Process diagram: How to Transition to Zero-Net-Carbon. See a larger version of this diagram here.
Process diagram: How to Transition to Zero-Net-Carbon. See a larger version of this diagram here.

Location: Phoenix
Staff size: 14
Projects per year: 3 to 5
Call to Action: In 2008, local utilities company Salt River Project asked Studio Ma to design a demonstration project that went beyond LEED Platinum standards. Intrigued, Studio Ma began poring over the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG), which includes ideas for achieving zero-net energy and water. “Once the lightbulb goes on, you really can’t turn it off,” says founding principal Christiana Moss, AIA.
Commitment: Studio Ma wants to create “regenerative,” or net-positive, architecture as soon as possible, Moss says. “The question is: How do we try to advocate for this with our clients?” In 2010, the firm signed the AIA 2030 Commitment and has largely met the progressive energy reduction targets. The goal of regenerative architecture became woven into the culture of the firm organically, no formal vote or announcement needed.
Identify Partners: To help crunch the numbers, Studio Ma teams with engineering firms and universities.
Education: Interested employees can pursue professional accreditation, such as LEED or Living Future. Associated fees are reimbursed upon successful accreditation.
Technology and Training: To estimate embodied carbon, Studio Ma uses the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute’s EcoCalculator. For energy modeling, the firm uses Sefaira and Climate Consultant; it is also a beta tester for DIVA and ClimateStudio, developed by Cambridge, Mass.–based Solemma. To manage the cost of software, the firm assigns licenses to specific workstations for shared use. The firm invests between $25,000 and $75,000 on software and staff training, depending on project needs.
Design Workflow: Studio Ma conducts an energy-analysis study on each project to examine issues such as site orientation, daylight control strategies, and photovoltaic energy potential. Working with its engineers and contractors, it also uses life-cycle cost analysis methods as prescribed by the WBDG. “Design has become extremely front-loaded, so the number of decisions that you’re making earlier in the process has increased exponentially,” Moss says.
High-Performance Architecture: The firm’s bioclimatic philosophy “is not only part of the design process, but it actually is a driver of the design process,” Moss says. “While abstract concepts or other ideas have driven form-making in architecture, this is what drives form and design in our studio.”
Business Development: Studio Ma communicates its design philosophy to potential clients by focusing on passive strategies and locally sourced and carbon-sequestering materials.
Reporting: Since 2010, the firm has reported its projects’ energy performance as part of the AIA 2030 Commitment.
Review Documents: The firm hires legal counsel when applying for the federal R&D tax credit for its study of net-positive buildings.
Marketing: The firm publishes projected and actual energy use intensities and water reduction numbers. It is currently revisiting its branding and website, in part to highlight its regenerative design approach.
Up Next: Through its brand refresh and outreach, Studio Ma hopes to attract private clients with its approach. It is also in the planning stages of projects utilizing a timber structure.

Rendering of Arizona State University ISTB-7, designed by Studio Ma
Beauty and the Bit Rendering of Arizona State University ISTB-7, designed by Studio Ma

