If you’ve read all you want about the Green New Deal or have already dismissed it as impossible, you won’t want to read this blog post.
Still with me? OK, then.
On February 11, 2019, the American Institute of Architects Tweeted: “The AIA supports the Green New Deal framework. We applaud the efforts of Congress and its committees to find new ways to support achieving a carbon neutral future by 2030.” In the full press release, 2019 AIA President Bill Bates added: “However, there’s a great deal of work that needs to be done. AIA encourages Congress to swiftly enact public policies today that will address the dire consequences we’re facing.”
As an AIA Member whose firm has signed the 2030 Commitment and is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, I applaud this measured and objective endorsement of the GND as a non-binding and aspirational goal statement. But heck, from the furor in the politisphere, you’d think the Resolution was copied from the Communist Manifesto.
Can we turn down the heat and just look at what it says?
On page 6 of my copy, after all the “Whereases” and the “Resolveds” comes the call for a “10-year national mobilization” to accomplish some specific “goals and projects”. To me, this part says “this is what the US federal government should be working on for the next ten years”. The goals include:
- A. Building resiliency against climate-change related disasters. I’m good with that.
- B. Repairing and upgrading the national infrastructure. OK by me.
- C. Meeting 100% of the US power demands with renewable energy. Seems like a must-do.
- D. Creating an energy-efficient, distributed, and “smart” power grid. I like it.
- E. Upgrading all existing buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency. Sign me up.
- H. Overhauling transportation systems to “eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible”. No objection here.
- I. Mitigating the long-term health impacts of pollution and climate change. A no-brainer.
The Resolution has fourteen of these goals. The ones I have cited are the most meaningful to me as a citizen-architect. I don’t know very much about carbon storage or biodiversity or sustainable farming practices, so I’ll pass on commenting. And – honestly – I don’t know if all of this is even achievable, but this is what this AIA 2030 Commitment signer (and voter) WANTS the US federal government to be working on for the next ten years. Let’s get going on this, Congress.
And while I have the floor, every email I get from the AIA has a tag line. It says:
- “Founded in 1857, AIA consistently works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Through more than 200 international, state and local chapters, AIA advocates for public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing.”
The goals I listed above? They sure sound like public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing to me.
And one more thing. My AIA also has a Code of Ethics. Among the many things it binds me as an AIA Member to are this:
- Ethical Standard 2.4: “Members should . . . advise their clients and employers of their obligations to the environment, including: access to clean air, water, sunlight and energy for all; sustainable production, extraction, transportation and consumption practices; a built environment that equitably supports human health and well-being and is resistant to climate change; and restoring degraded or depleted natural resources.”
That’s my case. I yield the balance of my time.
I work in what is now called the “Seaport District” in South Boston. There’s a construction site outside my office window. It’s pretty cold in Boston in February, so I gotta hand it to the men and women who show up to work every day in the cold and snow.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 162 million people in the US workforce. Another BLS study estimates that outdoor occupations (like construction) account for maybe 28 million of those jobs. So let’s say 80% of the jobs in the USA are indoors.
And look, I’m not an economist by a long shot, but if the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP: a monetary value for the output of goods and services by an economy) is almost $20 trillion, I would guess that those of us who work indoors account for 80% of that GDP, or $16 trillion. Hold that thought.
Another thing I see out my office window: a lot of infrastructure.
“Infrastructure” is defined as “the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function.” That includes roads, bridges, train tracks, airports, water and sewer pipes, and power generation and distribution systems.
But what do all those systems connect to? Buildings . . . where that $16 trillion worth of indoor-generated GDP is happening.
I know I’m just spit-balling the dollars, but this much is inarguable: Buildings mediate between an often unaccommodating outdoor environment and productive forms of human engagement like research and development, health care, education, banking and finance, shopping and eating, sleeping and getting dressed in the morning.
So I was very happy to see the American Institute of Architects take up this banner with a policy statement titled “Where we stand: Buildings are infrastructure”. Since building support 80% of our GDP, buildings rightfully should be considered part of our national infrastructure. And if we’re going to talk about investing in infrastructure, we should also talk about investing in building – especially improving the energy efficiency of the buildings that 80% of us work in.
We know that investing in energy efficiency boosts private market growth. We’ve done this before. Under the Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction (Section 179D), $1 of federal tax deduction has leveraged $3.12 of private investment in high-performing HVAC, lighting, and building envelope improvements and reduced energy use by 8% since 2005.
