Illustration: Michael Kirkham

By many accounts, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last fall, better known as COP21, had something of a carnival atmosphere—with 196 countries represented, multiple venues, activists dressed like polar bears and penguins, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn on hand (as well as nearly 300 security checkpoints in the wake of the then-recent terror attacks). Yet the conference produced a serious and ambitious outcome: an agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 2 C (and below 1.5 C, if possible) compared to preindustrial levels, which would require net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.

Following such a declaration, the collective question for policymakers, environmental activists, and the building industry is: Now what? The agreement is not binding until 55 member nations who produce more than 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases have ratified it—including the United States, where climate change remains a divisive political issue (and potentially a nonstarter, depending in part on the outcome of this year’s presidential election). In light of the agreement and its attendant uncertainties, what can architects do to help achieve these goals?

For many, the answer is to keep doing what they’re already doing. The industry has known for years that residential and commercial buildings account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. (And, in recognition, the COP21 meeting included the first-ever Buildings Day, with international building experts and a sustainable design expo.) Through programs such as LEED and the AIA 2030 Commitment—the Institute’s member response to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which aims for carbon neutrality within 15 years—architects have helped to change the way buildings are conceived and built. According to 2016 AIA President Russell Davidson, FAIA, higher-performance buildings have resulted in about $560 billion in energy savings in the U.S. since 2005.

Architects are ahead of the game in many ways, says Bertrand Coldefy, Intl. Assoc. AIA, 2015 President of AIA Europe. “COP21 was a meeting of 196 countries’ representatives with the same issue: Get a better quality of life for the world, and energy saving,” he says. “For this purpose, the meeting had the very positive outcome to galvanize a large public. Unfortunately, the agreement signed at COP21 was quite poor and hard to finalize. Architects and engineers in different parts of the world have been working strongly for many years on this, and their works are more practical and advanced.”

Is Architecture as a Whole Ready?

Despite this, some are saying there is a leadership gap among architects when it comes to climate change and energy. The issue—lowering emissions and achieving carbon neutrality—is well-understood, but not enough people are acting on it, according to Lance Hosey, FAIA, chief sustainability officer for Perkins Eastman Architects and a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group and the AIA Energy Leadership Group.

“The 2030 Commitment is an urgent and reasonable goal for the next 15 years—urgent because buildings account for nearly half of all energy and emissions, and reasonable because experience and evidence show that significant energy reduction is achievable without additional costs,” Hosey says. “Eventually, we can shoot for more—by making buildings produce more energy than they need and turning them into carbon sinks. The obstacles have less to do with the industry’s goals, as represented by the 2030 Commitment, than they do with architects not showing enough leadership, frankly.”

Hosey points to the numbers: Of the 87,000 AIA members and tens of thousands of firms, he says, only 366 firms have signed up for the 2030 Commitment. “No matter how you do the math, a tiny fraction of the profession has made a commitment,” he says. “Of the firms who have, fewer than half actually report their numbers. And of those who do report, the average energy reduction has been stuck at about 35 percent for the past five years.”

The profession’s “starchitects” have a role to play as well. Hosey has been unafraid to call out those celebrated designers, including AIA Fellows Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Peter Eisenman, FAIA, who have shown little interest in sustainability or dismissed it outright. (Eisenman once said sustainability had “nothing to do with architecture.”)

“The industry needs a wake-up call,” Hosey says. “My approach has been to try to educate and inspire more architects about how better performance can lead to better design, and vice versa.” Hosey has written a book, The Shape of Green (Island Press, 2012), to this effect.

Making Sense of Making Cents

Getting the money to support these goals is also necessary. AIA Europe’s Coldefy is calling on the profession to apply COP21’s spirit of international coalition-building to more targeted international discussions with engineers, contractors, and investors. “There is a lot of difference between various countries. In Europe, the Nordic countries and Germany have been, for a long time, more ahead on environmental issues and energy savings,” he says. The “AIA and its international organization could be a leader to organize such seminars with the International Union of Architects.”

Rives Taylor, FAIA, the regional sustainability leader for Gensler who attended COP21 events in Paris, agrees. “We have an awful lot of tools now, through energy modeling and other means,” he says. “Now let’s do ‘business as usual’ on steroids. Let’s up our game through discussions and partnerships with manufacturers, developers, financiers. … The built environment should be and must be a huge focus, and we know that already; but our leaders and NGOs are coming around. The role of the architect as an educator will be very important.”

The main challenge is to lower construction costs associated with energy efficient design. “Our private or public clients are willing to follow the sustainable issues,” Coldefy says, “but their main concern is about their construction budget, which follows the local and world economy.”

Barbara Campagna, FAIA, applauds COP21 for focusing the world’s attention on energy and climate, and she says it should spur investment in renewable energy. “As someone who works in both big cities and medium-to-small cities, the disparity between sustainability efforts is huge,” says Campagna, an assistant professor and acting chair in Sustainable Interior Environments at the SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology graduate program. “Few architects and owners apply real, meaningful sustainability efforts to projects unless they are required by the client or the jurisdiction.”

It stands to reason that the more demanding the clients are, the more architects will respond to their demands. And the way to create more demand for energy efficiency is to reach more average people, which was certainly one of the outcomes of COP21. “I do not believe a ‘commitment’ that is primarily focused on architects can promote greater public awareness,” Campagna says. “It needs to be retooled in a way that the average person, who may not even know an architect but cares about recycling and saving energy costs, can readily understand it and feel like it impacts their life. Tax credits for solar energy—that impacts public awareness.”

If there is a leadership gap when it comes to addressing climate change, it may fall to the next generation of architects to close it. “There is criticism of the Paris agreement that is has generated false hope,” says Danielle Mitchell, Assoc. AIA, president of the American Institute of Architecture Students based in Washington, D.C., “but sparking global hope is a good place to start. I believe it is our turn to up the ante and increase our voice through our actions. The building industry community now has an opportunity to take both the achievements and the criticisms from Paris to push ourselves and our goals further.”