In his Sept. 20 testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2018 AIA president Carl Elefante, FAIA, stated: “The threat posed by climate change to our homes, cities, nation, and the planet require[s] that we fundamentally reexamine how we develop and adapt the built world.” The climate is in crisis. And with 75% of electricity and 28% of the natural gas in the United States used by buildings—and 39% of global greenhouse gases emitted by them—it is a threat that architects cannot afford to ignore.

It is also one they are singularly equipped to help change. Just two weeks before Elefante spoke on behalf of AIA on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., the Institute’s board of directors ratified a resolution to position the industry to do just that. The resolution calls for three actions: “declare an urgent climate imperative for carbon reduction; transform the day-to-day practice of architects to achieve a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient and healthy built environment; and leverage support of our peers, clients, policy makers, and the public at large.”

The appetite in the architectural community for such actions is great: The resolution, which was introduced by Betsy del Monte, FAIA, and co-signed by 50 other members of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), was introduced at the business meeting at this summer’s Conference on Architecture in Las Vegas, where it received 4,860 votes in its favor and only 312 against. (Twenty-eight members abstained.) “We thought it was very important to include this idea that we really have to transform day-to-day practice for all architects to achieve zero carbon and an equitable, resilient, healthy built environment,” says Marsha Maytum, FAIA, of San Francisco–based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, who serves as the 2019 COTE chair and was one of the co-signers.

The ratification by the board in September coincides with what the Institute calls the “Big Move Toward Environmental Stewardship.” It calls for the development of a Climate Action Plan in 2020, as well as continuing to encourage firms to join the AIA 2030 Commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of new projects and renovations over the next decade.

AIA has also adopted the COTE Top Ten Measures—the 10 criteria (listed opposite) used to evaluate the annual COTE Top Ten Awards—as the Framework for Design Excellence going forward. These principles focus on creating holistically sustainable projects that reduce energy and water use, integrate design and sustainable systems, and foster the wellness of building users. (For more information on each of the 10 measures, visit the COTE knowledge community page.

“The framework based upon the Cote Top Ten measures is a really holistic way to think about the entire design process, and provides a way for each architect, community, and client to look at all of the measures, adapt them to what is most important in their communities, and comprehensively look at design excellence in its fullest form,” Maytum says.

To help the industry make energy and carbon reduction a focus in everyday practice, AIA will continue to develop tools for its membership. But there are already several available to help people become familiar with the framework and to offer tips on how to achieve performance goals. The COTE
Top Ten Toolkit, released online in December 2018 breaks out each of the 10 measures, offers examples from past winners of the awards program, and provides high-impact strategies of the “if you can only do one thing” variety. The Toolkit has been demonstrated in workshops across the country over the past year, and has already received 15,000 views to its website, according to Toolkit contributor and COTE board member Tate Walker, AIA, of OPN Architects in Madison, Wis.

The Toolkit isn’t just beneficial to architects: In his practice, Walker is also introducing it to clients, who have adopted it and the measures into their own standards for sustainability. The state of Wisconsin’s Division of Facilities Development and Management, for example, is in the process of revamping its sustainability guidelines, but in the interim is offering the Toolkit as a suggested resource for all projects. “It works with clients, and it works within firms to raise a level of knowledge, and to help to support a culture of high-performance design,” Walker says.

The Toolkit is complemented by the Design Datamap—a searchable, visual database of all past COTE Top Ten–winning projects—that allows users to search by region, climate, zone, typology, size, and other filters to find case studies that can inform their own work.

Indeed, the COTE Top Ten Awards program is one of the best resources for architects looking to transform their design practices: It has been showcasing 10 of the most sustainable projects each year for more than 20 years. In the following pages we dive into the latest winners, in each case spotlighting a different one of the 10 measures. Altogether, these projects provide a higher benchmark, one that every architect should aim to emulate, even surpass—and in very short order—if the world is to reach energy and carbon neutrality. Architects must continue to lead the search for environmental solutions, and can make a profound contribution toward the mitigation of climate change.

Read Expanded Coverage of Each of the 2019 AIA COTE Top 10 Winners:

Ed Massery

AIA COTE Top 10 PlusFrick Environmental Center, Pittsburgh. Pa.
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Chuck Choi

Amherst College New Science Center, Amherst, Mass.


