The AIA 2030 Commitment: A Better Future



What do you dream about when you’re designing? The thrill of seeing your brilliant ideas built? The joy of receiving thanks and praise from your clients? Maybe you dream of getting some publicity or winning a design award? Or feeling deeply satisfied from knowing you’ve made the world a more beautiful place?

Or do you just hope the lawyers won’t show up?

Fame and glory and energy efficiency that’s 50% better than baseline are all good. But in reality, sometimes just getting that last invoice paid, delivering the manuals and walking away without getting subpoenaed is cause enough for celebration.

But let’s return to those happier thoughts. My crystal ball is ready. We can imagine a better future and set more ambitious goals for our practice.  Here’s my dream about what a better working relationship between an architect and client would look like in the near future:

(The place: a snowy Vermont mountain town, slopeside. [Hey, this is my dream, right?] Architect sips coffee while looking at laptop. Architect looks at cell phone, pokes keyboard, waits for screen image, then speaks.)

Architect: Hey, Jesse. Just got those stats from Building 6 BMS on my cell. Thank your facilities folks for pushing that app out to me. No. I’m not skiing yet. Lifts don’t open for an hour here.

Client: I’m a little concerned about the energy use spike last month. It’s outside the ideal performance range you guys established for us on buildings 1 through 5.

Arch: Well, we did just install those laminar air flow sensors in the Building 6 auditorium. But they shouldn’t draw enough power to affect your demand that much. Can you link me to the live BMS dashboards?

Client: Will do. Lemme contact IT at Facilities and get right back to you.

(Architect reloads on coffee, watches snow accumulating, opens trail report site. Another email re-focuses his attention. Picks up phone, dials, speaks.)

Arch: Thanks for that link, Jesse. I’m on the dashboard right now. That power spike might be from increased fan energy use. You know we installed those air flow sensors when we suspected the stack effect ventilation strategy wasn’t giving you enough air changes when the hall was full. Do you think people are still screwing with the digital thermostats? That would cause fan energy to spike. Lemme check another document. (Pause.) We have plenty of fee left in this year’s master post-occupancy performance contract. I’m going to see Ling (our firm’s commissioning specialist and an excellent snowboarder) on the hill in a little bit. I’ll see if she can be on site tomorrow.

Client: Thank you so much. I’m sorry to pester you when you’re out of the office, but we really appreciate everything you’ve done to make our whole university more energy efficient. And by the way, the President has some new ideas for energy-positive buildings and a net-zero branch campus. I know she’ll want your input.

Arch: No problem, Jesse. At your service, as always.

(Client hangs up. Architect smiles, turns off laptop, picks up backpack, leaves for boot room.)






The AIA 2030 Commitment: Better Tools!


Skis.shutterstock_145356004Do you have a favorite recreational activity? Does it involve equipment? Golf clubs? A tennis racket? A bicycle, perhaps?  I’m a skier. Skiers are serious equipment geeks! But the phrase you hear around the lodge is: Good skis don’t make a good skier.

However, better skis can make you a better skier. In my experience, if you’re already pretty capable at something and working hard to improve, better equipment can really amp your game.

Same goes for those of us who are working to improve the designed energy efficiency of our buildings and spaces through the AIA 2030 Commitment. The 2030 Commitment – a great program brought to you by the American Institute of Architects – gives us tangible design performance goals to help bring our projects into line with the carbon emission reduction targets of the Architecture 2030 Challenge. To do this, the AIA has created some pretty good tools including a nifty, multi-tabbed reporting spreadsheet. It’s what we use to enter the designed energy use of all our year’s projects before we send it off to the AIA for their annual compilation.

It’s a good tool. But it may get infinitely better. Here’s the scoop:

This year, the AIA National Committee on the Environment (COTE) Advisory Group and an AIA 2030 Commitment Working Group has begun collaboration with the United States Department of Energy (DOE). The team hopes to develop an online reporting platform for the AIA 2030 Commitment for potential rollout in late 2014.

Think: What would make it easier for you to do drive energy efficient design in your practice? Would you like to be able to compare your projects’ performance to thousands of other buildings sorted by type, size, or location? How about being able access utility consumption data and track energy targets for your projects from design through occupancy over multiple years? How cool would that be?

