Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report saying that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—the ideal target of the Paris Agreement—would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” according to an IPCC press release. The report says that the planet is likely to hit a global increase of 1.5 C between 2030 and 2052, but to keep the increase at that level, and not higher, action must be taken immediately—carbon emissions must be reduced 45 percent by 2030, and humanity needs to reach net-zero by 2050.
This is not new news, but definitely ups the stakes: Last year, the climate already reached 1 C of warming above preindustrial levels, and if carbon emissions remain unchecked, IPCC scientists predict we could see catastrophic effects within the next 15 to 20 years. Pair the fact that buildings account for 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions with the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2017 prediction in its Global Status Report that the global building stock will double by 2060 and the question isn’t whether architects should be involved in a carbon-neutral solution, but how they should be involved.
Several knowledge communities and working groups of the American Institute of Architects have been tackling this problem for years, including the Committee on the Environment (COTE). Founded in 1990, COTE’s mission is “to advance, disseminate, and advocate—to the profession, the building industry, the academy, and the public—design practices that integrate built and natural systems and enhance both the design quality and environmental performance of the built environment.”
COTE is led by an advisory group of volunteer experts from leading sustainable design practices around the country. “Everyone on the advisory group is trying to help members and firms get on board with sustainable ideas more quickly and easily within their own firms,” says Angela Brooks, FAIA, the 2018 chair of the COTE advisory group and the managing principal of Los Angeles–based Brooks + Scarpa. “Each initiative we have working right now adds something to that idea.”
But central to the ethos of COTE and its members is that sustainability and good design should not be treated as two separate goals, but rather should receive equal priority in every project. To demonstrate that this gold standard is possible, the committee launched the annual AIA COTE Top Ten awards program in 1997—this year’s winners are showcased in the following pages—to highlight “projects that are beautiful and would win design honor awards, and that also meet really high performance standards. They do both,” Brooks says.
In 2016, COTE revamped the awards submission process to highlight 10 holistic measures of sustainability—such as community, water, and resources—to encourage architects to think about sustainability as more than just energy consumption. The goal was “to include actual performance metrics because a
lot of people want proof,” Brooks says. “A lot of buildings will say they’re green, but then they operate and it turns out that they’re really not.”
To instill an integrated approach to sustainable design in future generations of architects, COTE launched a student competition, run in collaboration with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, in 2014. “There’s no time like right now if we’re going to solve the issue of climate change, and the next generation of architects is going to need to be equipped with the tools and the creativity and the confidence to come up with solutions,” says Marsha Maytum, FAIA, a COTE advisory group member and a founding principal of San Francisco–based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.
The Next Generation
For the past two years, the student program—which requires that student projects address the same 10 measures as the professional awards, and which had more than 1,000 participants in the 2018 iteration—has also featured a summer internship component supported by the Santa Fe, N.M.–based nonprofit Architecture 2030. Each winning student is offered a paid summer internship in a leading sustainable design firm around the country. The students get hands-on experience, and the firms gain something as well, Maytum says: The summer interns, including one at her own firm this past summer, “energize the whole office around the topics of sustainability, resilience, and adaptive design—all things that students are very excited about around the country.”
But training students for the future doesn’t help with the immediate challenges of curbing resource use and minimizing the environmental impact of buildings: That requires more buy-in from the profession. After attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco with an AIA delegation in September—just weeks before the most recent IPCC report came out—AIA president Carl Elefante, FAIA, says that there was already “a very heightened sense of urgency: The starting gun has fired, and we need to be really sprinting from here on out” towards achieving carbon neutrality.
“The top performers [in sustainable design] are performing at a very admirable level,” he says, but notes that penetration of sustainable principles in the marketplace is “nowhere near what it needs to be.” To that end, the AIA added new statements to its code of ethics and professional conduct related to sustainability—both in terms of advising their clients about the environmental impact of buildings, and in setting ambitious goals for energy and carbon savings and minimizing resource use. “It’s about having our policies and ethics really be where they ought to be,” Elefante says.
A Calculated Standard
Throughout the industry, groups are looking at how to stem the tide of energy and carbon use in the built environment. In April, Edward Mazria, FAIA, and Architecture 2030 published the Zero Code standard, which proposes building net-zero-carbon new construction by supplementing a highly energy-efficient design with a more flexible approach to on- and/or off-site renewable energy, which makes compliance easier for towers or urban sites. The standard was designed to incorporate the forthcoming ASHRAE 90.1—2016 building energy code, but offers calculators so architects in municipalities that haven’t adopted it can still comply with the Zero Code on their projects, if the base design is energy-efficient enough.
As for Elefante, he looks to history for inspiration in finding a path forward: “Years ago, there were no fire codes. The world and architects agreed that the right number of people to die in a building fire was zero, and we’ve made continuous improvement to try to get to that number,” he says. “Now we’re in the same situation with carbon, and we can do it, we just need to do it much quicker. We have the tools, we need to help our clients, and we need to help our communities. But we have to get there and we have to get there now.”
Expanded Coverage of the Winners of the 2018 COTE Top Ten Awards
Jury statement: "This project clearly demonstrates the immediate positive impact of good design. A district library that serves a diverse and newly-immigrant community, the library has a dramatically increased visitorship (with a notable 75 percent increase for teenagers) over the old facility."