How architects can take action on climate change

Architects have a big responsibility for the role the built environment plays in climate change. Globally, buildings consume 35 percent of all energy and 60 percent of all generated electricity — much of which is produced by fossil fuels. As the largest end-use energy sector, buildings account for more than one-third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore our homes, offices, schools or shopping centers — and the architects who design them — either can exacerbate our climate problem or be a foundational part of the solution. 

While many leading architects have gained a competitive advantage in the market by practicing environmentally responsible design, the profession as a whole traditionally has not been seen as a leader in addressing climate change. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to change that. 

In mid-April, the AIA, the country’s largest professional association and accrediting body of architects, released a commentary on Public Policy IIC detailing the architect’s critical role in climate change mitigation. Specifically, this commentary reaffirms and clarifies an existing AIA position on climate change, and shows how the Institute is doubling down on its commitment to addressing carbon emissions in the built environment — even going as far as stating, "We have a responsibility to the general public to reduce our industry’s emissions." 

The nexus of architecture and energy

Our world is full of buildings that were designed in isolation from the environment, consuming much more energy than necessary to deliver the services owners and occupants need (such as comfort or shelter). Inefficient building design has become the norm rather than the exception. Considering that the typical lifespan of a commercial building is around 30 years, inefficient design has long-lasting financial, environmental and health impacts: buildings that are too expensive to operate and/or maintain don’t attract new tenants or don’t deliver as much comfort as they should to occupants.

On the other hand, the thoughtful engagement and good design that leads to better building performance also yields better buildings — ones that are more productive, provide value to tenants and building owners beyond energy cost savings, and bring societal benefit through a lowered cost of transitioning to a clean energy future.

While we are experiencing a growing market awareness and a desire to move toward more efficient or even net-zero carbon buildings, developments and communities, it’s not at the rate or scale needed to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change.

In 2015, the AIA initiated the creation of an Energy Leadership Group (ELG) to address this concern. The ELG engages the membership and coordinates and aligns the many energy-related activities of the AIA. As the founding chairperson of the ELG, I am glad to have worked with an outstanding group of dedicated ELG members to bring this timely commentary to the public. 

[Learn more about next-gen buildings at VERGE 17 in Santa Clara, California, Sept. 19-21.]

Architects must lead in building the solutions to climate change. By making good energy and environmental design part of standard practice, we send a positive signal that market forces are stronger than ever in recognizing and capturing the opportunities around climate-responsible practices. Even as the political landscape creates uncertainty, we can use the power of good design to cement our conviction and actively lead on this issue. We at Rocky Mountain Institute commend the AIA for issuing this commentary and aligning their constituents around a common and powerful commitment that also benefits the bottom line for architects, developers and owners alike.

Regardless of your views on climate change, it’s clear that market for high-performance buildings will continue to grow. A recent study from Navigant Research showed that the building efficiency industry has experienced 14 percent growth year-over-year globally — and 8 percent in the United States alone — accounting for $68.8 billion in revenue. It is expected that this trajectory will continue. The U.S. Green Buildings Council projects that "green construction" will contribute 1.1 million jobs by 2018.  

Three opportunities to win

Beyond the very powerful recommendations in the AIA commentary (engage in education, engage in energy modeling and engage in policy-making), we see additional in-market engagement opportunities that can build a bigger, more compelling market future for architects. 

  1. Bolster your business case: Set yourself ahead of the pack, be on top of incentives and financing options and understand the technology and how to integrate it into your designs cost-effectively. You want to create high-performance or even net-zero carbon buildings with a better return on investment (ROI) than the next firm. 

  2. Build your reputation and augment your sphere of influence: Lead by example. Design beautiful buildings with enviable energy and financial performance. This also can serve as a call to action to other industry stakeholders who you work with on a daily basis such as contractors and engineers, and especially clients. Educate your clients to ask for high-performance design. Are you properly selling or articulating the value of high-performance design? Are you well versed in the values beyond energy cost savings such as increased market values, reduced financial risk, increased resilience and better indoor environmental quality? Then, are you influencing the selection of the right subcontractors to deliver on this commitment? Consider where you can share key learnings and information with others to advance your reputation and the market as a whole. A rising tide lifts all boats and you can strengthen the industry and your reputation by helping others. 

  3. Push the market toward delivering technologies that better serve your design needs: Do you have the tools you need to design smarter buildings? Endorse the products and techniques you like, and help develop new ones that get you working more efficiently. Sometimes the simple issues you struggle with are commonplace, and industry can be engaged to help them become a reality.

The time is now

This is the time and place for architects to lead on climate change. We must do more. Architects designing high-performance buildings can provide the foundation for a transition to a resilient, clean energy future. If you are an architect, get involved. Get educated, talk to others and make high-performance design a core part of your business. If you are a potential client, demand better design. When you do, your design team will step up to the challenge. You (and our planet) deserve it — it’s the opportunity of our lifetime.

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