These are aspirational goals for a better tool that could rock our world. But as my good friend and LEED Fellow from Chicago, Rand Ekman AIA, cautions: the development of this new tool is totally dependent on funding, time, and available data. And at the risk of sounding like an NPR pledge drive, you can bet that none of this will happen without your help.

March 31 is the 2014 AIA 2030 Commitment reporting deadline. When you file this year, here’s what you could do to help the AIA and DOE meet these goals:

First: Please send the AIA not just for your aggregated results, but the full spreadsheet that you create to support the reporting goals. You can scrub all project names to maintain confidentiality, just send the raw data.

Second: Please provide the AIA with additional data on SOME of your projects. The current reporting spreadsheet has tabs for “Detail Commercial” and “Detail Residential” data. Give this stuff a look. It’s optional for the Commitment and a fair amount of extra work, but if the DOE can collect this info on about 1,000 projects, it will help them connect the reporting tool with an important national database called the Building Energy Asset Score program.

That’s it. That’s the whole “ask”. Add a little more data to your AIA 2030 spreadsheet this year and maybe – just maybe – the AIA and DOE can deliver a sweet new tool for us to use next year. Like newly sharpened edges and fresh base wax on my boards, I can feel the performance enhancing effects already . . .

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Women Leading Sustainable Design


The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF) is working to change the culture of the building industry so that women’s work is acknowledged, respected and valued. I was honored when the BWAF invited me to be a guest blogger. Fully aware that women are woefully under-represented in the field of architecture, I looked instead at the many thought-leaders I have come to know in the world of sustainable design. A re-posting of my BWAF blog follows:    

A few weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Boston Society of Architects on resilient design: preparing buildings and cities to survive the inevitable impacts of climate change. The two speakers on my panel – Dr. Sarah Slaughter, President of the Built Environment Coalition, and Fiona Cousins, Principal at the engineering firm Arup (and a BWAF Board of Trustee member) – shared with us their groundbreaking research and policy work on buildings and urban systems.

The next day, I was in Washington DC at AIA national headquarters for a task force on “transparency” – the disclosure of toxic substances in building materials. The group was convened by Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a research fellow at the AIA and former Director of Sustainability at HOK, and Paula McEvoy, AIA, Co-director of Perkins+ Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative. Lazarus and McEvoy were also co-authors of the AIA’s 2013 Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan, a report that outlined top sustainable design priorities for architects.

Meanwhile, I was working on a new blog post on post-occupancy energy use evaluations: the process where architects go back into a building after it opens to evaluate actual building energy use. This is a delicate subject for architects. I needed to speak with someone with first-hand experience. Martine Dion, AIA, Principal and Director of Sustainability at the Boston firm SMMA, graciously gave me a half an hour’s worth of insight.

And the list goes on.

When I need an overview on how research informs sustainable design, I call Andrea Love, AIA, Director of Building Science at the Boston firm Payette. When I need a gut check on sustainability action plans or health product declarations, I go to Meredith Elbaum, former Director of Sustainability at Sasaki. And when I’m really in trouble and need someone to explain the new Version 4 of the LEED Rating System, I ask Bergmeyer’s own Director of Sustainability, Dee Spiro.

I recently got an email from my old friend Barbra Batshalom. Trained as an architect, Barbra founded the Green Roundtable – the region’s first non-profit consulting group with a mission to mainstream “green building” and transform the marketplace – in 1999. That was before most of us had even heard of the US Green Building Council. Now CEO of the Sustainable Performance Institute with a mission to help companies deliver on their sustainable design promises, she wanted to introduce me to a colleague. Thanks again, Barbra.

In my world, women in sustainable design are the true believers, the mentors, and the change agents. How does this happen? How is it that the practice of architecture in America has 32% less women than in the general population, yet among professionals who specialize in sustainable design, women are the stars?

Sustainable design requires us to take the long view. It requires us to be empathic; to think seriously about achieving the greatest common good. It requires assumptions to be challenged. And its practice is dynamic, interdisciplinary and inclusive – and not calcified by ancient hierarchies, obsolete traditions, or unwritten behavioral codes.

