The AIA 2030 Commitment: What’s the Deal?

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.

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The AIA 2030 Commitment: Architecture IS Infrastructure, II

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.


The AIA 2030 Commitment: A National Priority

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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.