Urban bike sharing companies like Hubway and CitiBike are all over American cities. Zipcar is so widely visible it’s almost a generic term. For vacationers, “Aribnb” has taken couch-surfing to a whole new level. Have you heard of NeighborGoods yet? Got a ladder? Need a ladder? How about Sidecar? “Share a ride with someone awesome”. This idea has traction.
Here’s something else you can share: Your firm’s AIA 2030 Commitment reporting data.
I got a letter from myself the other day. Dated May 28, 2013, it began “Dear Michael” and was signed “Sincerely, Mike Davis FAIA.” (This sometimes happens when you’re BSA President.) This letter from the Boston Society of Architects was sent to every BSA member firm that signed the AIA 2030 Commitment. Its message was simple: please give us a copy of the recently-completed project energy use spreadsheet that you sent to the AIA. Your firm got one of those letters, too. We want your data.
Why? That’s the point of this blog. The AIA 2030 Commitment is the single most useful program out there to help architects improve their projects’ designed energy efficiency, and I’m trying to persuade everyone I know to sign it and complete the annual report.
We all want to do the right thing: reduce the climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions caused by building energy use. We’re all on board with Architecture 2030’s goal of making buildings carbon-neutral by the year 2030. But, really, we can debate the matter of how buildings achieve carbon-neutrality until the polar ice caps melt. And most of us have businesses to run and clients to serve. The implications of transforming our practice are considerably beyond most of our grasps.
That’s where the AIA 2030 Commitment comes in. It provides us – hard-working architects in corporate practice – with useful energy-use metrics (PEUI and LPD) and a rigorous reporting framework that applies to ALL our projects. When you’ve completed your AIA 2030 Commitment report, the spreadsheet tells the tale. You know exactly where you stand on energy efficient design.
The annual energy use targets set by the Commitment are coordinated with the 2030 Challenge. But yes, they’re hard to hit. My firm, Bergmeyer, hasn’t hit them yet (more on that later). And when someone’s falling short, they don’t want other folks to know. But design is a collaborative process, and climate change is a global challenge. We truly are all in this together.
And besides, we (the Boston Society of Architects) want to help.
If you share your data with us (email a PDF to firstname.lastname@example.org) here’s what we’ll do: We’ll aggregate the EUIs and LPDs from the firms that reply. Then we’ll create a master report that shows how we’re all doing together and share it on the BSA website. Then we’ll promote the heck out of the firms who have participated and create a member-firm support network. This will make more firms want to sign the Commitment and participate, and the great motivational power of enlightened self-interest will help us all improve.
What we WON’T do is divulge any information about individual firms or projects. It’ll all be anonymous. We also promise NOT to share any of your data with those stalkers at the National Security Agency, either. We won’t mine your Gmail of Facebook accounts or record your phone calls. I mean, really. Don’t get me started.
The systems-theorist Dr. Russel Ackoff defined it this way: Data simply exists without any significance. Shared, connected data becomes information. When information is applied to a problem set, it becomes knowledge. And knowledge, as they say, is power. Power – in this case – that could change our practice. Share it with us.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on leadership for the AIA 2013 Convention “blog off”. Seventeen architects contributed, many of the posts were rather good. In ways that I don’t quite understand, our collective musings will contribute to the Convention theme.
In one post, Doug Wignall, an architect from Nebraska, trotted out Whitney Young, Jr.’s famous quote chastising the attendees of the 1968 AIA Convention. I was in 6th grade at the time and couldn’t attend. I suspect Doug wasn’t there either, but Mr. Young was reported to have addressed the opening plenary by saying:
“. . . you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . you are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Young’s assessment, but this quote has stuck in my craw since I first read it. And later, at the 2000 AIA Convention in Philadelphia, (I was in attendance that year) Andrew Young took up the charge again, challenging architects to do something – anything – to help fight poverty: in his view, the root cause of crime and racism. I left Philadelphia scratching my head. What can architects do about things like civil rights and poverty?
At the time, I figured that “green building” was the greatest good architects could do. Environmentally responsible design? Sounded pretty noble to me. And as I came to understand green building as part of sustainability – the whole three-legged-stool thing – I could appreciate architecture’s role in environmental stewardship and economic viability. But again that third leg – social equity – seemed out of reach. Those admonitions from famous American civil rights leaders would just have to go unanswered.