Asilong Christian High School, West Pokot, Kenya

Nic Lehoux

Daniels Building at One Spadina Crescent, Toronto
NADAAA with Adamson Associates Architects and ERA Architects

Warren Jagger Photography

Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, Boston

Lakeside Senior Apartments, Oakland, Calif.
David Baker Architects

Benjamin Benschneider

North Transfer Station, Seattle
Mahlum Architects

Christian Columbres

Oregon Zoo Education Center, Portland, Ore.
Opsis Architecture

Whitney Cox

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York
Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) Architects

Landscape Arboretum University of Minnesota - Bee Discovery Center by MSR Design
Richard Brine Landscape Arboretum University of Minnesota - Bee Discovery Center by MSR Design

Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, Chaska, Minn.
MSR Design

The 2018/2019 ACSA/AIA COTE Top 10 for Students Winners

Philip Riazzi; Cameron Foster

Students: Philip Riazzi and Cameron Foster
Faculty Sponsors: Ulrike Heine, David Franco, and Daniel Harding
School: Clemson University
The Acclimate project turns an existing, 500-spot parking garage in Bremerton, Wash., into a space for public programming. A second phase would add four residential towers.

Cole Robinson and Michael Horan

Transfusion: Tapering Tucson
Students: Cole Robinson and Michael Horan Faculty
Sponsors: Ulrike Heine, David Franco, and Daniel Harding
School: Clemson University
This scheme explores how multi-occupant residential buildings designed with a focus on site-specific ecologies can improve the health and wellness of residents in Tucson, Ariz.

Sean Anderson; Tobias Jimenez; and Haley Landenburg

Wallingford W2E
Students: Sean Anderson, Tobias Jimenez, and Haley Ladenburg
Faculty Sponsor: Omar Al-Hassawi
School: Washington State University
Wallingford W2E offers a sustainable approach to waste management in Seattle in the form of a small waste-to-energy plant next to an existing waste-transfer station. The plant would use the waste to generate clean energy for the surrounding community.

Haley Teske

“The Happy Land” | An Antiquarium for Torre Annunziata
Student: Haley Teske
Faculty Sponsors: Bradford Watson and Jaya Mukhopadhyay
School: Montana State University
This proposal presents a socially and environmentally sustainable approach to heritage tourism. It would draw tourists (and their wallets) to the Italian town of Torre Annunziata to see Villa Oplontis, a Roman ruin preserved by the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, without inviting the destruction of the landscape.

Viviani Isnata and Maria Ulloa

Shore of a Hundred Islands
Students: Viviani Isnata and Maria Ulloa
Faculty Sponsor: Evan Jones and Margaret Ikeda
School: California College of the Arts
The low-lying Maldives, a nation of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. The students responded to the growing risk of inundation by designing a self-sustaining, literally buoyant, community. Their scheme addresses problems of water collection, food production, and wastewater treatment that come with life on the water.

Thomas Valcourt; Karl Greschner; and Phillippe Bernard

Students: Thomas Valcourt, Karl Greschner, and Philippe Bernard
Faculty Sponsors: Claude Demers and André Potvin
School: Université Laval
This scheme would transform an existing parking lot at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, into a 300,000-square-foot collaboration hub for the schools of architecture, design, urban planning, and visual arts.

Will Letchinger and Jonathan Wilkinson

Après le Déluge
Students: Will Letchinger and Jonathan Wilkinson
Faculty Sponsor: John Casbarian, FAIA
School: Rice University
Pairing historic preservation with water management, this project proposes design solutions to prevent climate change–related flooding, and preserve the existing ecosystem, at the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley.

Peter Lazovskis and Thomas Schaperkotter

Coolth Capitalism
Students: Peter Lazovskis and Thomas Schaperkotter
Faculty Sponsor: Matthew Soules (University of British Columbia)
School: Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Coolth Capitalism proposes nine mass-timber towers for downtown Los Angeles, designed to both maximize profit for developers and to demonstrate how that financial model can be paired with hyper-efficiency to fuel social and environmental sustainability across the supply chain.

Cynthia Suarez-Harris; Ledell Thomas; and Kennia Lopez

The Fly Flat
Students: Cynthia Suarez-Harris, Ledell Thomas, and Kennia Lopez
Faculty Sponsors: Shelly Pottorf, Shannon Bryant, and April Ward
School: Prairie View A&M University
This scheme creates a pocket neighborhood of infill housing in Houston’s Independence Heights—the first incorporated black municipality in Texas—that also explores solutions for economic, social, and environmental resilience.

Catherine Earley; Elena Koepp; and Sabrina Ortiz

Healing Habitats: Innovation Center for Disease and Water Management
Students: Catherine Earley, Elena Koepp, and Sabrina Ortiz
Faculty Sponsor: Brook Muller
School: University of Oregon
This proposed 80,000-square-foot mosquito research facility in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, examines how water-management strategies can limit the spread of diseases such as malaria, while also addressing the economic and environmental resilience of the surrounding community.