Perhaps the practice of architecture needs to look more like sustainable design. If this ever happens, I’m sure our practices will improve, and we will be able to thank women for leading the change.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: What We Need to Hear


forest.shutterstock_171583115My fellow Americans:

For tonight’s State-of-the-Union address, I’d like to share a vision with you all. A vision of a world where people work together to assure that fresh air, clean water, wholesome foods, and free, bountiful energy will be available for future generations as long as humankind exists.

This is called sustainability. Don’t we all want to live in this world? If we could make this vision real, what would it take?

Let’s begin with this thought: Imagine that a divine force endowed this planet with just enough fossilized energy from sunlight buried in the ground for our ancestors to dig up and burn so we could eat and stay warm. And this underground carbon-based fuel was meant to be an interim solution until we became smart enough to understand that burning this stuff had long-term consequences. Imagine that the divine plan for us all along was to get the energy we need directly from the sun.

Well folks, that day has arrived. We have survived those fossil-fuel burning days and we’re ready to start a new global era. We’re ready to make the transition to a sustainable civilization.

But this won’t happen overnight. It’ll take decades of work. And amidst the climatic and economic challenges that we will experience, it will be difficult to maintain our focus. Some familiar industries will change drastically. Some will vanish. But only a few centuries ago, people could become wealthy by trading spices. Cinnamon, for crying out loud. So humankind has always adapted to these kinds of changes, and we’ll do it again.

The United States of America stands ready and able to do our part to help shepherd in this new global era. But in addition to time, it’ll also take public investment. Now I know my friends across the aisle aren’t gonna let us spend money we don’t have. And they shouldn’t. So I’d like to talk about money next.

First, I’m gonna ask Congress to begin to dial back that 4 billion dollars in annual US government subsidies to oil companies. Oil companies are making profits hand over fist now – which is great for them – but now they’re gonna have to pay their fair share. Second, I will ask Congress to pass a tax on the release of greenhouse gasses – especially carbon. Industries that make money while polluting our atmosphere are in effect making all of us bear the cost of their pollution in the form of climate change impacts. Those industries also need to pay their fair share of this cost.

So when we get this new revenue – without adding a dime to the deficit, I might add – how will we spend it? Here’s what I propose. Let’s call it the New Era Fund. Twenty-five cents of every dollar of the New Era Fund will go to building a “smart” – and more secure – 21st century nation-wide electricity distribution grid. That’s new jobs, too. And another twenty-five cents of every dollar of New Era Fund will go to jump-start the solar power industry like we’ve never done before. Think of it like an “Apollo Program” for renewable energy. That’s even more jobs.

And fifty cents of every New Era Fund dollar will go right back to you, the American taxpayers, in the form of rebates on your electricity bills, educational subsidies if you want to earn a degree or learn a skill that will help you get a job in the new era economy, and an earned income tax credit. Yep, we are gonna reduce taxes on your income and raise taxes on pollution. Not bad, huh?

Last point, it’s also time for us to pay more attention to our nation’s buildings. American auto makers have done a great job of improving fuel efficiency. But you might not realize that today the construction and operations of our buildings use more energy than our transportation.

The professional association for US architects – the American Institute of Architects – has a program called the AIA 2030 Commitment. This program helps architects design and renovate buildings that are increasingly energy efficient with the goal that by the year 2030, buildings will only use as much energy as they can produce. Imagine that. Buildings that produce energy. I like this program so much, that I am issuing an Executive Order requiring the General Services Administration – the nation’s largest building owner – to only hire architects who have signed the AIA 2030 Commitment.

So whaddya say, Congress? Let’s get this done.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Diagnose This!

Loafers.shutterstock_158516039Put yourself in your doctor’s shoes. Nice Bruno Magli loafers, perhaps. What do you think goes through your primary care physician’s head when you come in with a sniffle and say: “Doc, what’s wrong with me?”

Of course he’s thinking: “Sheesh. This guy could have anything from an allergy to a viral infection. But before we can diagnosis this, we’ll need to ask him the usual hundred questions, starting with ‘are you getting enough sleep?’ And if he sneezes on my Bruno Maglis again, I’ll kill him.”