Hence the concern: my architecture firm has signed the AIA 2030 Commitment. We’re working hard to drive down our buildings’ energy use and reduce the production of atmospheric greenhouse gasses that are destabilizing the world’s climate. This work benefits everyone, right? So what’s the big deal if we can’t address social equity directly?
But we can. And should.
A community is not sustainable when prosperity is not equally shared. The fundamental purpose of buildings (and interior spaces) is to facilitate human prosperity. A lot of people benefit from what we do; those people are usually our clients. But we can use our design talents so that members of our community who don’t or can’t normally benefit from our projects can prosper as well.
Call it social sustainability. Here are a few examples:
Active Design: Active design means thinking about how the buildings and spaces we create can encourage physical activity. Last week, I spoke at “Fit City Boston”, a one-day summit hosted by the BSA with the Boston Public Health Commission. We learned that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma are at epidemic levels in the USA. The sedentary lifestyle of urban dwellers is partly to blame, and neighborhoods with limited access to useable public open spaces are particularly vulnerable.
These diseases are ravaging our at-risk neighborhoods. Active design is part of the social sustainability solution.
Universal Design: The things we design must be useable to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, ability or status in life. It’s a fact. The attractive, prominent stairs and cycle tracks and jogging paths that active design promotes are great, but not all of our fellow citizens can use them. And since 11.5% of Massachusetts residents are disabled in some way and 19.2% of Bostonians are over age 55 (this blogger included!), this is not a small segment of our community.
Design that excludes people based on their physical capabilities is inequitable and therefore not sustainable. Universal design is also part of the social sustainability solution.
Public Interest Design: Many of the people who could benefit the most from the prosperity-boosting effects of design either don’t have access to architects or can’t afford to hire them. When architects donate their time and energy to serve under-resourced communities and engage a project’s users in the design process, it’s called public interest design. Sam Mockbee – perhaps the godfather of this movement – put public interest design on the map in the 1993 with the Rural Studio at Auburn University. This big umbrella concept now includes the work of many organizations we already know such as Architecture for Humanity, MASS Design Group, Design Corps, and the BSA’s own Community Design Resource Center.
Promoting social sustainability. It’s what public interest design is all about.
There you have it. None of these ideas will help you meet your AIA 2030 Commitment energy use reduction goals. But they will help you make the world a better place.
I usually write about the AIA 2030 Commitment. My focus has been architecture and climate change. And since last Monday was Earth Day, I had a rich supply of emails and RSS feeds to fuel the ever-present need for new blog material.
The best thing I saw last Monday was this 10-minute video of Dr. Amory Lovins (Hon. AIA) giving the keynote at “RMI25: Celebrating Solutions”, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 25th Anniversary Gala.
Dr. Lovins, an environmental scientist and physicist, is co-founder and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The RMI’s work is focused on renewable energy and resource efficiency. Dr. Lovins has advised the US government on energy policy, written several books on sustainability and was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2009. And true, he tells a damn good story.
For my money, Amory Lovins is a real leader. One of the founding fathers of the 21st-century sustainability movement. His book, Natural Capitalism, and Chapter 6, “Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier”, is required reading. His address at that conference was leadership in action.
What got me so jazzed about this little speech? I think we architects can learn a lot about leadership from folks like Amory Lovins. Allow me to elaborate:
Leadership takes vision. Vision is job one for leadership. Amory Lovins has a vision for a post-carbon world, and he shares it with us in this speech. In fact, whenever he speaks he shares his vision. It’s potent and persuasive. This is a good object lesson for architects. Vision is our core competency. We understand external forces, manage variables, and imagine a thing that doesn’t exist yet responds to an elaborate set of real-world constraints. That’s quite a skill. Perfect for leadership.
Design ideas are visions for our projects. Market positions and competitive advantages are visions for our firms. But none of these are meaningful to people outside our professional circles. A vision for a neighborhood in which all residents share equally in all the city’s benefits; a vision for a city that preserves its resources for future generations? Those are the kinds of visions that can inspire an entire community. Or more.
Leadership requires effective communication. Dr. Lovins begins his address by saying “let me tell you a story”. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King saying “peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.” He shares the “guiding parable” of the Rocky Mountain Institute: a saga that begins with the World Health Organization, Malaria and DDT and ends with cats in parachutes. His message: see how all things are connected, and see how the cause of a problem is sometimes a proposed “solution”.
