The AIA 2030 Commitment: Architecture IS Infrastructure

Boston.IMG_0109As 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.



The AIA 2030 Commitment: Go There

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.

The AIA 2030 Commitment: Don’t Miss Out


Fear of missing out. FOMO. It’s a thing.

A form of social anxiety, it’s that compulsion to know what other folks are doing just in case they might be having more fun than you. Anyone with a smart phone and a Facebook page has experienced it. There are real psychological drivers behind it, too. Check out Henry Murray’s Explorations in Personality and his list of psychogenic needs. FOMO is right there in between cognizance and sentience.

And now, I will attempt to use FOMO as a motivator. Here goes.

Do you work in an architectural firm? Has your firm signed the AIA 2030 Commitment? Because if they haven’t you are definitely missing out.

Last year, 99 of the architectural firms that signed the Commitment submitted designed energy use data on 2,464 projects. Compared to 2012, that’s a 150% increase in the number of projects submitted. And 401 of those projects hit the 60%-better-than-code target for 2013, a 200% increase over last year. Projects of every building type and size are now hitting that rolling energy efficiency target.

Add to that, 73 projects reported in 2013 were designed for net zero energy use. Seventy three! That’s 500% more net zero projects than were reported last year. This means somewhere out there in the USA architects are designing projects today that have already met the goal of being functionally carbon-neutral by 2030.

And wow, 2014 is almost over. We’re getting ready to report our 2014 design data any day now. The pEUIs and LPDs are being counted.

So where are you? What is your firm doing? Are you missing out?

If you’re a firm Principal, you could just round up your partners and say “Hey, we should get on board with this AIA 2030 Commitment thing. If XYZ Architects can do this, we can, too. Now let’s talk year-end tax planning.”

But let’s say you’re a hard-working interior or architectural designer. You want to be an expert in sustainable design, but you need project experience to get there. Do this: Download the AIA 2030 Commitment 2013 Progress Report. Attach it to an email to your boss with subject: “Goal-Setting for My Upcoming Performance Evaluation.” Or you may have to print it out (gasp!) and leave it on his chair (yeah, chances are your boss is a man) with a yellow sticky note saying “please read” with a smiley-face. Boomers. I mean, really.

Or maybe you’re in the firm’s marketing department. This is where checking out the list of firms that reported in 2013 can be very enlightening. See a trend here? These are some of the (ahem) best firms in the business. Why aren’t you on this list?

If you’re an Associate or Project Architect you’re in a position of influence. Here’s how to make the AIA 2030 case. When your Principal-in-Charge says “We need to talk about your monthly invoices” say “No problem, right after we talk about the AIA 2030 Commitment.” Tell him if your firm signs the AIA 2030 Commitment, you’ll soon have an AIA 2030 reporting dashboard that lets you compare your projects’ designed energy efficiency with a national database of similar projects. The AIA is collaborating with the US Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to make it happen. Call it your AIA dues at work.

Say you know this will be huge, and your competition will be all over it. Your firm definitely won’t want to miss out. Say it with . . . commitment! And hit ‘em up for a promotion after you’re done. He’ll thank you for it later.

The AIA 2013 Convention: Leadership is a Choice

Eagle.shutterstock_134186822I usually write about the AIA 2030 Commitment. My focus has been architecture and climate change. And since last Monday was Earth Day, I had a rich supply of emails and RSS feeds to fuel the ever-present need for new blog material.

The best thing I saw last Monday was this 10-minute video of Dr. Amory Lovins (Hon. AIA) giving the keynote at “RMI25: Celebrating Solutions”, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 25th Anniversary Gala.

Dr. Lovins, an environmental scientist and physicist, is co-founder and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The RMI’s work is focused on renewable energy and resource efficiency. Dr. Lovins has advised the US government on energy policy, written several books on sustainability and was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2009.  And true, he tells a damn good story.

For my money, Amory Lovins is a real leader. One of the founding fathers of the 21st-century sustainability movement. His book, Natural Capitalism, and Chapter 6, “Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier”, is required reading. His address at that conference was leadership in action.

What got me so jazzed about this little speech? I think we architects can learn a lot about leadership from folks like Amory Lovins. Allow me to elaborate:

Leadership takes vision. Vision is job one for leadership. Amory Lovins has a vision for a post-carbon world, and he shares it with us in this speech. In fact, whenever he speaks he shares his vision. It’s potent and persuasive. This is a good object lesson for architects. Vision is our core competency. We understand external forces, manage variables, and imagine a thing that doesn’t exist yet responds to an elaborate set of real-world constraints. That’s quite a skill. Perfect for leadership.

Design ideas are visions for our projects. Market positions and competitive advantages are visions for our firms. But none of these are meaningful to people outside our professional circles. A vision for a neighborhood in which all residents share equally in all the city’s benefits; a vision for a city that preserves its resources for future generations? Those are the kinds of visions that can inspire an entire community. Or more.

Leadership requires effective communication.  Dr. Lovins begins his address by saying “let me tell you a story”. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King saying “peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.” He shares the “guiding parable” of the Rocky Mountain Institute: a saga that begins with the World Health Organization, Malaria and DDT and ends with cats in parachutes. His message: see how all things are connected, and see how the cause of a problem is sometimes a proposed “solution”.

This is the language of leadership. It is outwardly-focused, intended for a broad audience. The message is clear, but its implications are nuanced and complex. It is compelling without being strident.

Architects are pretty good with communication. Although our writing and speaking is far too often dense with jargon (or just in need of editing!), we have the advantage of being able to communicate with images. Sketches and diagrams are extremely potent when it comes to sharing a vision. This is another excellent skill for leaders to have. 

Leadership transcends expertise. People pay attention to Dr. Lovins because he’s a well-respected scientist, thus giving him credibility. But there is a difference between being a “leading scientist” and being a scientist-as-leader. The work of leading scientists is generally appreciated by the scientific community but unknown to most everyone else. To be a scientist-as-leader, one has to step outside the discipline and engage other people. The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded by scientists acting as leaders.

A leading architect could have a great resume, many publications and awards, and fabulous projects that are considered exemplars of their type. And a line of clients down the street. But most leading architects are unknown even to the people who use their buildings every day.

This is where we fall short. An architect-as-leader must step outside the practice model and address issues that matter to their fellow citizens. They must speak up on subjects like promoting renewable energy, comprehensive planning and smart growth, design excellence in the public realm. They must use their knowledge and experience as architects to be convincing, but must speak as a person or a voter or a member of a civil society, not as an architect.

But we have worked so hard to become trained and credentialed and are so accustomed to the challenges and opportunities of our beloved practice. We hate to leave that familiar setting. But that’s what it takes to be a leader. Because, ultimately . . .

Leadership is a choice.  People aren’t born to lead or required to become leaders. Dr. Lovins could have been perfectly happy as a scientist. He didn’t need to become a leader. You don’t have to be a leader, either. You could be one of many people who just live and breathe design and want to be the best architect you possibly can.

But if you find yourself believing in a vision and motivated to redress a wrong or advocate for change that will benefit others, you may find yourself in a position of leadership. And if we, as a profession, are going to deliver on a manifesto like “We are America’s architects. We are committed to building a better world”, we need more architects to become leaders.