Simon Pemberton

In October 2018, the United Nations delivered a verdict on the action needed to reverse the effects of climate change. We—the planet’s residents—will need to aim for a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, the U.N. report stated, or risk a future of devastating extreme weather, rising sea levels, and melting polar ice, the cumulative effects of too much carbon dioxide (and other gases) in the atmosphere. Without swift and decisive action in the next decade, the 2050 goal won’t be achievable.

At a U.N. meeting in March of this year, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador told the chamber, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.”

At the Paris Agreement in 2015, the U.S. pledged a 17% to 24% emissions reduction for the country as a whole by 2050, although President Donald Trump later announced withdrawal from the accord in 2017. Nevertheless, the built environment plays—and will continue to play—a hugely integral part. In the United States alone, the commercial and residential building sector accounts for 39% of CO2 emissions per year, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, more than any other industry. Additionally, commercial and residential buildings are black holes for electricity usage, accounting for more than 70% of total electricity usage in the United States.

The ultimate goal, as set forward by AIA and partners like Architecture 2030, is net-zero emissions in the building sector by 2050—with incremental goals for net-zero carbon energy use and 50% less embodied carbon by 2030.

“In terms of our emissions reductions, [we’re] doing really well,” says Ed Mazria, FAIA, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030. “The building sector is really leading the way, and pulling everything else along.” The built environment in the United States is down 4.3% in energy consumption from 2005, and emissions are down 21.4% in the sector globally.

However, each new goal is contingent on the success of the one that precedes it, and it’s not clear whether the built environment will continue to stay on track at the rate needed to reach the 2030 and 2050 goals.

Mazria’s Architecture 2030, a nonprofit organization, seeks to change the paradigm around the global built environment’s emissions and energy consumption. Its 2030 Challenge inspired AIA’s 2030 Commitment, which gives firms—from small practices to international organizations—the tools to prioritize energy performance in their practice. Signatories of the 2030 Commitment report annual progress against increasingly stringent targets.

Committing to Sustainability

In 2018, 252 firms (45% of all signatories) reported data to the 2030 Commitment on projects totaling nearly 3 billion square feet across 92 countries.

“We felt that it was important to lend our voice,” says Bill Ladley, AIA, senior associate at Beyer Blinder Belle, about why his firm signed on to the 2030 Commitment in 2016. (The other reason was a sustainability ethos that Ladley feels has been intrinsic to the firm from the beginning.) “Part of it is simply power in numbers.”

While signatories represent a small cross-section of the industry as a whole, the 2030 Commitment nevertheless represents one of the strongest initiatives in providing accountability and metrics for firms’ sustainability practices. A report released in September 2019 illustrates that while the AEC industry knows that buildings matter in the fight against climate change, the program currently isn’t seeing the necessary level of participation to improve results.

“The next decade is showtime,” says Nathan Kipnis, AIA, principal of Kipnis Architecture+Planning and co-chair of the AIA 2030 Commitment Working Group. “We have a written goal of increasing the number of signatories by 600 firms.” Increasing the number of current signatories reporting their data is also an essential part of the solution, he says, citing the current 45% reporting rate. However, many of the largest firms in the country—including Gensler and others—are signed on. A “propel the bell” strategy, which Kipnis and his working group of colleagues are formulating, ideally will motivate firms that are lagging behind to either sign on to the 2030 Commitment, or, if they’re already signed on, recommit and track their projects.

“It’s been relatively easy to get the progressive, leading-edge firms to join on and report and do great,” Kipnis says. “Now we need to get the massive part of that bell, and it’s a whole different message strategy—different for large, medium, and small firms. They all have different things that mean something to them.” He’s optimistic, he says, that single-family housing will be the first building type to reach net zero in aggregate.

While initiatives like the 2030 Commitment are important, the time is coming to tackle the problem on a larger scale. At the Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas in June 2019, AIA’s Resolution for Urgent and Sustained Climate Action overwhelmingly passed by 4,860 votes to 312—placing the onus on all firms, not just 2030 Commitment signatories, to tackle the climate issue.

The resolution outlines three actions: declaring an urgent climate imperative for carbon reduction; transforming the day-today practice of architects to achieve a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment; and leveraging the support of architecture’s peers, clients, policymakers, and the public at large.

