Victor Koen
Victor Koen

These days, one of the definitions of the value of design relates to how architects are uniquely positioned to positively impact ways in which people can live more sustainably. Yet, despite notable individual and collective progress, the profession hasn’t fully leveraged its resources to advance enduring solutions for these global challenges.

Through the introduction of two linked design and practice action plans, the AIA is focusing its intellectual resources on the core issues of energy and materials, as well as the emerging issues of design’s impact on health and resilience, by connecting chapter and component support, offering new and revised continuing education products, encouraging practice-based research, pursuing strategic partnerships, and refining its advocacy of the profession both legislatively and publicly.

Both energy and health emerged as priority issues in the “Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan” (published in October), a report commissioned by the AIA and undertaken by AIA Resident Fellow Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, to identify unique areas where the Institute can most effectively strengthen the sustainable leadership and influence of architects.

“Energy and health are two very tangible areas that help clarify the bottom-line impacts of sustainability,” Lazarus says. “We’re talking about real issues that affect how people live, work, relate to their communities, and thrive.”

Although energy and health—as areas for architectural innovation—each face unique challenges and are at different places in their evolutions, both offer numerous opportunities to elevate architectural leadership.

“Architects can be the fulcrum for positive changes, and do so with purposefulness that comes out of the reason that many of us joined the profession,” says Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of AIA New York (and a member of ARCHITECT’s editorial advisory committee).

Bell and others have observed that the continual growth of energy benchmarking regulations and performance-based codes has catalyzed a global industry shift from loose, aspirational sustainable goals to measured performance expectations and requirements. And the AIA Energy Action Plan will harness this important shift in order to set an agenda for the coming years.

“Optional rating systems, including LEED, helped set the stage for the recent transition to code-based and regulatory sustainable requirements like CalGreen and the International Green Construction Code, but requirements are quickly expanding to include actual performance and measured design outcomes,” Lazarus says.

The upgrade of existing buildings represents the greatest design need and opportunity, with 57 percent of existing U.S. building stock—more than 40 billion square feet—constructed after 1945 and commonly burdened by insufficient urban design, poorly performing envelopes and systems, and large floor plates.

“From a sustainability and energy standpoint, the most important challenge for architects is to improve the performance of the existing building stock,” says Carl Elefante, FAIA, principal of Quinn Evans Architects and a member of the AIA Board of Directors. “Our conundrum is that fascination with glossy photos on magazine covers of even the most innovative and imaginative new buildings misses the most important point: With only the rarest exceptions, new buildings add to the current carbon footprint. To reduce global warming potential, retrofitting existing structures offers the quickest, most reliable, and measurable opportunity. It is the best way for architects to have impact.”

Market forces have driven architects to do just that. The recent economic downturn has compelled some sole practitioners and firms to target existing buildings. According to the 2012 AIA Firm Survey, 42 percent of small projects today include renovation and rehabilitation work.

The AIA Health Action Plan recognizes perhaps the most important opportunities of our time: The built environment is a potential catalyst for addressing many of the nation’s most pressing health and wellness challenges, including rising healthcare costs, an aging Baby Boomer population, and climbing obesity rates.

“I do believe we’re in a collision of forces—a perfect storm of health issues,” says Dr. Richard Jackson, Hon. AIA, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health and host of the recent PBS series Designing Healthy Communities.

“We’re looking at a 25-pound weight increase in adults since 1960 as well as a doubling of obesity rates and diabetes, not to mention an epidemic of depression.”

Jackson attributes much of these alarming U.S. health trends to the chaotic American lifestyle, a lifestyle that has been enabled by the built environment.

“We have excessively engineered physical activity out of our daily lives,” Jackson says. “I think architects need to create an America where the default option is the healthy option.”

Fully engaging the profession around issues of design and health is going to require a shift in mind-set, according to Joyce Lee, FAIA, architect fellow at the National Leadership Academy for the Public’s Health and co-author of Active Design Guidelines for the City of New York.

To illustrate the point, Lee compares the evolution of stairs and elevators in buildings to that of re-embracing natural ventilation in the age of air conditioning. “In many ways it’s about bringing back and celebrating age-old design techniques that the profession has taken thousands of years to perfect, yet have fallen away over the last 50 years,” she says.

Two Paths Forward

The AIA Health Action Plan

  • First, the AIA Leadership and the AIA Intern Development Program Advisory Committee have entered into discussions with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards to explore opportunities to integrate public health concepts into the Intern Development Program, beginning in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
  • Second, a new Design and Health website ( has gone live under Practicing Architecture, replacing the Center for Value of Design. The site serves as a social aggregator for individuals to self-select public health issues according to their interests. Other features include a discussion board and resource library populated by members.
  • Third, with support from a $20,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the AIA and the AIA Foundation will host a summit on Design & Health in April 2014. The event will organize and advance research that concerns the intersection of design and health measurement, convening practitioners from design, policy, and public health as well as leaders in government agencies, non-government organizations, universities, and the private sector. In recognition of the efforts to measure health, the summit will seek to reconcile research and conversation around several focus areas.

The AIA Energy Action Plan

  • First, the AIA 2030 Commitment Database will house project-level energy data provided by AIA 2030 Commitment signatory firms, with the ultimate goal of migrating current Excel-based reporting into an easy-to-use online database that draws on aggregated data to provide real-time feedback and benchmarking. “There is so much value to this kind of information and it’s never existed before,” says Rand Ekman, AIA, director of sustainability at Cannon Design. “Having access to a robust database will be useful on the ground in establishing energy targets on projects, and will help firms better understand how well our energy models are guiding us.”
  • Second, AIA advocacy for energy legislation, which dates back to the energy crisis of the 1970s, has increased with the growing recognition that architects play a vital role in helping buildings use less energy. The Institute’s current advocacy efforts include supporting the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013 (commonly known as the Shaheen-Portman bill), a bipartisan Senate bill that promotes energy efficiency within commercial and residential buildings. At the same time, the AIA has rallied support from nearly 1,000 small businesses to oppose a potential amendment to the bill, an amendment that will propose the repeal of a 2007 law that applies the 2030 energy target to federal buildings. “We are more than 80,000 members strong, and that collective voice helps amplify our message to policymakers at all levels of government,” says Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, the AIA’s managing director of government relations and outreach.
  • Third, momentum is building for the AIA Awards Task Force recommendations to require each AIA Honor Awards submission to include predicted energy- and water-performance metrics, and a basic sustainable design integration narrative. Proposed to take effect with the 2015 awards program, the recommendations have gained broad national support from past AIA Firm Award recipients, AIA Knowledge Communities, and prominent firms. “We are quickly entering a new era of evidence-based design where the resource and carbon emissions reduction capabilities of our buildings can be reasonably predicted,” says William Leddy, FAIA, chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group and a founding partner of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. “We feel this information should become an important part of our discussion of design excellence in the 21st century.”
  • And finally, responding to member demand for additional energy educational resources, the AIA is planning to develop a curriculum that addresses a range of energy design and energy modeling topics. Coursework will combine in-person workshops and online learning tools as well as a new generation of written guides that provide a deeper understanding on topics such as how to effectively work with energy modeling consultants and how to identify financing opportunities within the energy retrofit market. Materials will be informed by existing energy educational programs, most of which were developed primarily for engineers.