This is the language of leadership. It is outwardly-focused, intended for a broad audience. The message is clear, but its implications are nuanced and complex. It is compelling without being strident.
Architects are pretty good with communication. Although our writing and speaking is far too often dense with jargon (or just in need of editing!), we have the advantage of being able to communicate with images. Sketches and diagrams are extremely potent when it comes to sharing a vision. This is another excellent skill for leaders to have.
Leadership transcends expertise. People pay attention to Dr. Lovins because he’s a well-respected scientist, thus giving him credibility. But there is a difference between being a “leading scientist” and being a scientist-as-leader. The work of leading scientists is generally appreciated by the scientific community but unknown to most everyone else. To be a scientist-as-leader, one has to step outside the discipline and engage other people. The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded by scientists acting as leaders.
A leading architect could have a great resume, many publications and awards, and fabulous projects that are considered exemplars of their type. And a line of clients down the street. But most leading architects are unknown even to the people who use their buildings every day.
This is where we fall short. An architect-as-leader must step outside the practice model and address issues that matter to their fellow citizens. They must speak up on subjects like promoting renewable energy, comprehensive planning and smart growth, design excellence in the public realm. They must use their knowledge and experience as architects to be convincing, but must speak as a person or a voter or a member of a civil society, not as an architect.
But we have worked so hard to become trained and credentialed and are so accustomed to the challenges and opportunities of our beloved practice. We hate to leave that familiar setting. But that’s what it takes to be a leader. Because, ultimately . . .
Leadership is a choice. People aren’t born to lead or required to become leaders. Dr. Lovins could have been perfectly happy as a scientist. He didn’t need to become a leader. You don’t have to be a leader, either. You could be one of many people who just live and breathe design and want to be the best architect you possibly can.
But if you find yourself believing in a vision and motivated to redress a wrong or advocate for change that will benefit others, you may find yourself in a position of leadership. And if we, as a profession, are going to deliver on a manifesto like “We are America’s architects. We are committed to building a better world”, we need more architects to become leaders.
The Boston City Council will soon vote on a proposed building energy use reporting and disclosure zoning ordinance. If we really want to reduce our city’s energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, we Bostonians need the City Council to approve this “benchmarking” ordinance.
Under the 20-year leadership of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Boston has made great progress in adopting policies designed to protect our City from the effects of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Mayor’s first green building task force was convened in 2003, we’ve seen executive orders, zoning recommendations, “green ribbon” commissions and innovative programs that have made us one of the greenest cities in America.
We’ve come very far. We shouldn’t back down now.
Many organizations have come out in favor of this proposal. A Better City, the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, the Institute for Market Transformation and the USGBC Massachusetts have posted essays that you should read. The Boston Society of Architects has gone on record in support as well. So rather than re-state any of those arguments, let’s consider one of the big questions that makes people uncertain about this measure.
Why should city government control private energy use? Is this over-regulation?
We elect Mayors and City Councilors to do the job of municipal governance: to create the conditions under which all citizens can live and prosper fairly, businesses can succeed, and intrinsic resources can be protected. Responsible government must always find the balance between protecting individual rights and defending the public good. To do this, Mayors and City Councilors establish policies and work within regulatory frameworks that they believe will achieve this balance.
The goal of reducing our city’s greenhouse gas emissions is one of those policies. Sixty percent of Boston’s electricity use is in buildings. Zoning is the legal regulatory framework within which cities manage private buildings. Therefore, a zoning ordinance that will help Boston understand greenhouse gas emissions caused by building energy use is a necessary and proper step.
Energy use is not entirely a private matter, either. The external cost to the public from climate change and environmental degradation caused by conventional means of electricity generation is now clearly understood. The City rightly sees energy wastefulness as a public health matter.
And as architects and design professionals, we know that the modern building codes that promote energy efficiency only affect new construction and renovation. Most of Boston’s buildings pre-date 21st century codes. So without actual energy use data, we are at a loss to capitalize on the vast potential of energy savings that can be found in existing buildings. We need a benchmarking ordinance.