Doctors are trained to think like this. A diagnosis is a procedure. It involves investigation, testing, analysis, and the elimination of a myriad of possible solutions. Architects could think like this, too. It’s not how we were trained or how we always work, but good things happen when we, too, think like doctors.

Here’s a story to illustrate: At Bergmeyer, we do a lot of work in existing buildings. Sometimes the buildings are in pretty sad shape and in need of serious overhaul. But it makes us feel good to make old structures and enclosures productive again.

We recently won a project to renovate a university dining hall. Walking into the vintage 1960′s building for the first time, we thought everything had to go. Kitchen equipment: old and falling apart. Lighting: terrible. Finishes: institutional and grungy. Heating and cooling systems: way past their service life. Nice cast-in-place concrete structure built like a bomb shelter, though. We could work with that.

But those monster single-pane plate glass windows in steel frames? Imagine the heat loss. Hey, we’re all about energy efficiency. We signed the AIA 2030 Commitment. Those windows would have to be replaced. But this project had a fixed budget (imagine that!). Windows would be big bucks. We’d have to save money somewhere else.

We could’ve quit right there and sent the glass to a materials recovery plant without asking another question and specified some swanky high-performance glazing. As Darryl Filippi, AIA, (our project architect) tells it, we had a half a million dollars in our schematic design cost estimate to replace those damn windows.

Then we started asking the right questions. And talking with engineers. An energy use model of the building and some computational fluid dynamics showed that new windows were not the solution. The negative air pressure created in the space by the dozens of linear feet of new kitchen exhaust hood was so great that indoor air wasn’t in contact with the glass long enough to transmit cold. We didn’t need to replace the glass and could spend the half million dollars on more energy efficient fans and heat recovery systems.

And code compliance? Obviously the old windows wouldn’t have passed a prescriptive method where every building component had to comply with an isolated, independent table of standards. But thankfully, our modern Massachusetts building code also allows a performance-based compliance path and the engineers’ energy models made the case that new windows weren’t necessary. We looked like heroes.

My point? Design, too, is a procedure. It also involves investigation, testing, analysis, and the elimination of a myriad of possible solutions . . . some of which are born of old habits – and old ways of thinking.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Shedding Some Light


Energy geeks. We’re the ones out there doing our holiday shopping by squinting at the lights and saying “Wow, I wonder what the lighting power density in HERE is?”

When my architecture firm, Bergmeyer, completed our second year of reporting for the AIA 2030 Commitment, our mission was clear. We design a lot of retail interiors. Retail stores account for 20% of all US commercial energy use, and 22% of that energy powers electric lighting. So if Bergmeyer can help move the market on lighting energy efficiency, we will have done much good.

We all know that energy efficiency for interiors is captured by a single measure: LPD or Lighting Power Density. LPD is total wattage of lighting fixtures divided by square feet of space. Code for retail stores is generally 1.5 watts per square foot. Less than 1 w/sf puts a project on track to hit AIA 2030 Commitment energy use reduction targets.

So imagine my surprise when I scanned our 2012 AIA 2030 Commitment spreadsheet and found we had designed a retail store that used 3.9 watts/SF.

Three point nine watts per square foot? How could that be?

Granted, most of our 2012 retail work was well under 1.5 w/sf with some stores as low as 0.9 w/sf. (Which, by the way, is the kind of informational gold mine you get with an AIA 2030 Commitment reporting tool on your desktop.) But this one project was a serious outlier.

So we started the investigation.

My first move was to seek out a pro: Mare Weiss, IIDA, LEED, one of Bergmeyer’s most experienced retail designers. She’s also a rabid environmentalist and loves a challenge. A perfect accomplice.

Retail clients can be creatures of habit. The 75 watt PAR30 metal halide lamp in a track fixture is the defacto lighting choice of many. These lamps draw lots of power and generate unbearable heat. So my first assumption was alternative lighting technologies weren’t even considered for this project.

Not so, said Mare. When the prototype was designed, the team did a foot-candle comparison pitting PAR30’s against super energy efficient LED track heads. Back then, the LED technology just wasn’t cutting it. The project would’ve needed three times as many expensive LED lamps to match the output of the PAR30’s, so LEDs were rejected.

