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.
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.