It might actually happen this time. Katrina wasn’t enough. Even Sandy wasn’t enough. Maybe it’s the times we’re living in today or the pervasive 24/7 “news” cycle, but after the unimaginable devastation of Hurricane Harvey, we may have reached a tipping point. State and municipal governments (at least) in these United States of America may finally be ready to make climate change and resilience planning part of our ongoing and necessary conversation about public safety and how we spend taxpayers’ dollars.
For example. Yesterday, Marty Walsh, our esteemed Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, was quoted as saying we could be “wiped out as a city” if hit by a climate-chance fueled category 3 or 4 hurricane plus storm surge. And then – mentioning an academic study currently underway for a $10 billion dam to protect Boston Harbor – Mayor Walsh said:
“If we got hit with Harvey we are talking $50 or $60 billion in damage,” the mayor said. “Does that $10 billion look crazy anymore?”
Stop the presses.
This is exactly what activists and advocates and architects like us (and those are only the groups that start with the letter “A”) have been saying for more than a decade. Check out this report from A Better City, a Boston-based group of business leaders. Check out these winning entries from the Boston Society of Architects’ sponsored Living with Water design competition. Or this impact analysis from The Boston Harbor Association and our very own municipal advisory panel, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission.
And then there’s this idea for a barrier dam connecting several of Boston’s Harbor Islands. This no-longer far-fetched idea was proposed by a local architect – Antoinio DiMambro about – oh – 30 years ago.
Sure, $10B is a lot of money. Who remembers the Big Dig, that 15-year, $15B megaproject to bury Boston’s central artery in a tunnel? Those of us who lived through it would rather forget the construction impacts and cost overruns. But my point is: It got done, and it worked. And the City is inestimably better for it.
So I ask you: What’s the key difference between the Big Dig and whatever massive hard and soft (green) infrastructure projects the communities adjoining Boston Harbor should undertake to protect ourselves from the inevitable effects of climate change?
The Big Dig had a client. We don’t.
There is no shortage of genius designers in our region. I refer you again to the Living with Water competition. And we have widespread local consensus on the resilience imperative. The social justice advocates, environmentalists, architects and planners, businesses, transportation and tourism folks, affordable housing and neighborhood development folks will all show up for a rally or a lecture. We get it.
But how would this work actually get done? Design competitions cannot produce constructed wetlands. Rallies will not produce tidal basins and land wharves. Lectures will not lead to barrier reefs.
Architects, we already know how this process works. You can’t ask “how are we gonna pay for all this?” until we know what “all this” is. We need a real client. We need a climate change client. We need someone to pony up the very small percent of that $10B construction cost to begin the actual design process. We need someone to write the Request For Proposals (RFP) for the multi-disciplinary team to weigh all the impact analyses and cost-benefit studies and hydrology and geology reports and produce an actual feasibility study.
Not an academic study, not more free ideas, not a best-practices survey. Real build-able, fund-able design solutions.
Who will step up? Who will be our #ClimateChangeClient? Time’s a-wastin’.
So the United States federal government has gone back on its commitment to the 2015 UNFCCC Paris Climate Change Agreement. If you (like me) are mad as hell and can’t take it anymore, you’re no doubt also wondering what to do.
If you’re an architect or designer working in a US architectural firm, and your firm belongs to the American Institute of Architects, I have a suggestion: Sign the AIA 2030 Commitment. Do it now, before you cool off.
What will that accomplish? Allow me to elaborate.
Mayors of US Cities have announced that they’re sticking to the Paris carbon reduction guidelines. Many US States are sticking with it, too. California, Washington, and New York have banded together to form a climate alliance. California Governor Jerry Brown is on his way to China to rally support for his state’s initiatives.
Why? Because all those companies, people, and organizations, states, and municipal governments want to do whatever is within their powers to reduce the production of greenhouse gasses. And you do, too. See, that’s where signing the AIA 2030 Commitment comes in.