And besides, this ordinance doesn’t actually give the City the power to say how much energy a building should use. It doesn’t even penalize a building owner for being wasteful. It does propose fines for non-compliance and provides an option for the City to require ASHRAE Level II Energy Audits for properties that can’t demonstrate improvement. But that’s the extent of the regulatory “sticks”. The ordinance doesn’t require a building owner to spend any money on their buildings at all.
Lastly, an admission on behalf of architects: As a profession, we need to do a much better job of tracking actual building energy performance against design intent. And you’ve heard this one before: if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. This ordinance would provide us with a level of data that would be truly transformational.
So if you live in Boston, your voice counts. If you work in Boston, you spend money here and pay taxes so your influence matters. If you agree that building energy benchmarking is right for Boston, call, email or Tweet the City Council. They need to hear from you. If you’re an architect, tell them it will make your promise to bring architecture into compliance with the energy use reduction guidelines of the AIA 2030 Commitment considerably more achievable.
Knowledge is in fact power. A zoning ordinance designed to help us understand how our buildings really use energy can bring widespread benefits to building owners and users alike.
This isn’t a hypothetical question. Answer for yourself. In your world – a community of design professionals focused on architecture and climate change – which is better? And what’s the difference?
Power is authority. It’s binary: you have it or you don’t. It is given or taken. A governor has power over the people and money in their government. A police officer can order you to pull over. Your boss sets your salary and evaluates your job performance. As a licensed architect, you have some contractual authority over consultants and builders. If you’re a parent you can ground your kids for misbehaving. At least until they’re teenagers. Then all bets are off.
Influence is incremental and indirect. It is developed, gained. When someone asks your opinion about something, they are inviting your influence. You hope that the life you lead will influence your wayward teenagers. A presentation to a planning board is intended to influence their decision. A professional association or civic group focuses the influence of its members. Letters of protest and public demonstrations are attempts to influence people who have more power than we do.
So again, which is better, power or influence? If you want a big group of people to do something, influence is your best option. If you want to mitigate the effects of climate change by having architects design buildings that meet the energy use reduction targets of the AIA 2030 Commitment, there is no power that is better than influence.
My personal experience backs this claim right up. I am a serial volunteer, a civic engagement junkie. I’ve done time on boards and committees and task forces. I post links to architecture-and-climate-change content on my social media sites. Heck, this is my 43rd blog post. But I still get the most traction on the AIA 2030 Commitment when I just make it personal.
Let’s start with Paul. Paul is an old friend. He used to work at my architecture firm, Bergmeyer. He’s a real Downeast Mainer and a good skier. We used to talk skiing. Now we talk architecture and climate change. He’s become a sustainable design advocate. I saw him a little while ago at Sunday River. He was with another architect who’s an Associate at firm X. Paul introduced us and told me “I’ve almost convinced these guys to sign the AIA 2030 Commitment”.
Way to go, Paul Desjardins. He’s doing it right: using his personal network to influence positive change. I thanked him and promised a little shout-out.
Another example. No surprise, I go to a lot of meetings at the Boston Society of Architects. People know to send questions about the AIA 2030 Commitment to me. After a recent round-table discussion, I was cornered by two architects from small firms who wanted to know more about the Commitment. I had my talking points ready. Yes, small firms can participate. Compliance reporting is not like a LEED submission. It’s all your projects, all about designed energy use intensity. Once you master the spreadsheet and learn the conventions PEUI and LPD, reporting becomes second-nature.
I may have influenced their thinking. They, in turn, may influence their co-workers.
And here’s my favorite story: Last month, I was talking to a Principal from a well-established Boston architecture firm. She had a bunch of questions about how her firm – most of their work in hospitals – could manage the compliance targets of the Commitment given the extraordinary energy loads of the building type. After much postulating and hand-waving on my part, I had an idea. “Why not bring some of your people to Bergmeyer and meet with Dee, our sustainability director? We’ll walk you through the whole process.”
They came and brought six people including three Principals – a majority of their firm’s “green team”. Already fluent in EnergyStar Target Finder and LEED, they had done some serious homework. We met for an hour and they left convinced that their firm could do it.
They have now signed the Commitment. Way to go, Ellenzweig, with my thanks to Shirine Boulos Anderson, AIA.
Y’know, we all wanna change the world. And we can, one conversation at a time. So who’s in your network, and what can you do to influence them?