And we know that federal government policy can certainly drive greater building energy efficiency, leading to a more competitive and productive economy. The Alliance to Save Energy points out that the minimum efficiency standards for appliances set by the US Department of Energy has already saved American households nearly $500 per year on utility bills, and since 1992, the EPA’s ENERGY STAR has helped US families and businesses save $430 billion and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion metric tons.
Public investment in buildings will produce a public benefit. Cost-effective and revenue-neutral ways of making our (indoor) workforce more productive should be part of a national infrastructure investment plan. Let’s get Congress to work on this.
Remember when the drinking age was different in US states? I do. I went to high school in upstate New York in the 70’s where the drinking age was 18. I went away to college in Pennsylvania where the drinking age was 21. I smuggled many a case of beer from my home to my dorm room in the back of a beat-up Ford station wagon.
Folks in Washington DC got wind of such illegal interstate commerce and decided we needed a uniform national drinking age. But this being a “states’ rights” matter, the feds couldn’t order the states to change their laws. So in 1984, they passed the National Minimum Drinking Age act. This bill withheld 10% of scheduled federal highway improvement dollars from every state that allowed people younger than 21 to buy booze. By 1995, the national drinking age was 21.
Now let’s think about the AIA 2030 Commitment and our pledge to get to carbon-neutral architecture by the year 2030. We know what is broadly meant (in this case) by “carbon neutral”: building that are a). radically energy efficient and b). use renewable energy exclusively so that c). the buildings’ annual carbon emissions from operations net out to zero.
I was recently in Copenhagen. The nations of the European Union, having taken the Paris Accords seriously, are thinking beyond carbon-neutral buildings. They’re working to make their entire economies carbon-neutral by 2050. This will obviously require a lot of renewable energy. Today, 53.8% of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. Finland is at 38.7%. Latvia: 37.2%, Austria: 33.5%, Denmark: 32.2%. These countries are on their way.
In the United States, we’re only at 12.2% of primary energy consumption from renewables. For us to get to a carbon-neutral economy, we’d need a whole lot more renewable energy generation than we have now.
Why, may you ask, is renewable energy in the USA lagging way behind those EU nations? The answers are truly myriad . . . but a big reason is that old Constitutional states’ rights thing. Like the drinking age in the mid-70’s, every US state sets its own renewable energy generation laws: its own renewable portfolio standards, its own net metering policies, and its own interconnection standards.
Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are the regulations that requires utilities in a state to produce a certain amount of power from renewable sources. Twelve US states have no RPS requirements. Eight states have only voluntary RPS targets. Net metering policies allow distributed power generators to sell excess electricity back to the utilities. Twelve US states do not allow net metering. And net metering capacity limits vary widely by state: Wisconsin allows net metering for systems up to 20 kilowatts, New Mexico’ cap is 80 megawatts, Arizona’s system cap is defined in another way: it’s 125% of a customer’s total connected load.
Interconnection standards regulate how any kind of distributed power generators (like photovoltaic arrays or wind turbines) can physically connect to the grid. Seven US states have no interconnection standards. Some states (like Illinois) have adopted IEEE 1547, the model national interconnection standard established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Most states have written their own interconnection standards, but, like Iowa, they typically only apply to investor-owned utilities. Municipal electric utilities are free to make up their own rules. Kansas’ standards only apply to systems with capacities up to 200 kW. Florida classifies “waste heat” as a renewable fuel source.
The ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) says “lack of a consistent standard that explicitly establishes parameters and procedures for connecting to the grid drives up both monetary and transaction costs for technology manufacturers and owners, discouraging [renewable energy] deployment”.
This is no way to run a country. Those damned regulations are killing our industry! (Where have you heard THAT screed before?)
The fix? Like the national minimum drinking age, we know it can be done. We need our Congress and President to realize that carbon neutrality is too big an issue for the states to solve on their own. If we’re ever going to get to a carbon-neutral economy in the USA, it will take federal leadership. We just need to make it a national priority.
As a long-time supporter of the AIA 2030 Commitment, I was looking forward to seeing how the infrastructure discussion would take shape this year in Washington, DC. Why? Because I believe architecture IS infrastructure, and driving greater energy efficiency in our existing buildings should be a national priority. Plus, we’ve been kicking the infrastructure investment can down the road for decades now. So maybe with a real estate guy in the White House, Congressional priorities could be changed.
On February 12, 2018, the Administration published its infrastructure plan, a “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America”. I read the whole thing. I wasn’t too surprised to find that existing buildings were not mentioned in the document. What was surprisingly absent: a comprehensive vision for the sustainable, resilient 21st century infrastructure that America sorely needs.