Because the AIA 2030 Commitment is – in fact – very much like the Paris Agreement. But unlike a global accord, it’s something your firm can participate in!
Hear me out. The Paris Agreement is a UN-sponsored compact created to reduce global greenhouse gas production. It’s voluntary and non-binding. Participating nations establish their own nationally determined contributions to carbon reduction. Nations self-report their progress every five years, and pay on a sliding scale into a maintenance and reinvestment fund.
But the greatest thing about the Paris Agreement: everyone is (was) all in together.
The AIA 2030 Commitment is a national framework targeting carbon neutrality in the
building industry by 2030. It is voluntary and non-binding. Participating firms work against pre-established energy efficiency targets, but there’s no penalty for not hitting them. Firms self-report every year using a slick web-based reporting tool developed by the AIA with the US DOE . . . which we all (kinda) already paid for with our sliding-scale AIA National dues. It’s a fabulous, transformative program.
But the sad thing is: We’re not all in together. Not even close.
A recent report by the AIA Committee on the Environment, “The Habits of High-Performing Firms”, captured the grim statistics. There are 20,000 AIA Member firms in the USA. In 2016, 366 firms signed the Commitment and only 152 firms reported in 2015. That means only 1% – one percent – of all US architecture firms were part of an active, industry-sponsored initiative to do exactly the same damned thing the Paris Agreement was created to do.
In 2015, the average energy reduction for the nearly 6,000 projects submitted to the 2030 Commitment was 38.1%. So it works. But first, you have to sign up.
There’s your answer. Have your firm sign the AIA 2030 Commitment. Now. If you’re not a firm principal, go to your bosses’ offices or cubicles or workstations on Monday morning. Get ’em while they’re still on their first cup of coffee. Implore them to sign it. Tell them to sign in solidarity with all those states, cities, and corporations. Tell them it’s time for the architects to step up. Tell them the good people of America want them to sign.
Tell them it’s an act of protest. Because it is.
Anger is an energy. Use it. Get with the program.
#Vinceremos (Thanks, Rus!)
When I was growing up near Syracuse, NY, the drinking age was 18. I went to college in Pennsylvania in the mid-70’s. At the time, the drinking age there was 21. Mea culpa, I would buy cheap beer (Utica Club) at home and smuggle it into my dorm by the case.
This changed when the US Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age act of 1984. Congress knew that legislating the drinking age was one of those powers reserved to the states. So instead of usurping their Federal authority, the aforementioned Drinking Age Act reduced the federal highway funding by 10% per year to every state that didn’t make 21 their drinking age. By 1995, the USA had a uniform national drinking age.
What does this have to do with the AIA 2030 Commitment? Glad you asked.
Those of us who have signed the Commitment have pledged that all the new buildings, architectural interiors, and major renovations we design will be carbon-neutral by the year 2030. This, of course, doesn’t mean our projects won’t need energy to operate. It means they will be radically energy efficient, and the energy they do need will be entirely provided by renewable sources.
And by the year 2030, we hope that a lot of grid-sourced power will come from distributed solar and wind generation. But before this can happen, our nation needs to take a good hard look at how we regulate distributed generation (or “DG”).
Caution: this is a complicated topic, and I’m substantially out of my depth with this blog post. But here’s what I’ve managed to find out: As of this writing, 33 US States have some form of distributed generation interconnection standards. But they’re wildly inconsistent. New York allows a maximum system size of 2 megawatts. Washington allows 20 megawatts. Massachusetts and California have no maximum system sizes. Twelve US states have interconnection guidelines, not standards. Five states have no rules at all.
Now I’m no expert, but this doesn’t look like the kind of regulatory environment that would support the nationwide proliferation of distributed renewable energy generation. It looks like a ball of confusion. The kind of legal crazy-quilt that you sometimes get when states and municipalities write their own rules (in this case heavily influenced by investor-owned utilities) about something that should be consistent from coast-to-coast. Like the drinking age.