When I say “risky business”, what comes to mind? Tom Cruise dancing without pants to Bob Seger? Oh, please. Such foolishness.
Real estate development. Now that’s risky business.
As much as we like to think that architecture brings beauty and inspiration to the built environment (it does), the purpose of a lot of our work is to attract capital. In reality, the overwhelming majority of the buildings we design are intended to make money for our clients in some way.
The high-risk enterprise of speculative commercial real estate development is fundamentally about managing variables. Control the variables and outcomes become more predictable. When risk is reduced, performance meets expectations and capital flows.
And such variables! The first big one is the supply and demand equation. What are you producing and who wants it? In real estate, it’s the absorption rate. Then there are location variables: appraisals, comparables, acquisition costs, and barriers to entry like the entitlement process. There’s the cost of money, too. Access to capital. Deals must be structured, LLC’s created. Cap rates, cash flow, ROIs. When the conversation gets to LIBOR, basis points and EBITDA, I start sketching.
And what – you may ask – does all this have to with the AIA 2030 Commitment?
We’re all working very hard to make our buildings and spaces radically more energy efficient. This is how we architects and designers reduce fossil fuel consumption and help mitigate the increase in airborne carbon dioxide that leads to climate change.
But radically greater building energy efficiency comes at a cost. The environmental benefits of improved building energy efficiency don’t show up on a developer’s proforma. They’re called “externalities”. And the financial benefit of potentially lower operating costs goes to the building’s tenants. So unless your client also operates and occupies the building you’re designing, making the case for exceeding the requirements of the building code can be, um, difficult. Especially if you don’t speak a developer’s language.
So what’s a conscientious, well-meaning architect to do?
Well, the effects of climate change are a huge variable, too, right? Don’t higher-performing and resilient buildings mitigate risk for everyone? Many developers embrace that idea, but the “even if that Cadillac HVAC system pays back in only ten years, the project can’t absorb any more debt” argument is a conversation stopper.
We could make the net-present-value case: that the sum of future monies saved on operating expenses will “pay” for building system enhancements, but we don’t have a lot of proof yet that “Predicted” (I hate that term!) Energy Use Intensity matches actual energy use. And then there’s that old stone wall again: “That benefit goes to my tenant. What’s in it for me?”
My suggestion? Appeal to the biggest variable of them all: the market.
Boston’s Chief of Energy and the Environment, Brian Swett, was recently describing the City’s proposed building energy use reporting and disclosure ordinance to a packed roomful of commercial real estate professionals hosted by NAIOP Massachusetts. When the big question came from the audience – what will the City do with this energy use data after they collect it? – Mr. Swett had his answer ready: “We think the market will respond.”
Meaning, of course, that the City may not have to put onerous new regulations in place. Tenants may simply prefer to occupy a more energy efficient building. Better buildings would then become more valuable and less risky. In fact, the market is headed this way already. Here come your talking points:
Environmental Building News recently cited a study showing that Energy Star labeled or LEED rated office buildings across the US charge 3% higher rents, have greater occupancy rates, and sell for 13% more than comparable properties. This Jones Lang LaSalle research portal called “Global Sustainability Perspective” features an essay that reports a $4 per square foot rent premium, a 3% lower vacancy, and much faster absorption rates in some of their markets for LEED or Energy Star certified properties. This Colliers International report not only supports the higher rent and sales price data, they have research on greater employee productivity (3% to 7% higher productivity with reduced sick time and less turnover) that also makes the human capital case.
There you go. Money does indeed talk. Architects and environmentalists have been trying to make the business case for higher-performing buildings for a long time. Now the money guys are making the case for us, and they do speak the language.
Imagine this: The lobby of your office building is flooding with water. It’s rushing in through broken storefronts and will soon be over your head in depth. Something in the basement explodes, rocking the whole structure. The power goes out, and you scramble up a fire stair seeking safety.
A couple days ago, this story was being re-told to a roomful of people who had assembled for a press event in Boston, Massachusetts. Not a unique human experience if you lived in New Orleans in August 2005 or Brattleboro Vermont in August 2011 or in Miyako Japan in April 2011, but this happened in lower Manhattan on October 29, 2012, as hurricane Sandy hit.
