The AIA 2030 Commitment: One Architect’s Opinion

shutterstock_281262299Greetings. 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 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.


The AIA 2030 Commitment: Stay Strong(er)


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 AIA 2030 Commitment: Leadership


“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 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.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Size Doesn’t Matter

Kipnis Architecture + Planning, Architects

Kipnis Architecture + Planning, Architects

Here’s a fun fact for you: According to the 2014 AIA Firm Survey report (sorry, no hyperlink, you have to buy it), 79% of AIA Member firms have less than 10 employees. Recognizing this, the AIA has a Small Firms Roundtable knowledge community and a whole online Small Firms Resource Center with practice tools, contract and insurance information, and links to sustainability resources to serve these members.

Oddly missing from the Small Firms Resource Center: a link to the AIA 2030 Commitment.

I was in Chicago a couple weeks ago at the offices of HKS (thanks, Rand!) for the first-ever strategic planning retreat for the AIA 2030 Commitment. More on that later. While in Chicago, I had the pleasure of meeting Nate Kipnis, FAIA, founder and principal of Kipnis Architecture + Planning (KAP), one of those aforementioned small firms.

Nate, not a reticent man, told me that the AIA 2030 Commitment is viewed by many practitioners as something for big firms only. His small firm, however, was an early adopter of the 2030 Commitment and – heck – here he was in this strategic planning meeting anyway, so I seized the opportunity to do an impromptu interview.

80% of KAP’s projects are single-family homes, either new, additions, or renovations. They have won numerous awards for design excellence and historic preservation, and have eight “Best of Houzz” awards for design and client satisfaction.

So I asked: “Why did you sign the AIA 2030 Commitment?”

Nate: “Because I’d burn in hell if I didn’t!”

But seriously, folks. Nate’s firm just gets it. For KAP, the Commitment is a point of differentiation. They put both design excellence and environmental responsibility right up front. Their tag line: “High Design/Low Carbon”, is something the firm takes very seriously. KAP gets great press for high-performance design, and this brings the kind of clients they want. And Nate does a killer seminar presentation called “Energy Modeling for All; 2030 Commitment for Small Firms”, which he has presented a number of times at the AIA National Convention, locally in Chicago, and occasionally elsewhere in the country. If you’re a small firm and have questions about the AIA 2030 Commitment, please look this guy up. He’s very persuasive.

And, I also asked, how does a small firm manage the annual AIA 2030 Commitment reporting?


Energy model graphics by Kipnis Architecture + Planning

Nate is definitive on this point. He knows it takes them 5 to 10 hours per project to do the energy models and enter project data into the DDX interface, and they build it into their work flow. That’s the entire deal. The modeling is done early in during schematic design to guide decision making and then updated at the end of design development. They use either Energos in Vectorworks 2016 (their CAD program of choice), HEED (a free program) or Sefaira to do their own in-house energy modeling.

An overhead staff member to drive sustainable design? Sure, that’s a great resource, but something that small firms can’t afford. Nate, however, doesn’t need one. At KAP, it’s just part of everyone’s job.

The takeaway? Size doesn’t matter. Small firms can be part of the AIA 2030 Commitment, too. They have to be. Because ultimately, to get to carbon-neutral by 2030, we need all firms, all projects. Including the small(er) ones.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Commitment Issues


Are you commitment-phobic? It’s not pretty.

If you have commitment issues, the thought of going “all in” with another person could give you the shakes. For some peripatetic people, the grass over there always looks greener. Some sorry folks have torched a few too many bridges in their lives.

But hey, not us! We’re architects and interior designers. Ours isn’t a field you dabble in. You commit to it. Every day.

So we shouldn’t have a problem making the AIA 2030 Commitment, right? But so far, only 350 firms have signed it. There are 21,000 architectural firms in the USA. That means 20,650 companies need help. So allow me:

Start here. Andrea Love, AIA, is Director of Building Science at Payette and chairs the AIA National 2030 Commitment Working Group. Her firm has committed. In this great article about her in AIA Architect, she’s described as a “commitment coach.” Andrea says thanks to the 2030 Commitment, there is now “energy intuition” at Payette. Even the firm’s Principals (gasp!) know what an EUI is, how to find the EUI for a project, and whether a specific EUI is good or not.