As we design professionals know, you can’t raise public support or private capital for anything without describing that thing first – and describing it in specific and compelling terms. This infrastructure “plan” failed to make a convincing case for infrastructure investment.
I didn’t expect the White House to conduct a coast-to-coast needs assessment of where infrastructure investment was most warranted. They didn’t need to. That research has already been done. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE) 2016 “Failure to Act” report documents the many ways in which the US infrastructure “investment gap” increasingly burdens American businesses and families.
To kick-start the infrastructure discussion, I believe the Administration needed only to do two things: first, describe the desired end goal, and then, prioritize.
For example: they could have started by prioritizing the national security need for a 21st-century power generation and distribution infrastructure that would maintain vital functions within our buildings in the face of increasing threats from a rapidly shifting climate and global political strife. A second priority case could have been made for infrastructure improvements that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This could have included the need to use public funding mechanisms to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings.
The Administration could also have asked Members of Congress to work together on a nationwide public transportation network to facilitate the equitable and carbon-efficient movement of Americans between their homes and their workplaces. They could’ve described a future America with ports, harbors, and riverbanks that were redesigned to better-manage the stresses of severe weather and protect the lives, businesses, and interests of the citizens that live or work near them.
Supporting equal-opportunity wealth formation should have been presented as another high national priority, directing infrastructure investment to communities without sufficient access to private capital. Ultimately, resilient design in its broadest sense should have been an overarching infrastructure priority, therefore leveraging the expertise of the nation’s many talented designers.
But, most importantly, the Administration needed to make the public benefit case. Again, the ASCE report is explicit about the projected $3.9 trillion loss in GDP that decaying infrastructure will cost the US by 2025, the $7 trillion in lost business sales, and the $3,400 in direct cost to each US family per year. And these figures are apart from the huge untapped savings that improved building energy efficiency could bring to every sector of the economy. No public benefit case, no public investment.
Imperatives such as these could have shifted the infrastructure question from “why” to “how” and formed the basis for meaningful public policy. Unfortunately, an enormous political opportunity has been missed.
Money, religion, sex … and politics. In many social settings, these are still taboo topics. Politics is especially radioactive these days. You just can’t go there.
So let’s “go there”. Let’s talk politics.
Suppose you’re an architect or designer with a firm that has signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, and your firm reports the designed energy use of all your projects every year. You’re probably working to reduce the Energy Use Intensity or Lighting Power Density of your projects. That’s excellent. Good for you, good for your firm.
If this is so, you’ve probably found yourself in a conference room talking about the AIA 2030 Commitment’s online reporting site, the Design Data Exchange (aka the “DDx”). You may even have discussed Energy Star Target Finder, since that’s the program that sets building energy targets within the DDx. If you’re a serious building energy geek, you may have heard about EnergyPlus or OpenStudio, a couple open-source programs that support building energy modeling calculations. Good stuff.
What you probably haven’t talked about in that conference room: politics. You know the rules. No politics in business-related settings.
This isn’t a bad idea. We architect/designer types are inclusive and tolerant. Our work involves big teams of people like builders and engineers and public officials and clients with money. We have to work with everyone, right?
But hear me out. That AIA 2030 Commitment DDx? It was developed by the American Institute of Architects in partnership with the United States Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A lot of the work on the DDx was done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Energy Star is an EPA program, and EnergyPlus and OpenStudio are both DOE programs developed at the LBNL.
Both the EPA and DOE could see their budgets slashed by Congress in 2018. Drastic cuts are also being considered for NASA’s earth-science research, NOAA’s weather satellite budget, and the kind of software development the LBNL does. This is stuff we use every day.
So, really, there’s nothing “taboo” about any of this. In order to drive greater building energy use efficiency through our design work, Architects depend on programs and technologies developed by agencies within the United States federal government. And we need to see funding for these agencies protected.
That’s why the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) does advocacy work. Teaming with the AIA’s Government Relations and Advocacy staff, AIA COTE has its own web page that keeps folks informed about urgent issues and what you can do to help. Scroll down the page and find a spreadsheet of all the EPA and DOE programs that are critical to our work. Read the letters of support for these EPA and DOE programs signed by almost 800 firms, and check out the “101” on the federal budgeting process. And make your presence known by joining the AIA COTE Advocacy Network.
Don’t think of advocacy as “politics”. Think of it as responsible citizenship. We should absolutely go there.
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!)