The event: Mayor Thomas Menino was announcing important new planning and policy initiatives that would make Boston better-prepared for severe storms and other natural catastrophes related to climate change. “Preparing for the Rising Tide” had just been released: a weighty and well-researched report by the Boston Harbor Association that spelled out the City’s vulnerability to sea-level rise in great detail and outlined the public and private sector roles in climate change response. The City – and the commercial real estate industry – was ready to talk preparedness. Most of us from the steering committee of Mass Impact, a joint BSA and MIT summit held in 2008 on the very same subject, were there to applaud the City’s actions. The news media was all over it.
But the show-stopper that morning was that story from Hurricane Sandy as related by Bryan Koop, Senior VP of Boston Properties, a member of the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Commission on climate change. The owner of that building in New York had sand bags on hand and engineers in the basement ready to fire up the sump pumps. After the boiler exploded, the engineers swam to safety. The building is still empty.
For commercial property owners in NYC, climate change was no longer an abstraction. The lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy would not be lost on Boston. “This storm was a game changer”, said Koop.
And so it was. In the New York Times last month, a Manhattan commercial property owner described a “new normal” for buildings: Gas-powered emergency generators on the roof, mechanical equipment on upper floors, waterproof concrete superstructures from the basement to second floor with watertight submarine-style doors. Forget sandbags, we’re talking portable interlocking floodgates stored in the basement to encircle the first floor.
I know what you’re thinking. When it finally happened in New York City we pay attention? When it’s not on CNN but in our own elite urban northeastern USA we finally take climate change seriously?
Patience, grasshoppers. The path to enlightenment is different for everyone.
When the Mayor’s event concluded, the conversations began. We can imagine what a more resilient public realm – a climate-ready Boston – will look like. Parking lots replaced by engineered wetlands. Swales and raised walks as surge barricades. Off-shore breaks. Subway stations designed to keep water out. Parking structures designed as retention tanks. And that glorious tidal wave barrier, the DiMambro Plan . . .
Resilience. Climate-ready design. Passive survivability. Yes, we understand that radically improving building energy efficiency is still design criteria number one for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. No, the AIA 2030 Commitment doesn’t ask how your projects can survive catastrophic sea level rise. You don’t get LEED points for designing to survive the impacts of climate change. But these are things that architects have to be ready for. And we will be.
I walked back from the briefing to Bergmeyer’s offices along Boston’s beautiful Harborwalk. I thought about how great it was that Boston’s harbor was now one of the cleanest in the world. I thought about how marvelous it was that our superhighway – the Central Artery – was now in a tunnel under the Rose Kennedy Greenway. I thought about how beautiful this City’s waterfront had become since I moved here almost 30 years ago and what a tragedy it would be if a catastrophic storm caused our harbor and our underground highway to collide.
I went back to my desk and wrote what I knew.
Dear Mr. President:
Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m the 2013 President of the Boston Society of Architects. This voluntary one-year position is of course by no means comparable to the truly awesome office to which you were just re-elected. But we both serve with the hope that we can do lasting good.
Next, I would like to offer my highest compliments on your truly inspiring Inaugural address last Tuesday. As those of us who grew up listening to great old Boston politicians like Tip O’Neill used to say, it was a real stem-winder. I agree with Mr. James Fallows’ assessment that it was the “most sustainedly progressive statement” that we have heard from you. Well done.
Which brings me to the reason for this letter: You finally said it. You mentioned “climate change” in this very auspicious public address. Thank you. My like-minded colleagues and I jumped out of our seats and cheered when we heard it. You gave the subject a whole paragraph. I was thrilled.
Because, y’see, one of my goals in becoming BSA President was to promote greater building energy efficiency so our profession can meet the carbon-emission reduction goals of the 2030 Challenge. Our national professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, launched a program called the AIA 2030 Commitment. When our firms sign this Commitment, we pledge to design our projects to be progressively more energy efficient and to report the aggregated designed energy use intensity of our work to the AIA every year.
So when you, the President of the United States, said “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, all of us working to make a difference became energized. OK, you didn’t say that buildings account for about 48.7% of all the energy used in the US in a year and therefore for 46.7% of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but you didn’t have to. That’s our hunt. It’s our job as architects to beat that drum.