Andrea has also led the charge on developing and rolling out the AIA’s new Design Data Exchange (DDX) reporting tool and initiated the Working Group’s new peer-to-peer mentorship program that will (hopefully, soon) get you and your firm to overcome your fear of commitment and sign up.

Need more? Paula Melton at BuildingGreen Inc. says there are selfish reasons to commit, too. She quotes Greg Mella, FAIA, VP at SmithGroupJJR who says that signing the AIA 2030 Commitment gave his firm specific, measurable ways to track their progress towards greater energy efficiency goals.

Paula also quotes Heather Holdridge, Assoc. AIA and sustainability manager at Lake|Flato Architects. Heather says the AIA 2030 Commitment saves her firm time as reporting becomes a database of high-performance project strategies that keep them from re-inventing the wheel.

Perhaps you think that committing won’t make a difference? Another Environmental Building news article takes a more philosophical approach. In this one, “Progress on 2030 Goals” (also by Paula Melton) Melissa Wackerle, the AIA’s Senior Director for Sustainable Practice & Knowledge, reports that the AIA 2030 Commitment is growing. In 2010, year one of the Commitment, 56 firms reported. By the end of 2014, 140 firms were delivering data. And given recent news about the growing threats of climate change AND the new ease and benefits of 2030 reporting, she expects that more firms will be committing in the near future.

The take away? Change is happening. So c’mon, sign up. You have nothing to fear.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Connecting to the Mission


“It’s great that the firm’s senior leaders are so committed to sustainable design. But it’s hard to see how I connect to that mission in my day-to-day work.”

I’ve recently become president of Bergmeyer, my architecture and interior design firm. With this new position, I have set an ambitious goal: to have lunch with each and every member of our staff. It’s been great so far! But that first statement has come up a few times.

How can we address this? How can we be sure that everyone in our organization feels like they are connected to the sustainable design mission?

That’s where the AIA 2030 Commitment comes in. Allow me to elaborate.

Bergmeyer has been doing this AIA 2030 Commitment thing for about five years now. We signed in 2011, created our first Sustainability Action Plan, and reported the aggregated design energy use of all our projects in 2012. With this first report, we could see that the sum floor area of our interiors-only work was twice that of our whole-buildings work. Our lighting power density (LPD) for these projects was pretty good in year one: 19.5% better than baseline.

Over the years, our annual LPD for interiors-only projects has improved to 29.4% better than baseline in 2013 and 32.9% better in 2014. We’ve been encouraged, but we suspected a lot of our energy efficiency gains came from the greater commercial acceptance of LED lighting and tougher energy codes. Plus, we were getting LPD calculations from our engineers after we were done designing, so we had little influence over them. And there has been a baffling spread of LPDs within these projects from 0.50 to almost 5.00 watts/SF, well over the 1.5 watt/SF baseline. Something was not right.

Last year we gave ourselves a challenge. With the AIA 2030 Commitment providing the framework for our sustainable design mission, we knew we needed to be smarter about lighting power density. We wanted our designers to have a tool that would let them make real-time LPD calculations and drive consistently better energy efficiency during the design process.

So we developed a plug-in for our design software. Then we identified a beta project and let the team run with it.

Two weeks ago, I was in a meeting as one of our designers demonstrated this tool. She was projecting a reflected ceiling plan on the conference room wall. Next to the ceiling plan was a schedule with a bunch of what she called “fields”. She was also using words like ”model space” and “parameters”. I was nodding as if I understood what she was talking about. But what I did understand was this: she had developed a lighting schedule, populated it with light fixtures that had wattages “built into the families”, and was able to generate lighting power density calculations instantly. Every time she made changes to the ceiling plan. Victory!