Locations: St. Paul, Minn.; Madison, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.
Staff size: 162
Projects per year: 300-plus
Call to Action: In 2001, BWBR formed its Performance Design Group (PDG) of about 10 people who integrate energy efficiency and other sustainability initiatives into every project. In 2007, then-CEO Steve Patrick was inspired by a presentation on the Architecture 2030 Challenge at the AIA Large Firm Round Table.
Commitment: BWBR signed on to the 2030 Challenge in 2007 and the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2014, though its annual portfolio average has not yet met the required targets. It is evaluating its design practices to set a performance baseline exceeding code requirements for its projects.
Task Force: In early 2019, a subcommittee of the PDG began researching ways to meet the AIA 2030 targets. It presented ideas to BWBR’s board of directors, which approved continued study.
Assess Knowledge and Expertise: A PDG subcommittee has reached out to nearly a dozen engineers, contractors, and clients in BWBR’s network to assess the impact of designing to a higher performance baseline on project costs and firm competitiveness.
Education: Since 2014, the firm has made a push for training in sustainable design, says project manager and PDG co-chair Jesse Turck, AIA. About a quarter of the firm is LEED accredited. The firm has also stretched Earth Day into a weeklong event, complete with talks by non-AEC business leaders to help show that zero-net-carbon “can be a market-driven initiative, and not just an altruistic initiative,” says communications manager James Lockwood.
Technology and Training: BWBR uses the Athena EcoCalculator to estimate embodied carbon but is currently evaluating the Carbon Leadership Forum’s EC3 tool. For energy analysis, BWBR uses Autodesk Insight, a Revit plug-in. The firm has come to realize that software training on an as-needed basis is more effective in terms of knowledge retention. BWBR spends 0.5% to 1% of its net revenue on staff training (not all related to sustainability).
Design Workflow: BWBR piloted a performance design–mentorship program for each active project. It is looking into integrating life cycle analysis studies more regularly into its workflow to reduce the embodied carbon of its designs. The firm also wants to reach more clients during initial planning, before project budgets are set, in order to advocate for a long-term view beyond first cost.
Review Documents: BWBR continually updates its specifications to include more sustainability information.
Reporting: In addition to the reporting required by the AIA 2030 Commitment, the firm also conducts benchmarking comparisons as part of Minnesota’s Buildings, Benchmarks & Beyond program, which requires projects receiving state funding to meet 2030 energy targets and conduct post-occupancy evaluations.
Marketing: BWBR publishes accomplishments in a magazine, a website blog, a biannual e-newsletter, and industry presentations.
Up Next: BWBR plans to evaluate its sustainable design practices, set project energy performance targets, update its materials library, and complete a zero-net-carbon project.

Atrium panels
Don F. Wong Gustavus Adolphus College's Beck Academic Hall, designed by BWBR

Locations: 48 offices on five continents
Staff size: 6,000-plus
Projects per year: 8,000
Call to Action: The firm has a history of spearheading performance-driven design. Founder Art Gensler, FAIA, chaired the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Commercial Interiors committee and helped develop LEED for Core and Shell. Between 1998 and 2018, the firm designed 1,500 LEED projects.
Commitment: Gensler signed the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2009 and the Paris Pledge for Action on Climate Change in 2015. Last September, co-CEO Diane Hoskins, FAIA, announced the Gensler Cities Climate Challenge (GC3) at the U.N. Climate Action Summit to make the firm’s annual portfolio carbon neutral—both in embodied and operational carbon, as well as in other aspects—by 2030. “The new commitment is basically our moon shot,” says principal and design director Lance Hosey, FAIA, who is also the firmwide co-leader of design resilience along with Rives Taylor, FAIA. Each of the firm’s 11 regions has two additional design resilience co-leaders, and individual offices may also have a leader.
Decision Process: These commitments have come from the co-CEOs, with input from the firm’s board of directors and management committee.
Task Force: Gensler has many in-house committees tackling different aspects of design resilience. For the nascent GC3 initiative, the firm is organizing a group to specifically study climate-positive design.
Assess Knowledge and Expertise: Though the firm has no shortage of experts on design resilience, Hosey says it may consider forming strategic partnerships with institutions or think tanks to broaden its outreach.
Hire Talent: About 15 years ago, Hosey says, the firm made a push to recruit people with technical expertise in sustainability, including Taylor. More recently, the firm has brought in experts outside the traditional building arena, such as a cultural anthropologist.
Education: About a quarter of the firm is LEED accredited. Additional resources include Gensler University—which is an internal repository of 3,500-plus training programs on topics such as leadership and design training—and studies by the Gensler Research Institute (GRI). Hosey says the amount of time people spend in formal training varies by individual and role; similarly, spending on education related to design resilience varies by region and office.
Technology and Training: Gensler uses “virtually every tool in the market,” Hosey says, but is also working with specific developers to customize programs for the firm.
Review Documents: Specifications are continually updated to “reflect current standard of practice,” Hosey says, though no recent changes have resulted from the climate action initiatives—yet.
Reporting: After signing the Paris Agreement, the firm began publishing an annual "Impact by Design" report on its portfolio’s performance. Its 2018 portfolio is estimated to be 46% more energy efficient than baseline. In 2017, the GRI debuted the Gensler Experience Index, documenting good and bad design qualities based on interviews and surveys.
Up Next: Gensler is actively working to determine how it will realize its GC3 initiative.