I know there will be follow-up questions. I know folks will be asking you how we can respond to climate change. We architects want to be part of the solution. I have some suggestions:
Lead by example: With 9,000 buildings and 350 million square feet, the General Services Administration of the Federal government is the country’s largest landlord. The GSA could reinvent sustainable design all by itself. It could hold its design teams to a higher performance standard. It could require Integrated Project Delivery. It could adopt a building asset labeling system. We loved the environmental visualization strategy IDEO did for the GSA. Was it implemented?
Re-start the Better Buildings Initiative: In December 2011, you launched the Better Buildings Initiative. You announced that Federal agencies would make $2B worth of building energy efficiency upgrades available to the private market with matching funds. Architecture 2030 estimated that this initiative would create 300,000 new jobs. Did it work? Don’t know. Maybe it’s time for Version 2.0.
Create a deep energy building retrofit tax credit: Tax credits work. We know the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive saved historic buildings. We know the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit drove affordable housing development. The Section 179D tax deduction isn’t moving the market. Making our existing buildings more energy efficient is the Holy Grail. We need an effective incentive here.
Give us uniform national interconnection standards: I know this suggestion begs the Federal-versus-state’s-rights question. But like you said, we can’t wait to solve a centuries-long debate about the role of government before we take action. Every utility company has different regulations for connecting building-integrated photovoltaics to “the grid”. In Massachusetts, we have a crazy quilt of public and municipal utilities. Zoom out to all of New England and the problem is confounded tenfold. This needs to be streamlined.
Finally, invest in a national 21st century smart grid: This could be our generation’s “Apollo Program”. From what I have read, our existing US power grid cannot accommodate the widespread proliferation of distributed generation and doesn’t allow us to maximize the energy-saving potential of demand-side management. We know the technologies that can drive building energy efficiency. The infrastructure to connect them isn’t there yet.
In closing, I will note that architects are an opinionated bunch. We don’t always agree on matters of politics, but we all want to make our buildings – and our communities – better. There are as many good ideas out there as there are people reading this letter. I have only scratched the surface! For readers who may not be the President, please feel free to add your suggestions or comments to this blog. I’ll be sure they get to the right people.
And just one more thing if I may, Mr. President. In your address, you didn’t say that every BSA member firm should sign the AIA 2030 Commitment. But I’m guessing you think they should. I agree.
If your life is anything like mine, the holidays hold the potential for exquisitely painful conversations with friends or relatives that don’t exactly share your world view. Climate-change deniers tend to seek me out at parties with eggnog on their breath and confrontation in their eyes.
A favorite greeting goes like this: “Hi, Mike. Happy holidays. Why should we in the US put our economy at risk to stop this so-called climate change when the rest of the world is doing nothing but buying cars and building power plants?”
This year, fortunately, I was hiding out in Australia for the holidays. And from what I could see, there is no debate about climate change Down Under.
Aussies “get” environmental stewardship. It helps that the coastal landscape is fabulously beautiful and 70% of the population lives within a boomerang’s toss of the surrounding oceans. And the many thousand unique plant and animal species on this isolated island continent are central to the national identity (see furry wallaby in photo above). And there’s that Great Barrier Reef out there . . .
But a travelling architect with eyes open can gather empirical evidence: I didn’t see a single incandescent light bulb anywhere. I looked. Every toilet I saw was dual-flush. Landscape plantings are drought-resistant, indigenous, and gorgeous. Outside the major cities, homes have signs on their fences that say “bore (well) water in use” or “tank (cisterned) water in use” so people don’t think their neighbors are sprinkling precious drinking water on the jacarandas. Everyone takes three-minute showers. Everyone recycles. Litter is non-existent. Cars are small. Public transportation is widespread and well-used.
And bear in mind: Australia is huge. Its land mass is 95% the size of the continental United States. It’s the world’s 12th largest economy. Its government is a messy constitutional monarchy with three Federal branches, a bicameral Parliament, a Prime Minister AND a queen, and six states with their own governments.
A recipe for gridlock and inaction? Nope. With pressure from recent catastrophic droughts, the threat of sea-level rise, and increasingly active citizens’ groups like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Rising Tide Australia, the country’s leaders are listening. In 2012, Australia joined the EU and 37 countries at the Doha climate talks in agreeing to a second round of Kyoto greenhouse gas emission reductions. Australia joined China in becoming among the first nations in the world to enact a national carbon tax. Grist.org called this decision one of 2012’s “strongest efforts to curtail climate change pollution”.
