The AIA 2030 Commitment: The Road Warriors’ Dilemma

The most important thing an architect can do to fight climate change is to make our projects radically more energy efficient.The second-most important thing? Any guesses?

Yep. Travel less.

For Bergmeyer, my architectural firm, CO2 emissions from business travel is our second-largest environmental impact by far. In 2011, Bergmeyer staff logged 277,251 miles on airplanes. That translated into 54, 524 kilograms of CO2 emissions. Add to that CO2 from car rental and hotel stays and our 2011 aggregate corporate carbon emissions from business travel was 57,333 kilograms or about 63 tons of CO2 added to the earth’s atmosphere by us. Yes, by us.

But first, allow me to digress. Does anyone really enjoy air travel? I don’t mean being somewhere new and different, but the actual process of getting there. I’m just old enough to remember empty middle seats, free in-flight lunches and strolling casually up to the gate at the last possible minute. Call me a curmudgeon, but now every time I get off of one of those interminable ordeals in an overcrowded airborne tin can I swear I’m ready for the transporter ray. Go ahead, Scotty, scatter my molecules across the galaxy.

So nobody is gallivanting around the country on company time for fun. But architecture is a service industry! When our clients say “get on a plane” we say “how soon”? We practice out of one office in Boston but we have licenses in forty-three states. Last year we bought 210 airplane tickets. We took eighteen trips to Eugene, Oregon, seventeen trips to Denver, Colorado and thirty (!!) trips to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We are . . . road warriors.

Did we have to take all those trips?

I popped that question to one of our most frequent travelers. On the condition of anonymity, she ‘fessed up. No, not all of those trips were mission-critical. She had examples. Fly 1,400 miles to look at something for an hour then fly back? Insane. Fly 2,500 miles to attend a pre-bid conference and do nothing while bidders sat mutely in strategic silence? Ridiculous. And just once – just once – has a contractor ever had the ingenuity to buy a Flip camera and do a 360-degree video of tricky existing conditions that just may have been useful enough to spare us a trip.

But that one-hour site visit? Probably saved our client $25,000 in construction change orders. They spent a tenth of that on our travel. Besides, they were a good client that really appreciated our attentiveness. And we know that an hour of face-to-face conversation, a handshake and a cup of coffee is worth more than any stack of brochures or marketing materials. That’s how you deal in a service industry, right?

Yes, we’re web conferencing more and more.  Our software vendors sell us new tools that enable teleconferencing and enhanced data transfer. Yes, we attend virtual meetings in which we are all looking at the same amazing Revit model on a shared desktop and we could be in Boston or Oregon or Kuala Lumpur. It’s what we need to do our job and, after all, software vendors are in a service industry, too.

And our travel agents can produce a report with graphs and spread sheets showing exactly how much greenhouse gas we spewed in a year. (Where do you think I got all that emission data from, anyway?) They’re short on suggestions for how to reduce the aforementioned travel, of course, but – hey – they’re in a service industry with the rest of us!

The big question is: exactly who are we all “serving”?

Maybe the only way out of this dilemma is through a new and shared understanding of what we are all trying to accomplish. Dr. David Suzuki urges us towards finding a “sacred balance” between humankind’s activities and the rest of the planet.  By signing the AIA 2030 Commitment, we are saying that we are all – architects, our consultants, our clients, builders, everyone whose projects we affect – working to reduce the environmental degradation caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The Iroquois Nation’s guiding principle was “seventh generation” thinking. William J. Worthen, AIA, LEED, the AIA’s Director & Resource Architect for Sustainability reminds us that our ultimate goal as a profession is the well-being of future generations. Call them our clients’ clients’ clients.   

So perhaps we aren’t truly serving the needs of future generations by designing ever-higher-performing buildings and then jetting around the globe to deliver services. My proposal:  Most of that corporate travel is directly attributable to projects. Let’s try including travel impacts in our projects’ overall emission-reduction goals. Why not? Translate your project’s KBTU/sf/yr into CO2 emissions, add your travel emissions, then do the math backwards. I’m not saying don’t travel at all, just travel less. We have as much control over that as we do over building envelope design or mechanical system selection, don’t we?

What do you think?


8 Comments on “The AIA 2030 Commitment: The Road Warriors’ Dilemma”

  1. Or you could turn down work you have to travel for. Instead of taking that project in Oregon, suggest a local Oregon firm.

    • Mike Davis FAIA says:

      Those are certainly options. Although we do a lot of work with engineers that are local to a project site and sometimes team with local architects for construction adminstration, we’re not inclined to give design projects away. Hence the term “dilemma”. It’s a big one.

  2. Peter Papesch, AIA, chair, BSA Sustainability Education says:

    Mike, after your stint as president of the BSA, I hope you’ll consider running for president of the country?

    You have a gift, my friend!


  3. barbra says:

    love it!
    and I wish more of us had those numbers at the tips of our fingers (we will soon enough…). I love the idea of accounting for this in the context of the projects, not just in the context of our corporate footprint (both are important).

    No, I can’t imagine many firms would turn work down, although I love that idea, Chris – but I’d be reasonably happy just to see every firm know what their impacts are!

    When I get calls from owners asking ‘who is the greenest firm we can hire’ (usually followed by assumption that they will likely be from Canada or PNW…) My first answer is to stop looking for headlines and awards, and look close to home, and in the culture and mindset of the firms close by…hopefully, they each have a Mike…

    • Mike Davis FAIA says:

      Thanks, Barbra! If more clients called you for recommendations on who to hire we’d all be in a better place! Readers: Please click the link on this page to the Sustainable Performance Institue. This is what your firm should do next . . .

  4. Hey Mike,

    Have you considered a satellite office for the duration of a project? “Local” representation who can split their time between the primary project and collaborating remotely on the next one. (I’m sure you could use a break from Darryl!)

    Great blog!


    • Mike Davis FAIA says:

      Scott: Believe it or not, we have done things like put Bergmeyer staff on temporary assignment at clients’ HQ’s or on-site in job trailers “satellite office” style. Not only did it save travel emissions, but it improved the whole team’s performance. Glad you’re reading and thanks for the comment!

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