To make it worse, national DG interconnection standards already exist. An American professional society, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the “world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology”) created them with the support of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and made them available to the US Department of Energy. Where I assume they sit in a file.
Like my example of the drinking age, the adoption of a national uniform DG interconnection standard may need some help to make it happen. Like Congressional leadership and a good carrot/stick approach. Maybe we hold federal energy production subsidies hostage until state utility commissions see the light?
Or heck, maybe we just need a slogan. This stuff doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.
So let’s try it this way: You say you want American energy independence? You say regulation is stifling growth? You say you want government to get out of the way and let innovation happen? In this case, I agree. Let’s DEREGULATE DG!
I will most certainly drink to that.
Everyone’s talking about infrastructure these days. It has somehow become our national “common ground” topic. Hard to argue against fixing roads and bridges, right?
But in fact, there is much room for differing opinions within the topic. If we can somehow produce the $1 trillion that some people think we need to spend on our national infrastructure, what should we spend it on?
Those of us who have signed the AIA 2030 Commitment to increase the energy efficiency of the buildings and spaces we design and thereby reduce the greenhouse gas emissions created by building energy use may have a unique perspective on this question. We who work to promote societal sustainability may wish to see investment made in infrastructure that reduces carbon emissions from transportation. We may prioritize high-speed rail and urban subway systems over eight-lane freeways.
The American Institute of Architects has gone so far as to say that Americans consider their public buildings – schools, libraries, community centers, and even parks – to be infrastructure. Maybe so. Dams and water mains have their proponents, too. Some would like to see our nation’s airports turned into giant indoor theme parks. Butterfly gardens, indeed.
But nobody seems to be talking about our national electricity distribution network.
The 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave our national energy distribution system a D+. They called our electrical grid “aging”, increasingly subject to failure, and incapable of keeping up with demand. The alternative? A nation-wide smart grid.
A smart grid is “an electrical grid that’s integrated with two-way communication networks”, writes Marc Lallanilla for LiveScience, a technology news aggregator. These networks allow for the real-time monitoring and management of electrical supply and demand. It gives utilities the ability to shift the relationship between power producers and power users. With this technology, energy use can be reduced during peak demands hours and increased during system outages.
A smart grid is also a greener grid. A smart grid supports the growth of distributed generation and energy storage, thereby reducing the need for new fossil-fuel generation capacity. A smart grid is more efficient and reduces transmission loss.
But it’s gonna take work. Our existing electricity infrastructure dates back to the 1880’s.
By some recent cost estimates, a $340 – $480 billion investment over 20 years to overhaul the nation’s electricity distribution network and make it “smart” would offset $70 billion per year in losses from outages and save $20.4 billion per year in increased system efficiency. In short, for every dollar spent on a smart grid, “the return is about $2.80 to $6 to the broader economy. And this figure is very conservative,” figures University of Minnesota professor Massoud Amin.
And you want to talk national security? A smart grid is safer from cyber-attack, sabotage, or natural disaster.
So, architects, interior designers, colleagues, whether you are AIA Members or not: be smart. Speak up. Let’s take this opportunity to influence the national conversation about infrastructure. We can be the people who advocate for a nation-wide smart grid. Start by checking out the AIA Committee on the Environment Advocacy page. Make your voices heard.
Greetings. First, a disclaimer. This blog post is not written on behalf of my company, Bergmeyer, my professional society, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), or my local AIA Chapter, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA).
This post is one architect’s opinion.
I have been writing this blog since June 2011 to help promote the AIA 2030 Commitment. If you, like me, understand the link between building energy use and greenhouse gas production, and think we should design our buildings and spaces to be increasingly energy efficient so that by the year 2030 they are all net zero energy or carbon-neutral, the AIA 2030 Commitment is an invaluable program. It’s a framework for connecting our firms’ professional activities to the ambitious goals of Architecture 2030 Challenge. It’s genius; one of best ideas the AIA has ever had.
