Why architects must lead on sustainable design

Sustainability leader Hunter Lovins once called the building industry "dynamically conservative  it works hard to stay in the same place."

But old habits cannot fully address new challenges. According to 350.org, fossil fuel corporations currently have in their reserves five times the amount of carbon that, if burned too quickly, may raise atmospheric temperatures to a catastrophic level where Hurricane Sandy-scale storms could become the norm. Quicker, deeper progress is imperative.

Architecture is an essential arena for sustainable innovation. Buildings represent about half the annual energy and emissions in the U.S. and three-quarters of its electricity. With the built environment growing — the U.S. building stock increases by about 3 billion square feet every year  architects have a historic opportunity to transform its impact for the better.

There are encouraging signs. Since the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system appeared a dozen years ago, more than 10 billion square feet of construction have been certified or registered, according to the USGBC. The average energy savings for certified buildings is around 32 percent, and over the next couple of decades, the tonnage of coal avoided is expected to grow by 16 times, according to estimates.

In 2006, the American Institute of Architects wisely adopted Architecture 2030's "2030 Challenge," an initiative seeking carbon neutrality in the industry by 2030. "[W]e believe we must alter our profession's actions," the AIA 2030 Commitment says, "and encourage our clients and the entire design and construction industry to join with us to change the course of the planet's future."

The AIA, however, recently removed sustainable design from members' annual continuing education requirements: "Recognizing that sustainable design practices have become a mainstream design intention in the architectural community, the board of directors has voted to allow the sustainable design education requirement to sunset at the end of calendar year 2012," the institute reports. Other kinds of continuing education credits remain mandatory.

Next page: No guarantee of progress