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.
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.
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 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 350.org 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.
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?
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.