The AIA 2030 Commitment: The Drivers of Change

Someday, you may find yourself . . . on a construction site! And you may ask yourself . . . well, how did I get here?

Next time you’re stomping around a job site in a hard hat ask this question instead: What has changed here?  What is different about this activity now that our firm has signed the AIA 2030 Commitment?

The Bergmeyer project site I found myself on was – as usual – organized chaos. Adaptive reuse of a historic Boston building at about 80% complete, people were everywhere. Stuff was being hauled from trucks. Sheetrock flew through the air. Screwguns growled. Cable was being pulled, pipes were being fitted. People were pointing at drawings and talking on cell phones.

So what has changed about this construction site over – let’s say – the last twenty years? OK, the cell phones. But what else?

Well, there were recycling bins on every floor full of scrap wood, metals, and drywall. Twenty years ago all that stuff would’ve gone into one big dumpster to be hauled to a landfill. Now, construction waste gets sorted for recycling. Has sustainable design caused this change?

No. In the 1990s, the Massachusetts DEP made it illegal to dump easily recyclable waste materials from construction sites into landfills. This change was caused by regulation. 

This particular project is in an old building. Yes, there is embodied energy in those brick walls. Yes, we are salvaging hunks of old framing timbers for re-use. Yes, we are minimizing site disturbance, availing ourselves of site density benefits and getting beacoup LEED points for it. Has sustainable design caused this change?

Partially. But what’s also at work are some sweet financial incentives. The project earned a Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit for restoring the building’s exterior and a New Market Tax Credit for its urban location. These tax credits (created by our State and Federal legislatures) brought investment dollars to the project.

OK, then. During design, we did energy modeling and produced projected energy use calculations. This allowed us to do a cost-benefit analysis on the high-efficiency fan coil units that were being installed on-site by skilled “green jobs” technicians. Our project PEUI is 54 Kbtu/sf/yr, about 20% better than Target Finder baseline. We also drove our lighting power density down to .54 watts/sf with LED task lighting and CFLs everywhere else. Surely, sustainable design was behind those choices.

Yes. But that low LPD and improved energy efficiency also earned us a boatload of cash rebates from our local public electric utility. And why did the utility offer those rebates? ‘Cuz they’re nice people? Hah! Thanks to utility restructuring legislation, the money for utility rebates is collected by the state via “systems benefit charges” on electric bills. The utilities are then required to subsidize building energy efficiency improvements with those cash dollars.

So what are we saying here? The AIA 2030 Commitment hasn’t changed anything on the construction site?

Not so much yet . . . but it will. And, more importantly, it has changed us.

We now know what a Kilo-BTU per square foot per year is and why it’s important. We know how to use this metric to make a cogent, objective case for improving building energy efficiency. We are more fluent with the cost-benefits of different engineering systems. We can connect building envelope enhancements and lighting system improvements with overall project goals so that really good replacement windows don’t get “value engineered” (how I loathe that term!) out of the project. 

And we can acknowledge that the real drivers for change right now – regulation and incentive – are what the market currently needs. At least until belief in carbon-neutral building becomes more widespread. And we can recognize that government – especially state and municipal government – is in fact a very effective partner in helping us achieve our AIA 2030 Commitment goals. And twenty years from now, building construction will be a very different practice.

Same as it ever was? It’s not.

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