So how did this project manage to meet code?

The smoking gun: COMcheck, an easy-to-use US DOE program that tells you if your commercial project meets energy code. At that time, a kind of loophole in COMcheck allowed one of two concurrent codes to be selected at the engineer’s option: the newer (more stringent) 2009 IECC or the older ASHRAE 2007.90.1. Since ASRHAE 2007.90.1 included an exception for display lighting (which was not counted as general illumination!) at an allowance of 2.6 watts per square foot, this was how the engineers prepared their code compliance calcs.

And when we went back and asked the engineers to do the straight math and tally ALL the lighting wattage, the honest results were off the charts. There it was.

But Mare also told me the story has a happy ending. As the cost of LEDs has recently come down and their outputs have improved, that client now embraces LED lighting. The LPD for their new stores has plummeted, and their employees don’t have to sweat under display lighting that feels like a tanning booth.

Plus, Bergmeyer has now learned a lesson. Our project teams need to use LPD as a design tool, not just as a lagging indicator. And if greater energy efficiency is really the mission, we need to put it front-and-center in our design process. Just running COMcheck calcs and calling it a day is a cop-out.

Well now. Wasn’t that illuminating? Good work, team. Enjoy your holiday shopping.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Measured Progress


Did Albert Einstein really say insanity was making the same mistakes over and over again but expecting different results?  I know, it’s the most over-used cliche of all time. But gimme a break. It works perfectly here. And I promise never to use it again.

The 2013 Annual Report of the AIA 2030 Commitment is here. Download it, read and share. Help promote this important measure of our progress. Post a link on your firm’s intranet. Like it on your Facebook or LinkedIn page. It’s a screen-shot of where we are in our quest to improve the designed energy efficiency of our buildings and spaces.

You can and should read the whole report yourself. But in summary, how are we doing?

There’s good news and there’s bad news. Let’s start with the good news:

The database is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2012, 1.4 billion square feet of designed project floor area was submitted by firms completing compliance reporting. That’s more than twice the previous year’s total of 656.2 million gross square feet. A 120% increase.

More good news: This report on the AIA 2030 Commitment is a keeper. It’s nicely written and edited by the estimable Kelly Pickard*. It features a deep-dive on embodied energy and carbon in building structures, lots of info-graphics on modeled PEUI by building type and size, and a fact-filled update on the reference standards behind both key reporting metrics: PEUI (Predicted Energy Use Intensity) and LPD (Lighting Power Density).

Allow me to digress here. Do you ever wonder how your AIA dues get spent? Along with the excellent new Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan by AIA Resident Fellow Mary Ann Lazarus FAIA and everything that AIA Communities by Design does, the AIA 2030 Commitment and this annual report are worth every penny. Because if America’s architects truly are “committed to building a better world”, these programs and documents are proof. They make the value proposition for architects better than any advertising campaign could.

And although we are told that a few of the projects in the 2013 AIA 2030 Commitment are at 100% energy use reduction (net zero energy) and 12% of projects are designed to be 60% better than code or greater, that’s about it for the good news.

The overall average energy efficiency needle has barely budged from 2010. The use of energy modeling has not increased, the number of small firms in the Commitment is still embarrassingly small, and (here’s the worst news) only 46% of the firms that signed the AIA 2030 Commitment actually completed their 2012 compliance reporting. Really? What’s up with that?

In other words, we’re all stuck. Which brings me back to the opening quote of this blog post. For the last several years, we have been approaching our design work the same way but hoping for improvement.

We recognize the connection between architecture and climate change and have embraced the all-important goal to move our practices and projects towards net zero carbon emissions. Our first year of AIA 2030 Commitment results looked pretty good. We were proud of seeing our buildings aggregated at 34% better-than-baseline. But when our second and third year results looked just like our first year, we must admit that we haven’t built upon that initial success. We haven’t improved.

My firm – Bergmeyer – is in this predicament as well. We don’t exactly know how to get un-stuck, either, but we’re going to try a few things:

For starters, we’re asking the Sustainable Performance Institute to take a look under the hood. The SPI is an organization that helps firms figure out how to deliver on their sustainable design promise. For us, it might be coming to an understanding of what “change management” entails. It might be setting more specific goals for our projects or training our design teams more effectively.

