Bruce Damonte The Exploratorium at Pier 15, designed by EHDD, won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award in 2016.

“What the hell does ‘sustainable’ even mean?” read the headline of a June 2014 Salon article. As I wrote recently in The Huffington Post, the vagueness of the word remains frustrating for many, and language without clarity risks losing power. Recognizing this back in 2006, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE), on whose Advisory Group I currently serve, offered a definition: “Sustainability envisions the enduring prosperity of all living things.”

Over the past decade, this simple statement has been widely cited in books, magazines, academic papers, educational courses, university websites, and various other publications. Yet, while the COTE definition has been influential, it offers no practical guidance. How do architects put this vision into practice? While COTE didn’t define sustainability until 2006, in 1997, three years before the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system appeared, COTE launched the annual Top Ten Awards in order to demonstrate best practices in sustainable design.

Now in its 20th year, Top Ten has become “the profession's best known recognition program for sustainable design excellence,” according to the AIA. This April, COTE released a comprehensive study of the Top Ten program, “Lessons from the Leading Edge,” which illustrates that in virtually every way, Top Ten winners have been outpacing the industry for two decades.

The zero net energy West Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, in Berkeley, Calif., designed by Harley Ellis Devereaux, won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award in 2016.

Although Top Ten projects are well known as the “most impressive new green buildings,” what’s less known are the criteria used to judge these projects. In 2002, COTE outlined its Measures of Sustainable Design, which guide submissions and jury evaluations for the Top Ten Awards but also offer a very specific vision for what “sustainable” means in the context of design. This is quite different from LEED and most other frameworks, which focus on technical performance, not design excellence.

The 10 Measures of Sustainable Design have been updated regularly, but they have remained mostly intact for 15 years—until now.

Research for the April report underscored that COTE should rethink the Top Ten measures for a few key reasons. First, in recent years, many of the winning projects have been performing substantially better than industry averages, which suggested that we should raise the bar. More and more firms consistently include useful information, such as low VOCs and other chemical content in materials, that isn’t requested in the entry forms, which made us think we should expand the criteria. Furthermore, in recent years, topics such as health, wellness, and resilience have become increasingly part of the dialogue about sustainable design, so we felt they should be included to reflect the ongoing evolution of the industry. Finally, we felt that the submission process could be streamlined by clarifying language and intent.

At Greenbuild this year, COTE revealed the new Top Ten Measures. All of the categories now are titled “Design for [Topic]” in order to underscore that sustainability is first and foremost a challenge of design. According to research, 80 to 90 percent of the impact of a building or product is determined by early design decisions.


Some of the categories, such as energy and water, have remained intact, although the specific metrics have changed. Other topics have been absorbed in new categories, and still others are altogether new. The first category, “Design for Integration,” emphasizes COTE’s mission, “the integration of compelling design and sustainable performance.” The “Design for Wellness” category makes more explicit that the health and well-being of building occupants is an essential aspect of sustainable design. New ways to measure this intent, such as the use of Health Product Declarations, are included. “Design for Economy” introduces an economic dimension to evaluating performance around strategies to improve life-cycle costs and other financial metrics, and Top Ten now may be the only major awards program that does so.

Perhaps the biggest change to the Top Ten Awards is that now there is no age limit to projects. Previously, submitted buildings could be no more than 3.5 years old, which felt arbitrary. If an older project demonstrates excellent design and performance by today’s standards, all the better.

In fact, COTE has been putting increasingly more emphasis on actual performance, proven over time, rather than design intent and predicted performance alone. The “Top Ten Plus” Award, launched in 2013, celebrated a past winner with exemplary post-occupancy stories. Beginning in 2017, Top Ten Plus will be discontinued as a separate award. Instead, any of the 10 new winners with strong post-occupancy performance will be highlighted as exceptional. The entry forms now encourage projects to be submitted only after at least 12 months of occupancy, to give time to evaluate how the buildings actually work.

Over the past few years, COTE has required that all firms submitting to the Top Ten Awards are signatories of the AIA 2030 Commitment, which seeks to achieve carbon neutrality in the building industry by its namesake year. The intent of the requirement is to use the Top Ten Awards as leverage to promote more leadership among architects.

The submission process for the Top Ten Awards officially opened today, with entries due Jan. 18, 2017. Will you be among the first to dive into the new Top Ten?