But you may not appreciate how important the work of the United States Federal Government is to achieving these goals.
All that satellite data we get on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, polar ice caps, and water temperature? The info that 350.org uses to say we’re at 400 PPM of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere now, adding 2 PPM per year? Much of that data comes from the Earth Sciences division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), part of the executive branch of the United States federal government.
If, in 2017, the work this agency does is re-framed as “politicized science” and their funding is cut, our feedback loop will be gone. We will have no idea if the work we do under the AIA 2030 Commitment is making any difference.
Next: Part of what drives the AIA 2030 Commitment vision is a future where all the energy we need for our buildings will come from renewable sources. And who is doing the scientific research necessary to get us to this goal? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL is the United States’ primary laboratory for renewable energy research and development. And it’s funded through the United States Department of Energy (DOE), another agency of the executive branch of the US federal government.
If, in 2017, renewable energy research is considered a “subsidy” and is viewed as something that should be abandoned because it “distorts markets”, I fear our carbon-neutral future may be unattainable.
Finally, let’s look at what else the DOE does for us. The Building Energy Use and Disclosure Ordinances that many US cities have adopted relies on Energy Star Portfolio Manager as a reporting platform. Energy Star was created and is run by the DOE. Our national database on building energy use, the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey or CBECS, is compiled by the US Energy Information Administration, also part of the DOE. And that headline news in May 2015 about the AIA 2030 Commitment’s Design Data Exchange or DDx, the remarkable new online reporting tool that we all use? Developed in partnership with the US Department of Energy.
If, in 2017, all these agencies get gutted, where will we be? Say nothing of the Clean Power Plan or the 2016 United Nations’ Paris climate treaty, I’m afraid that our work under the AIA 2030 Commitment will be severely impacted.
So what can an architect do?
If you’re an AIA Member, I have a suggestion. One of the things the American Institute of Architects was designed to do is lobby. On Capitol Hill. The AIA is incorporated as a chapter 501(c)(6) trade association and is headquartered down the street from the White House for that very reason.
The AIA’s annual Government Advocacy survey is here. Take a moment to share your opinions about our core values and principles and how the professional association your dues supports should represent you in Washington DC. Tell them to head up to The Hill and knock on every door and say the architects in the USA will fight climate change and will stand up for energy efficient buildings, resilient and livable communities, equity, social justice, and civil rights. The survey is only live until December 16, 2016, but if you miss the deadline please email them here. Operators are standing by. You can make yourself heard.
So what do you think? Do you disagree? Do you think that architects should stay out of politics? Think I’m an alarmist? We have more important things to worry about? Or maybe we’re better off without government support and the “free” market will take care of all our needs? I welcome differing points of view. Please post. And thank you.
My partner and I recently spent four days knocking on doors in Charlotte, North Carolina working to get out the vote just before the 2016 Presidential election. And you know how that story ended. But what’s relevant here is what happened along the way.
Being out of my comfort zone was rewarding. Except for Halloweens past, I have little experience to going door-to-door. To make it even more challenging, here I was, an east coast Caucasian urbanite trying to engage folks in primarily African-American and suburban neighborhoods in spontaneous conversation about matters of national importance. It was – at times – awkward.
If you’ve read my blog, you know my gig. “Thinking sustainably within the practice of architecture”. So when I walk up to someone’s front porch to convince them to vote a certain way, my issues are climate change, buildings, and greenhouse gas emissions. The people I was talking to? They had issues, too. Civil rights, voter suppression, criminal justice reform, incarceration rates. We may have been in the same church, but our pews were very, very far apart.