We’re also going to try our hand at post-occupancy evaluations and collecting actual energy-use data on past projects. We know this step should already be part of our core services, but like most architects we’ve been focused on completing our scopes of work and moving on. It’s time to start looking back.

And we also need to get better at thinking like engineers. We need to set clearer expectations for our engineering consultants. We’re pretty tired of asking for lighting power density calculations after a project has been designed and then being shocked – shocked! – by LPD values that are all over the map. This has to change.

So that’s the report. The challenge of how to make continuous, systemic improvement is squarely before us. How is your firm improving its design process? What works for you? At Bergmeyer, we’ll keep working at this AIA 2030 thing . . . . and keep blogging about our measured progress as we go. Stay tuned.

* Up until recently, Kelly was the Director of Building Science + Technology for the AIA and was the organizational leader of the AIA 2030 Commitment. Since Kelly has now left the building, let’s be sure the AIA puts someone as energetic and resourceful and – well – committed behind the Commitment soon.

More footnotes: BSA Member firm Gensler has shared their aggregate 2012 AIA 2030 Commitment data with the BSA, too. Thank you, Gensler. And another BSA-member firm has signed the Commitment: Symmes Maini & McKee Associates. Good going, SMMA. 

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Where’s Boston?


“Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” – Woody Allen

Last Tuesday, we had our big Mayoral primary election in Boston. First time in twenty years that Thomas M. Menino wasn’t on the ballot. Given the historical significance of this race, you’d think voter turnout would be off the charts. It wasn’t. 113,222 ballots were recorded, 31% of registered voters.

But that participation rate was still better than what we’re seeing from the architects in Boston who have signed the AIA 2030 Commitment.

Allow me to explain.

The AIA 2030 Commitment is a brilliantly-conceived program from the American Institute of Architects that puts the aspirational “carbon-neutral buildings by 2030” goals of the 2030 Challenge into an actionable practice-oriented format. It gives hard-working architects a common language of energy efficiency metrics to evaluate our design work and an objective format for annual progress reporting. The reporting gets shared every year with the AIA, who complies and publishes the results. If every architectural firm participated in this program, we’d have a crystal-clear picture of how our profession is meeting the challenge of fighting greenhouse gas production from buildings.

And in case you haven’t been reading this blog from the beginning, here’s the idea: It’s the story of my architectural firm – Bergmeyer – after we signed the Commitment in 2011 and are finding our way through the program. We’ve been sharing our struggles, accomplishments, foibles, and lessons-learned in the hope of persuading YOUR firm to sign, too, and to see the value of the program to your practice.

It’s also been my personal agenda to focus the message on member firms of our local AIA Chapter – the Boston Society of Architects – because I’m BSA President for another couple months and, well, Boston you’re my home.

Ultimately, once a bunch of firms had signed the Commitment, the plan was for the BSA to collect the compliance reporting data from our local members, consolidate it (like AIA Chicago does) and publish those results so everyone can know how our chapter is collectively doing. Because, really, that’s the point. Sustainable design is an all-hands-on-deck group effort. Our chances of success improve if everyone is in.

About thirty BSA-member firms have signed the Commitment so far. You can see them on the national signatory list here. Earlier this year, the call went out to BSA members for data. Two years and 51 blog posts later, we got spread sheets from nine firms.

Nine firms?

Is that the best we can do, Boston? Eight firms out of the thirty that signed is about 29%. That’s lower than the voter turnout last Tuesday. And it looks even worse this way: The Boston Society of Architects has 639 member firms. So only one in twenty BSA firms have signed the Commitment, and only one in eighty have shared their compliance reporting data.

We can do better.