We plan to train people with this tool over the course of this year. Our SMART goal is to have someone on every design team who can calculate and understand how to improve a project’s lighting power density. These folks will also be trained to enter data into the new AIA 2030 Commitment DDX database and play a hands-on role in the further reduction of the designed energy use of all Bergmeyer’s projects.

Connecting people to the organizational mission is critical. The AIA 2030 Commitment is helping us make it happen.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Do What You Love

MeandEd2.IMG_8322It’s not every day you get to have dinner with one of your heroes.

Last month, I posted a newsy account of Ed Mazria’s visit to Boston and his evening presentation to the Boston Society of Architects. The summary: architects are driving building energy efficiency and making a difference. Although there is a lot of work ahead, US cities like Boston are leading the charge. Read about it here.

After his presentation, a bunch of us hosted him for dinner. My notes from that extended conversation are not great (kinda hard to write on black napkins) but it was certainly a memorable evening. The guy has many great stories and he tells them with panache and aplomb. But there is also a valuable life-lesson running like a clear line through much of what he has to say:

If you have to work for a living, you’ll be happier and more successful if you do something you are passionate about.

Easier said than done? Sure. But stay with me for a bit.

Ed is a Brooklyn guy who graduated from Pratt in 1963 and got his first professional job at Edward Larabee Barnes. Not an unusual career start for an architect. He got his Masters and did some teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1973. Opened Mazria Associates in 1978. Wrote a good book about passive solar design in 1979 and did another teaching gig at University of Oregon.

That could be the story for many of us. But that wasn’t enough for Ed. He was hot to change the profession.

The LEED Rating System was launched in the mid-1990s and the first Greenbuild Conference was 2002 in Austin. Now, certainly, everyone who cares about sustainable design thinks LEED is a good thing, right? But Ed is driven by data. He said to himself: this is alright, but it’s not going to drive building energy use reduction fast enough. Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from (in a large part) building energy use, and radical energy efficiency wasn’t even required to meet baseline LEED Certification at the time. Ed thought architecture needed a bigger push.

So he created that bigger push. He threw down the gauntlet in 2002, issued the 2030 Challenge and formed Architecture 2030. In 2006, he persuaded the AIA to adopt the 2030 Challenge, the USGBC to incorporate it into the LEED Rating System, and the US Conference of Mayors to endorse it as public policy. In 2010, the AIA 2030 Commitment was created to help architects meet the goals of the 2030 Challenge and the story continues to unfold.

And Ed’s story is not just a professional story. It’s a personal one, too. When asked about how he got his start in sustainable design, he talks of coming up to speed very quickly in order to land a teaching job. The organization – Architecture 2030 – was initially part of his design firm. But as it began to gain momentum and take more of his time and energy, he realized it needed independent leadership and a different structure to be effective. Hence the 2030 think tank was born. His tale of tracking down Susan Szenasy (Editor-in-Chief of Metropolis Magazine) with an idea for a story about buildings and climate change is a favorite: He wouldn’t give them the story unless he got the cover! “Turning Down the Global Thermostat”, the October 2003 Metropolis Magazine cover story, was Ed’s first shot across the bow of the established insider architectural press.

Next thing you know, he’s giving keynotes at AIA Conventions, winning the 2015 AIA Kemper Award for significant contributions to the profession and being elected to the AIA College of Fellows. Plus he’s bringing the 2030 Challenge to China and Korea, and drafting language for COP21, the UN Paris Climate Talks. December 3 at COP21 was the first-ever UNFCCC Buildings Day, and there was Mister 2030 on the podium delivering the “Roadmap to Zero” and talking about how 52 international firms had signed building energy reduction accords in China. This is the work of a person with a passion.

I know this great quote from Thoreau. I heard it first from one of my oldest and best friends and mentors, Amy Bernhardt. It goes like this:

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”

It’s among the best bits of advice I have ever received. It has certainly worked for Ed Mazria.