A few years back (2004), an essay titled “The Death of Environmentalism” caused quite a stir. Reviled by many for being divisive and unfair, the authors’ primary points – that we are making inadequate progress on global warming and, tactically speaking, environmental activists tend to isolate ourselves from other social movements – were pretty irrefutable. A little later (2007), Paul Hawken’s masterpiece Blessed Unrest was in my hands. I felt uplifted by the scope and breadth of world-wide human caring and generosity (tactics be damned) that he described. Those two poles – we’re losing the fight but may still win the battle – contributed to forming something of a dichotomous but suppressed personal world view.
And then, almost ten years later, I’m standing on a porch in Charlotte and – boom – there it is again. We’re all in this together, but we’re not connecting,
So here’s what I think.
I think we need to see what we (architects and designers fighting climate change via the AIA 2030 Commitment and other strategies) do as being part of a broader efforts to serve greater human needs. Learn about the environmental justice movement. Understand that climate change impacts will be inequitably borne by the least privileged members of our society. Appreciate how environmental degradation in US cities is often connected to hyper-segregation. For a lot of people, airborne particulates are a much bigger deal that building-integrated photovoltaics. Check out how the Rockefeller Foundation describes urban resilience as beginning with social cohesion. Learn how to connect what we do with people who are fighting oppression and poverty.
Then make those connections part of our everyday work. Because we are (as has been said before) stronger together.
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you’. In between, the leader is a servant.”
. . . or so said Max De Pree, the CEO and President of Herman Miller from 1980 to 1987. His father, D. J. De Pree, founded the office furniture company in 1905 and we now know it as one of the most equitable, forward-thinking, and sustainably-focused businesses in our industry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately. This quote is my absolute favorite. Let’s unpack it, starting from the finish. The leader/servant thing is an ancient idea. Selfless, empowering, team-focused leadership is certainly effective in architecture and interior design firms. And everyone likes to hear “thank you” – an expression that exists in every human language yet could always be heard more frequently in the workplace. But the first part of that quote is kinda tricky.
“Define reality” sounds challenging. A task with existential implications. “What do I know about ‘defining reality?’ I’m no philosopher. I’m just trying to run a good design firm.” Well, someone has to do it. A group of people working together in an organization needs to understand their organization’s values, its future plans, its market and position, its reason-for-being. Defining – and sharing – that reality is job number one for leadership.
Herman Miller’s vision is to “design and build a better world”. Their mission: “Inspiring designs to help people do great things”. You can download their November 2015 “Better World Report” here. Shrug this off as corporate PR if you‘d like, but this is how they define reality. And it works for Herman Miller.
So how do I define reality? I’m no philosopher either. But here’s what I believe:
I believe Ed Mazria and Architecture 2030. I believe that burning fossil fuels to generate power for our buildings is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. I believe designing our buildings and spaces to be radically more energy efficient is the most important thing we can do to help get us to a 21st century low-carbon economy.
And I believe the market for smart, capable architects and designers that can do this is not going away. In fact, I think new building codes like CALGreen, corporate social responsibility policies from the likes of Kaiser Permanente, Google, Xerox, and Target, and the globally persuasive power of organizations like 350.org are pointing us exactly in the other direction.
Add to this the exploding power our own design tools and a steady stream of young professionals who crave an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the world, and reality doesn’t look so hard to define anymore.
But the rigorous process of continually improving the designed energy use of all our firm’s projects is not easy. That’s why the AIA 2030 Commitment was created.
The 2030 Commitment is a free program of the American Institute of Architects. It’s one of the best member-service you’ll get from the AIA. When you sign it and join, you get access to a world-class interactive, shareable database and reporting tool called the Design Data Exchange or DDx. Once you start entering simple information about your projects (like use group, climate zone, and MEP systems) you can compare how your projects’ designed energy efficiency compares to other similar ones. And for firm leaders, your annual report is an overview of your firm’s entire body of work showing where you’re making progress and where you may need to focus more attention.
The AIA 2030 Commitment DDx is exactly the right tool for architects and designers who want to make a meaningful difference in the world. So sign up. It’s what good leaders do.