While more than 1,000 firms have signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, pledging carbon neutrality by 2030, many firms say office and building waste remains a lurking and overlooked issue in architectural practices.
“Waste has been a constant universal issue—contractors, site managers, and even architects have had little to no knowledge of waste, including waste specifications and waste tracking,” says Celeste McMickle, director of client solutions for TRUE, a certification program focused on helping facilities lower waste and decrease their carbon footprint while supporting public health.
Even though building waste continues to emit methane, a harmfully present and toxic greenhouse gas, through decomposition, zero-waste advocate and architect McMickle has found a persistent absence of building-waste solutions for the AEC community.
“I observed that the way the city was moving waste around was inefficient design and it was just accepted,” says architect Clare Miflin, the executive director of Center for Zero Waste Design. “There was never any feedback to inform architects of this issue.” And as the center's website states, "Waste is a design flaw."
With their technical training, architects and the AEC industry can play a critical role in waste mitigation by collaborating with the waste management industry. New York City is at the forefront of this push with its recent waste requirement, released in April 2022, which now requires large multiple-dwelling buildings to submit waste management plans and design drawings to the Buildings Department along with design drawings—a unique legislation that directly links architects with waste management practices.
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Identifying the Profession’s Waste
Paper continues to be a large waste stream for architectural offices, with the EPA reporting that paper comprises the largest percentage of national municipal solid waste generation, at nearly 25% of all materials. Robert Daurio, an associate at the New York-based WXY Architecture + Urban Design, and his colleagues observed that 50% of their office’s waste stream pre-pandemic was mixed paper, with requests for hard copies of RFIs, submittals, and other official documents remaining common post-pandemic. While paper waste has diminished due to the digital transformation of firm work during the pandemic, “some types of paper documents seem to show no sign of disappearing,” he says. Meanwhile, New York–based Dattner Architects’ director of sustainability, Shefali Sanghvi, has observed that, while younger firm staff is more inclined towards digital work, older staff retains an instinctive mentality to print.
Firms have also identified food waste as an ongoing issue, with Dattner’s zero-waste committee eyeing its pantry as a major source of waste generation due to single-use utensils and dishware, along with extended working hours and continuing education lunch and learn sessions.
Change Through Challenge and Competition
How can we empower the building industry to create systemic change and lean into the zero-waste movement? The AIA New York chapter utilized the Zero Waste Challenge competition in 2018 to create zero-waste offices by merging the design and waste industries. Participants analyzed building waste consumption and engaged in design charrettes. They worked with zero-waste consultant Think Zero, a New York waste-reduction and diversion consulting firm that has collaborated with many design firms and associations including AIA and Architecture Research Office. In turn, the challenge yielded waste-generation reduction while increasing recycling and the adoption of a standardized framework for long-term implementation. The experience became an educational industry design tool.
“It became a great opportunity for us to think critically about waste,” explains Sanghvi. “We not only increased everyone’s collective knowledge base on waste, but learned how to take small steps in our office for waste reduction.”
Dattner Architects has permanently implemented zero-waste policies, including redesigning its waste-prone pantry to encourage recycling and reusable tableware. Internal office campaigns encourage composting, reducing printing, and reusing office materials.
The challenge’s strategies also work as design tools for firm projects. Easy to understand waste-disposal signage, staff education and training, a dedicated office green team, strategic configuration of waste-collection areas, and technology to support remote work are some of the most simple yet effective permanent design and operations fixtures of sustainable offices that are replicable for client projects.
Daurio says that, post-challenge, WXY continues to prioritize waste-reduction actions in the office. For instance, by shifting from individual desk-side bins to centralized waste collection, occupants have become more intentional about waste disposal, rather than prioritizing convenience. WXY’s experience has also influenced conversations with clients and the types of projects the firm pursues. Recognizing outdated and inefficient waste practices in buildings and public spaces—such as piling bags on curbsides, the absence of building waste chutes, the lack of material reuse prior to disposal, and a dearth of standardized criteria for waste storage on site—the firm has taken on urban waste management as a key component of its streetscape, urban design, and master planning work.
“With the Center for Zero Waste Design, we have initiated a campaign called ‘Put Waste to Work,’ a project for recently elected officials in New York to commit to developing a more rigorous waste-management strategy for the city,” Daurio says.
Collaboration between firms and Think Zero continues to provide architects with direct insight to the finer details of waste management. The AEC industry can scale these unique partnerships city and nationwide to create permanent solutions.
“Architects can lead the effort to develop guidelines in cities and consult with both the AIA, and their local city officials,” Miflin says. The Zero Waste Design Guidelines serves as a successful partnership of diverse professionals, including city planners, designers, sanitation officials, and building superintendents. This series of recommendations, released in 2017 for New York, outlines zero-waste goals, design strategies, and implementation techniques and can guide other cities.
The challenge also highlighted the traditionally exclusive involvement of operations, facilities, and maintenance staff in waste management. Dattner Architects has formed an in-house zero waste committee with leadership as well as administrative and design staff applying these goals office-wide.
Collaborations to Cement Change
McMickle has observed an increase in design professionals pursuing the TRUE Advisors Certification, which recognizes individuals as "resident experts" in implementing zero-waste programs. Zero waste-friendly legislation could assist tremendously in standardizing incentives.
Performance targets are another impetus for driving waste management. “Stringent milestones for carbon and emissions reductions have pushed buildings to TRUE certification,” McMickle says. “Moreover architects understand certification programs, so it creates a goal and incentive for them.”
Through hybrid partnerships with city planners, building managers, sanitation officials, and other stakeholders in the waste world, Architects can standardize best practices to contribute to emissions reductions on a global scale.
“It is our role as planners, urban designers, and architects to be the ones that actively challenge convention and work towards making the places where we live and work cleaner, greener, more resilient, and more equitable,” Daurio says.