grid interconnection issues are and will remain within the regulatory control of the states. Is this any way to run a renewable-energy railroad? I hope there are some really smart people working on this Gordian knot right now. It’s the single biggest obstacle that this architect can see, and the solution is wa-a-ay above my pay grade.  

But I said I’m an optimist, right? I’m in full agreement with all the redoubling-our-effort strategies in the aforementioned Architecture 2030 report. Yes, push for advanced building energy codes like the IgCC. Yes, use the Seattle 2030 District as a model for excellent municipal policy. Yes, expand the fabulous AIA+2030 Professional Education Series. And yes, please sign the AIA 2030 Commitment. We can and should do all these things.

But we won’t get to true societal sustainability one building at a time.

What we do – design – connects us with everything else in the world. To be more effective stewards of the earth, we (architects) need to connect to the strange and seemingly immutable forces that regulate, inhibit, and incentivize higher-functioning architecture. And if those forces are outside our core expertise or our usual scope of work, then we better figure out how to connect to them – and change them – or our efforts will come up short. 

Enough of that. Back to work on Bergmeyer’s Sustainability Action Plan. 2030, here we come.

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One Comment on “The AIA 2030 Commitment: Are We There Yet?”

  1. Mike Davis FAIA says:

    By popular demand: For my last post, “Finding the Rudder”, the architect in the story was Natasha Espada, AIA, LEED, a Senior Associate at Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Boston. Thanks, Natasha!


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