Out of the 20,000 or so architecture firms in the United States, 400 have joined the AIA 2030 Commitment to carbon neutrality, and just 6 have reported meeting the goal of reducing their portfolio’s predicted energy use intensity by 70 percent or more.

In 2015, the AIA 2030 Commitment set a new target for predicted energy use intensity (pEUI) savings—70 percent of the performance baselines set in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2030 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey—as part of the initiative’s goal of 100 percent carbon-neutral projects by 2030. But what does it take to conceptualize and build structures that can achieve this ambitious benchmark? Five of the successful firms share how they attained such energy savings—and why it matters.

What’s the 2030 Commitment?
The 2030 Commitment is a framework created by the AIA to provide standardized tools for U.S. firms to track their progress toward achieving carbon-neutral construction by 2030. Participants are asked to submit an annual portfolio—all projects in an active design phase during that calendar year—to an online database with statistics including average predicted energy use intensity (pEUI) savings projections, building type, area, baseline energy performance, and other details. The pEUI of each project in a firm’s portfolio is averaged to determine the total annual savings. Firms are responsible for self-reporting and portfolios are not audited by the AIA. The AIA’s current overall target reduction for signatories is 70 percent pEUI savings, and this target will increase incrementally by 10 percent in 2020, 2025, and 2030, when pEUI savings should reach 100 percent. According to a recent AIA Commitment By the Numbers report, projects by signatory firms only reached an average of 42 percent pEUI savings in 2016.

ZeroEnergy Design
Location: Boston
Firm Size: Seven
Year Joined: 2010
pEUI Savings Reported in 2016: 84.3 percent
Specialty: Residential

The name of this firm says it all, denoting a commitment to net-zero energy buildings across its portfolio. “For us, it’s about accountability,” says co-founder Stephanie Horowitz, AIA. “It’s about reporting on all of your projects, not just the shining stars. We think it’s important to share that information with the profession and to be able to benchmark our own performance against other firms to see how we’re doing.”

The firm’s portfolio is primarily residential, an area of design where Horowitz noticed “a lack of technical rigor among design firms,” she says. “I think that’s probably still the case, but not nearly as bad as it was over a decade ago when we started.” The firm was already committed to net-zero energy design before signing on to the 2030 Commitment, according to Horowitz, but she sees it as “increasing energy literacy” in the public, and especially in the profession. “The social network of joining is absolutely a catalyst for change,” Horowitz says. “Being able to compare yourself against your peers is a great motivator for enacting change within a firm.”

ZeroEnergy Design's net positive farmhouse in Lincoln, Mass.
courtesy Zero/Energy Design - Chuck Choi Photography ZeroEnergy Design's net positive farmhouse in Lincoln, Mass.

Co-founder Jordan Goldman says residential can be both easier and harder to pull off in terms of energy efficiency. “You’re avoiding big process loads from a large commercial building: plug loads, elevators,” he says. “In that way, residential is easier by sealing the envelope, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, and good windows.” However, many homeowners do not want to look past five years for a return on investment, Goldman notes. “Commercial clients may be willing to invest in energy efficiency if it’s a long-term strategy,” he says.

Since its founding in 2005, ZeroEnergy Design has always made use of energy modeling. “If you’re not measuring, you have no idea if it’s working,” Goldman says. In recent years, the firm has posted both the pEUI of each project and the actual result on its website, for the purposes of transparency.

Insisting on high-performance design means the firm won’t accept just any commission. “Our clients are self-selecting,” Horowitz says. “We go through a vetting process to make sure their values are aligned with ours.” But she says it has helped rather than hurt their business. “We’re creating this niche, this area of expertise we have.”

Location: Duluth, Minn.
Firm Size: Three
Year Joined: 2015
pEUI Savings Reported in 2016: 100 percent
Specialty: Residential, educational, commercial, and cultural

Before founding her own firm, architect Carly Coulson, AIA, worked for Foster + Partners in London, during which time she landed a lead role on 30 St. Mary Axe—better known as the Gherkin—a pioneer in energy efficiency. An overriding lesson she learned in Europe was a blend of rigor and nonchalance. “Most of my architect friends in Europe are meeting rigorous energy targets and it’s scarcely even discussed,” Coulson says. “I really want to get to the point where we don’t talk about sustainability at all.”

