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Why architects must lead on sustainable design

<p>Architects have a historic opportunity to transform the ever-growing built environment&#39;s impact for the better.&nbsp;</p>

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, 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.

The AIA board contends that sustainable design has become mainstream, but it doesn't explain how it came to that conclusion. In the past few years, some of the world's most celebrated architects have publicly dismissed sustainability, with AIA gold medalist Frank Gehry calling it "bogus," and National Design Award winner Peter Eisenman insisting that it "has nothing to do with architecture." Meanwhile, according to the AIA's own documentation of progress toward 2030 goals, only 12 to 13 percent of the reporting firms' projects are meeting the current targets. The numbers could be much lower for other architects since 2030 participants presumably are early adopters.

The decision to discontinue the sustainable design requirement means that while the AIA insists that architects "must" alter their actions, change, in fact, is not compulsory. The USGBC has had its share of controversies, with critics protesting that LEED doesn't go far enough, but at minimum it represents a baseline standard of achievement, and the numbers cited above show clear progress, even if that progress should accelerate. The AIA, which calls itself the leading association of architects, has no similar obligations for its nearly 80,000 members. For all its progressive rhetoric, the AIA's efforts do not guarantee any degree of progress.

Educators don't appear to be making significant headway either. Five years ago, Kira Gould and I co-authored a report for the AIA, "Ecology and Design: Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education," which studied how design schools are embracing sustainability. What we found, by and large, is that they aren't, at least not in any wholesale way. Some schools offer a mandatory introductory course, and many degree programs, such as Cal Poly's Sustainable Environments minor, are a compelling model for interdisciplinary education, but they are elective studies. Then and now, not a single school of architecture requires every student to be fully trained in the principles of sustainable design. The report offered recommendations for transforming education that included the "Sustainable Environmental Design Education" model curriculum, but to my knowledge, no school has adopted these or similar guidelines.

In January the heads of 19 leading architecture firms, including my own, signed a letter to the National Architectural Accrediting Board, the agency responsible for the American standard of architectural education, to appeal for change: "Professional design schools are well poised to provide the leadership in higher education needed to address what we deem to be this century's greatest challenge  the preservation of a habitable planet." Led by Architecture 2030's Ed Mazria, the architects urged NAAB to require that every architecture student graduate "with the design capacity to meet the environmental challenges facing diverse communities across the globe."

In the culture of design, innovation often means little more than aesthetic novelty. Google the phrase "innovative architecture" and you find a lot of provocative geometry, but few if any groundbreaking solutions to the most serious problems. Design can be a powerful agent for change, but design awards and media attention generally celebrate imagery over innovation.

6 steps to transforming the architecture profession

The AIA is correct that the profession's habits must change, but more radical change is necessary now. Below are six simple but dramatic steps to transform the profession and practice of architecture. If sustainability truly has become mainstream, as the AIA insists, change should not be difficult to achieve.

A call to action

1. Immediately, every organization that gives design awards to architects can begin rewarding only structures that meet at least a minimum standard of sustainable performance.

2. Within six months, every design magazine can begin featuring only buildings that meet at least a minimum standard of sustainable performance.

3. Within one year, every public agency, including federal, state and local governments, can require every project beginning development in that year to meet current targets for the 2030 Commitment.

4. Within two years, every American architecture firm can adopt the 2030 Commitment and meet current targets for all projects begun that year.

5. Within three years, every American licensing agency can require that every architect demonstrate a minimum level of competency around sustainable design in order to maintain a license to practice.  

6. Within four years, every school of architecture can transform its curriculum to ensure that every graduating student is fully trained in the principles and practice of sustainable design.

Building image by Vladitto via Shutterstock.

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