But before this post turns into a diatribe, let’s take a moment to thank the few and the proud that have bravely volunteered to give us their numbers so far. In addition to my firm, Bergmeyer, these are the other Boston firms that are with us:


Coldham & Hartman




Perkins & Will


The SLAM Collaborative

So tell me. Why hasn’t your firm signed, and why haven’t you shared your data? I’ve heard the reasons. Let’s take them one at a time:

“We don’t see the program’s value.” The AIA 2030 Commitment asks you to report on the PEUI or LPD of every project your firm designs each year. When you complete your compliance report and send to the AIA, you have at your fingertips a spreadsheet with all your projects, by type and by size, with their designed energy efficiency. Every project! You can sort by market segment. Sort by client. Sort by project team. Compare this year’s results to last year. Where are your successes, what needs more attention? How much more value could one spreadsheet deliver, for cryin’ out loud?

“It’s too labor-intensive.” It’s one spreadsheet! You must be confusing the AIA 2030 Commitment with LEED. (Sorry. No disrespect intended. I love the USGBC.) Yes, you have to make it part of someone’s job to collect project data. Tell me: how does your firm approach sustainable design now? Isn’t it part of everyone’s job? That’s what I thought.

“We’re afraid of posting bad numbers.” Guess what? We all are. This chat usually includes a description of the firm’s markets – hospitals or public buildings – and a claim that project energy use intensity is near-impossible to manage. Or that the firm’s leadership is risk-averse and cautious about posting less-than-stellar results. Or they don’t want to be “early adopters”. What’s the deal, if you can’t get a gold plaque you don’t want to know about it? Nobody said net zero energy or carbon-neutral operations would be easy. But the value of sharing our knowledge and experience far outweighs the embarrassment of admitting – what? – we haven’t perfected this yet? Nobody has.

“We don’t want to commit to something we might not be able to achieve.” This one is my favorite. Think of the Commitment as a BHAG, or Big Hairy Ambitious Goal. The idea is right out of the book Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. BHAGs are compelling and strategic organizational goals that focus a company on critically-important long-term achievements. Yes, you might fail. But if you really get behind a BHAG, you will try like there’s no tomorrow and transform your practice.

So c’mon, Boston. If you’ve already completed your AIA 2030 Commitment report for 2012, share it with us. We promise we won’t name names, just compile the data. And if you haven’t signed, there’s still time to start working on 2013.


The AIA 2030 Commitment: Traction


Left field for the Boston Red Sox. As major-league baseball positions go, it’s legendary. From 1940 to 1990, only three guys played left field for the Sox, all of them All-Stars. Ted Williams played it for 22 seasons from 1939 to 1960. Carl Yastrzemski, 23 seasons from 1961 to 1983. Then Jim Ed Rice, 15 seasons from 1974 to 1989. And all that was before Manuel Aristides Ramirez Onelcida.

Being Mayor of Boston is not unlike playing left field for the Red Sox. We’ve had three mayors in 45 years. Kevin White, four terms, 1968 to 1984. Ray Flynn, 2-1/2 terms,1984 to 1993. Then Thomas M. Menino, five terms, 1993 to 2013. And that’s saying nothing about James Michael Curley.  

We love our Mayors. Maybe even more than our left fielders. So when Mayor Menino recently decided to call it a career after 20 years, it was very big news for Bostonians.

Forget that TMM was the only Mayor many of our city’s residents had ever known. To the architects in Boston who signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, the bigger question was whether Boston’s next mayor would keep us on track to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Would Boston’s next Mayor bail from the Green Communities act and the stretch code? Would great programs like the city’s E+ Buildings,  Greenovate Boston, and Renew Boston Solar continue to exist?

We can’t answer these questions yet. But lemme tell ya folks. All our Mayoral candidates would feel right at home in Fenway Park, because they’ve all become Green Monsters.

In early June, the Boston Society of Architects hosted a public forum at BSA Space for nine of the aspiring mayors. We framed the central question to the candidates as one of leadership on climate change adaptation, greenhouse gas emission reduction, transportation equity and environmental justice. Later, we delivered a huge “best practices” resilience scan (with many thanks to Linnean Solutions’ crack team of researchers, the Barr Foundation, and the Boston Foundation for Architecture) to the Boston Green Ribbon Commission in the hope that Mayor Menino would leave it on his desk for the next occupant to see.