Naturally, Aussie Architects are on board as well. The Australian Institute of Architects is a charter-member of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, the nation’s most influential consortium of sustainability organizations. The Green Building Council of Australia, a non-profit membership-based organization, administers the Green Star rating system for buildings and communities that is “transforming Australia’s built environment”. While in Sydney, we walked by a big commercial office building with a “now leasing” sign that boasted about the property’s “3.5-Star NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System) Energy rating”. (A national building energy rating system?? What would it take??)
And what did I just Tweet today? Rooftop-generated solar power in Australia is now less than half the cost of grid-source power. Why? Not because it’s sunny year-round in Adelaide (it’s not), but because the government offers Renewable Energy Certificates for residential rooftop PVs equal to about 68 cents per watt. Why? Because mainstreaming rooftop PVs lessens peak energy demands and reduces Australia’s national CO2 emissions.
In short: Australians are rightfully very concerned about global warming and sea level rise. They have modified their personal behavior accordingly, and have demanded that their government take action. And it has.
So there you go, mates. This is what Commitment really looks like. Aussies get it. We should, too.
I’m not asking what YOU know about sustainable design. What you know is between your ears. What an organization “knows” is different.
The book that brought me to the fascinating topic of organizational knowledge was Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. It introduced me to the concept of systems thinking. Through systems thinking, organizational leaders can connect people to a shared vision and evaluate how the group is performing. This is how an organization learns. And much of what we sustainably-thinking architects call “integrated design” (getting all the players in the process around the metaphorical table at the same time) is based on the same principle. Systems thinking is the mindset that architects use when evaluating the external costs of the buildings we are designing.
The theories may be a little esoteric; but in practice the rules are simple. One example: for an organization to learn, information must be shared.
So my question again: what does your architecture firm know about sustainable design?
Does your firm know the designed energy use intensity of all its projects? Can your firm evaluate the designed energy efficiency of its work by project type or by client? Does your firm know its collective capacity to exceed baseline energy codes? And does it know exactly what it has to do to improve? If your firm signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, it would.
I have a copy of Bergmeyer’s 2011 AIA 2030 Commitment Reporting Tool right in front of me. It’s a pretty amazing spreadsheet. Let’s look . . .
Our firm completed construction documents on 49 projects in 2011, totaling about 770,000 GSF. We listed about 500,000 GSF of our volume – 38 projects – as “Interiors Only”. Since Interiors is our biggest market, let’s take a closer look.
The reporting metric for design energy efficiency for interiors projects is Lighting Power Density or LPD. Our 2011 aggregate LPD for all 500,000 GSF was a relatively strong 19.5% better than the national comparison threshold. Good for us.
But there’s more. We reported six different project types under interiors: Banks, Retail, Office, Food Service, Lodging and Education. How did we do in each project type?
Retail wins for number of projects (17) but Office wins for best overall energy reduction thanks to one very large project – a State agency fit-out in a downtown commercial building – that logged a whopping 33% reduction in LPD. Our two Lodging interiors projects (both student residence hall renovations) had very respectable 21% and 31% reductions in LPD, and one of our Food Service interiors jobs (a college dining hall) slayed the pack with a 60.9% (!!) reduction in LPD.
Our single biggest client was a bank. We did 11 interiors projects for this client with a median energy efficiency of 12% better than ASHRAE and a maximum EUI of 48% better. We also did several Whole Building projects for the same client – all energy modeled – that were typically between 35 and 40% better than regional average site EUI.
All this from one spreadsheet. Not bad at all.
The takeaway? Our most energy-conscious client type in 2011 was Universities, but our greenest individual clients were that big multi-unit bank and the public agency. We did well with those clients. But up next for Bergmeyer: to significantly improve our firm-wide energy efficiency, we have to focus on reducing the lighting power density of our retail work. It’s our biggest market and where we can have the most impact. Our mission is clear.
Look, the whole point of this blog is to promote the AIA 2030 Commitment. Sometimes it’s with human-interest stories or tales of real-life challenges faced. Sometimes it’s with hard data and facts. So here’s a fact: without data on how your firm’s design work is performing against objective standards, you’re guessing. We signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, so now we know.
The proof is in the spreadsheet. Join and learn.