To rally design professionals to back meaningful climate change policies, Tom Jacobs, AIA, a principal at Chicago-based Krueck + Sexton Architects, recently spearheaded the campaign Architects Advocate. To date, more than 196 architecture, design, and engineering firms have joined the effort, which launched officially on Sept. 1, to calls for designers to speak up on the issue and to support politicians who support climate change legislation. ARCHITECT spoke with Jacobs about the movement’s origins and goals.
How did the initiative come about?
Jacobs: In late July, I had this idea about an initiative [for the design community] to speak out on climate change. I discussed it with Peter Exley, FAIA, co-founder of Architecture is Fun, who said, “This is something that you should absolutely do. I’ll join in right away.” I proposed the idea to my three partners at Krueck + Sexton and they were in agreement: We would put a banner on our webpage so that anybody who visits it would see that we take a stand on this issue.
What is the background that you and the firm bring to this issue?
When the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system came out around in 2000, we had practiced as sustainably as possible with basic design [strategies], such as [investigating how] orientation affects how much solar radiation the building receives. [Our projects have] received LEED Gold and Silver certifications [and we were] a very early adopter of LEED.
Taking a position is political activism. Have you been politically active in the past?
As a firm, not really. Personally, on a relatively small level, yes. I’ve been involved in getting bike routes implemented [in my local neighborhood], which is another no-brainer issue.
Today we live in a world where [architecture's reach] is much broader. We used to practice as members in the world of design. Now, it’s about the design of the world. Architects have a much greater understanding that what we do must affect systems and [go beyond] a single project. It’s our responsibility as architects. How could we not be paying attention if 97 percent of scientists agree about a certain condition?
Can you imagine any other issue that 97 percent of architects would agree on?
Architects almost never agree on anything because we talk about design and how we all could do it better—I do not believe you could pick another issue that would be more of a no-brainer.
You frame healthy environments as a civil right. Shouldn’t it be a fundamental human right?
I haven’t thought of it that way. ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) isn’t a code; it’s a civil right, and that stuck with me because the turning point for that movement was that [the law established] it was a civil right. We were thinking in similar terms with clean air and the healthy environment. But you may be right that it’s even more fundamental as a human right.
How does Architects Advocate compare to other architecture initiatives?
Many initiatives are out there and that’s encouraging. But if you’re not an architect, who has heard of the AIA 2030 Commitment? You have a whole profession that agrees on an issue, but the public doesn’t know. This initiative is an attempt to give voice to the overwhelming professional consensus that urgent action is required.
Who can sign up? Is there a minimum requirement for their projects?
It’s open to everyone. The one action item we are pursuing is enacting meaningful legislation to mitigate climate change. There’s no litmus test as to whether your buildings are green enough. If you have a few projects that are not pushing extremely hard, that’s not ideal, but the broader point is you can still support legislation that will help mitigate climate change.
In Germany, building codes are already elevated beyond the ones the United States has. There, if you don’t plan for a LEED Platinum–equivalent building, you don’t get a building permit. The goals that we have here are not that ambitious compared to other parts of the world. Architects Advocate thinks that regardless of what you’ve done in the past, you could support tightening the codes.
Has the network been growing?
Yes. We are trying to find champions in other U.S. cities [beyond Chicago, where the campaign originated] and people, like Peter Exley, who will volunteer their time to reach out to their network of colleagues and invite them to join. Morphosis joined out of Los Angeles. In New York, we have firms like Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Weiss Manfredi. We’d like to be represented in every corner of the country.
How does the initiative engage clients?
Let’s say you’re in Chicago and you want to hire an architect. We have more than 100 firms that are members. My hope is that if you look at 10 firms, that seven or eight of them will have this campaign logo on their homepage. Maybe this can lead you to realize that this is an important issue to the profession. We’re then able to communicate to you why it’s in your interest, as an owner, in terms of your bottom line, and that it’s also in the interest of the community.
Has the recent U.S. presidential election affected the effort?
We are now in emergency mode, feverishly trying to recruit more architecture firms to show the overwhelming professional consensus that protection of the environment is urgently needed and must not be weakened.