And truly, many of our fellow citizens have also been carrying the environmental advocacy flag. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental League of Massachusetts hosted an excellent public forum on “Energy, the Environment, and the Innovation Economy”. The Mass League of Environmental Voters (@massenvirovoter) has kept up the social media pressure. Boston’s Foundation for a Green Future hosted a Mayoral “EcoForum” on August 16th. Heck, we haven’t seen this much green in Boston since – oh – last St. Patrick’s Day.

And the candidates have heard us. The Boston Globe recently sent ten questions on environmental policy to a dozen candidates for the City Hall position. Nine responded, and their answers were unanimous. Yes, absolutely, and without question the city should continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All answered yes to questions on building energy use reporting and disclosure, on resilience and adaptation planning, and on promoting renewable energy.

Some of the candidates are now saying carbon-neutral by 2050. Most call for curbside composting and “pay as you throw” trash handling. They’re also talking more bike lanes, more photovoltaics, more trees, more electric vehicle charging stations. One candidate described coastal marshlands functioning as buffer zones against catastrophic storm surge. One mentioned property-assessed clean energy bonds. Several pointed to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a model of progressive policy.

So now the question is: will these claims translate into real state-wide and regional leadership after the election? We can hope. And we’ll be here to remind the new Mayor of promises made!

But for now, Boston’s climate-change activists can take a moment to pat ourselves on the back. Sustainability has traction.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Full Disclosure

Disclosure.shutterstock_126903218I have a friend who’s a climate-change denier. He calls climate science “junk science”. He gets in my face about carbon dioxide. CO2 belongs in the atmosphere, he says. The difference between atmospheric CO2 at two hundred something or three hundred something parts per million is infinitesimal! Why waste US taxpayer dollars on some misinformed quest to micro-manage infinitely small quantities of a naturally occurring substance?

My usual reply: Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance too, pal. How many parts per million of arsenic would you like to have in your body?

Logic is wasted on this guy. But little did I know that the toxic-substance-in-your-body argument is the right answer for a question he hadn’t asked.

The question is: how many toxic substances would you like to have in your building products?

Fact is, some pretty nasty bioaccumulative toxins and highly carcinogenic stuff is commonly used in the materials that go into our buildings. Like polyvinyl chloride and its phthalate plasticizers. Like formaldehyde. Heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium. PCBs were banned from flame retardants, now we have bromated and halogenated flame retardants to deal with. Even arsenic! Until recently, arsenic was used in pressure treated wood! Remember?

We have to put a stop to this. And we can, because we have a good team.

I was recently introduced to the work of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative: a bunch of people and organizations who want to eliminate toxic substances in building materials. Their charge: material transparency. The HPD Collaborative calls for architects and designers to only specify products from manufacturers that can provide a Health Product Declaration (HPD), a list of every material used in the manufacturing of every product. They believe full disclosure will drive this change.  A template HPD lives on their website.

Take carpet, for instance. Do you know what’s in carpet? I just looked at one manufacturer’s data. Mostly nylon and calcium carbonate (a mineral found in rocks) with small amounts of polyester and silica. The backing contains recycled calcium alumina glass spheres and – um – polyvinyl chloride copolymer. Oops, there it is.

But wait. This blog is about the AIA 2030 Commitment. What does all this have to do with reducing building energy use?

Glad you asked. Answer this one: why do we do this AIA 2030 Commitment thing? For building energy efficiency, yes. For carbon emissions reduction, yes. But at the root of it all, it’s about human health and prosperity. Love of humankind. We do it because we care about people, people that don’t even exist yet. And look, it just doesn’t make sense to make buildings more energy efficient while filling them with toxic materials.    

And besides, there is plenty of support for disclosure and material transparency. The Healthy Building Network is a fabulous resource. Look into the Pharos Project. The Living Building Challenge has its famous Red List. Perkins+Will uses its precautionary principle. Read about ASTM’s environmental product declarations.  And check out the long list of firms and manufacturers on the HPD Collaborative’s website that have already signed on.

So do this: If you signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, you have or will produce a Sustainability Action Plan. Update it. Add a section called “Health Product Declaration”. Make it a goal to write a letter from your firm (like this one from Cannon Design) stating that you will only specify (and only keep in your library and only accept lunches from!) companies that provide an HPD. End of story.

 You’ll be among friends!


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