“It’s a significant statement from AIA to have all firms engaged in making a response to this urgent climate situation,” says Gwen Fuertes, AIA, an associate at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco and co-chair of the AIA 2030 Commitment Working Group. “[Commitment] at the board level is a really big message to the industry at large, so I think that’s the first thing that people can hear and recognize, coming from AIA.”

Groundswell from Grassroots Efforts

Building codes are going to be an essential piece of the emissions reduction puzzle going forward, and architects are leading the charge. In November 2018, Architecture 2030’s ZERO Code, a net-zero energy stretch code for new commercial, institutional, and mid-to-high-rise residential buildings, was adopted by the state of Oregon, and members of AIA California (AIA CA) Committee on the Environment are currently lobbying for it to be adopted in their state during the next code cycle, in 2022. This July, the AIA CA board of directors unanimously passed a resolution supporting this initiative, and the AIA CA government advocacy staff is now working to forward the ZERO Code to the California Energy Commission and the governor’s office for expedited adoption.

“At a policy level, a lot of people are looking at what California does, because that’s going to drive a lot of influence for international policy as well,” Fuertes says. “It starts in California and trickles out. We’re very encouraged that this got recommended and is raised to the level right now, at the state, where they’re really considering turning the lever and saying, ‘Okay, now we’re all going to be doing net-zero carbon buildings’—and that will be a huge shift. It’s just another story of how architects can really make a difference from the ground up.”

Fuertes says that forming a community around sustainability efforts in the Bay Area has been influential in helping firms build more sustainable practices.

“We have a regional network here of folks that are point people at their firms for doing the 2030 Commitment work, and we meet on a quarterly basis—get together, have snacks and beer, and talk about our progress,” she says. “And it’s been really great to see that informal, collective gathering. We work at firms that might compete against each other, but we put that aside and think about the bigger movement, the bigger problem of climate change that we’re all in, and we collaborate and share resources and ideas.”

Providing tools that architects and planners can implement in their own cities is also an essential way of making the fight against climate change horizontal, rather than topdown. “For existing buildings, the key is to have policy road maps that are scalable, so that not every city has to do a custom road map,” Mazria says. Key policy intervention strategies for reducing emissions include a building sale, if the new owner is planning a renovation; rebuilding after an event like a flood or fire; or a zoning upgrade or height increase. “You can also, at that point, require the emissions reductions, from that building and any other additions on that site,” Mazria says.

Timing Is Everything

There are three crucial dates in the process of reducing carbon emissions, as laid out by the Paris Agreement. After 2020, global carbon emissions must be reduced 50 percent by 2030 in order to meet the target goal of completely phasing out CO2 emissions by 2050.

“Those three dates are key, and if you miss any of those, then the other dates change,” Mazria says. “We need to move faster to get to that 50 percent or greater target by 2030. Otherwise that 2050 date doesn’t hold.”

Design strategies for new buildings have the greatest impact on building energy use. Starting with architectural solutions, like passive solar design strategies, more efficient building envelopes and mechanical systems—and then adding renewable power generation like rooftop solar—can all add up to decreased energy emissions. Also, about 50 percent of embodied carbon—or carbon emitted during the manufacture, transport, and construction of building materials—comes from steel and concrete. The use of carbon sequestering materials like mass timber and CO2 injection in concrete will be crucial in reducing the amount of carbon usage in the building sector in the next 10 years. “If architects are designing for mass timber, it puts a little more pressure on concrete and steel to reduce their emissions so that our community will specify it,” Mazria says. “To get other industries going as competitors to the established industries, it’s important to get the established industries to make changes happen and reduce their emissions.”

A Sea Change

Following the resolution passed in Las Vegas by attendees of the 2019 Conference on Architecture, AIA is currently in the process of shaping its next big initiative, the Big Move Toward Environmental Stewardship.

“In the near-term, the board has prioritized three areas—energy, economy, and equitable communities—which are based on the 10 areas of focus laid out by AIA’s Committee on the Environment. These areas of focus will shape the Institute’s work for the coming decade and beyond,” says AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA. “It’s an increased—and highly visible—call for urgency at a pivotal time.”

“The timing is perfect, because we have to act now,” says Mazria of the resolution and AIA’s initiatives. “That’s what the profession—and the building sector—needs to understand.”