Coulson's Pays d'en Haut house in northern Minnesota
courtesy Coulson - Bruce Damonte Coulson's Pays d'en Haut house in northern Minnesota

Coulson designs all of her projects to meet Passive House Institute standards, which informs what she calls a conservation-first approach to energy efficiency. “We’re trying to reduce energy demand as much as we can before we introduce renewable energy,” she says. “That’s really critical in order to be able to have the creative freedom to not necessarily be locked into a super high-tech-looking project. We’re able to achieve 70 or 80 percent reduction [in EUI] just by focusing on the envelope and passive strategies: super insulation, heat recovery ventilation, passive solar, air tightness. Then getting to positive energy is really simple. You’re just making up the remaining 20 percent or so.”

Though she sees the 2030 Commitment as a way for many firms to shift their design cultures, Coulson thinks of becoming a signatory on as a way of giving back. “When I started 10 years ago, the pioneers in deep energy reduction and green building were super supportive and transparent about their experiences and knowledge … and we benefited greatly,” Coulson says. “We want to make sure that firms and architects that are starting this process now aren’t starting from scratch, but they’re able to use our experience as a springboard. Because otherwise it can seem daunting and fraught with a lot of risk.”

Though Coulson engages in energy modeling for each project, the architect has deliberately kept her firm small, which means she can hire consultants “based on the project needs and really learn from them.”

Mode Associates
Location: San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Firm Size: Five
Year Joined: 2010
pEUI Savings Reported in 2016: 74.5 percent
Specialty: Higher education

When Mode Associates signed onto the 2030 Commitment in 2010, founder Stacey White, AIA, knew she was not alone. “Another firm and I signed on nearly at the same time,” she says, “and through our AIA chapter, we were able to get 11 other firms to sign on. We went through the first year of cultural shift and getting processes in place and setting up the structures of our firms together.” The group shared the cost of training, for example, and even established a referral network among each other. “I don’t do housing unless it’s for myself or my family,” says White, whose firm designs K-12 schools and higher-education projects. “But if someone reaches out to me and says, ‘I want a high-performance residential project,’ I hand it off to [one of] these other firms, because I know the rigor with which they are designing things. You can coexist in a community without it feeling like competition.”

Mode Associates' Stevenson Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.
courtesy Mode Associates Mode Associates' Stevenson Hall at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

White laments that architects may misperceive meeting the 2030 Challenge benchmark as “another add-on when as an architect you’re already exhausted.” But, she says, “It’s not as complicated as one might perceive.” By employing energy modeling on every project and arriving to client meetings with statistics in hand, the architects can show that decisions about materials, siting, or insulation is in the client’s best interest. “It’s freed us up to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with our clients because we have better information for them.”

As for energy modeling, “some say it’s the engineers’ job,” White says. “It’s my position that the tools are now at a place that allows the iterative modeling—energy, daylight modeling—that can flow with your design process seamlessly. Once you embed that thinking and data-driven, multi-option testing as you move through the design process, it is nearly seamless, and allows us to test our ideas very quickly and rapidly.” Technological advances have also been beneficial for making energy predictions. “When I started 20 years ago, you became dependent on the engineer to find if we were doing it right, and that came too late in the process," she says. "Now we can do it very early. It puts those important decisions back in the architect’s hands.”

Location: San Francisco
Firm Size: 55
Year Joined: 2011
pEUI Savings Reported in 2016: 80.1 percent
Specialty: Education K-12, commercial, science centers and aquariums, multifamily student housing, civic, and restoration/adaptive reuse

For EHDD, meeting the 2030 Commitment’s energy-efficiency goal isn’t enough. “Every year we’ve beaten the target,” says associate principal Brad Jacobson, AIA. “We’re actually achieving 80 percent reduction, which is the 2020 target. We’re proud of that because we feel like as a firm that’s done net-zero, we need to be out ahead of the curve. Ideally we’re going to get to the 2030 target by 2025.”

Jacobson admits the firm’s energy-efficiency success starts with being in California, where a mild Bay Area climate and a head start from the state’s rigid Title 24 of California Code of Regulations efficiency standards makes reducing energy easier. “The delta between what standard code requires for efficiency and what you need to get to do a cost effective net-zero building is very small now,” he says. “It’s not asking our clients to take a huge leap. It’s nudging them just a little bit further.”

EHDD's Millikan Laboratory and Andrew Science Hall at Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.
courtesy EHDD - Jim Simmons EHDD's Millikan Laboratory and Andrew Science Hall at Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.

Yet the architect does credit pricing for renewable energy, particularly solar, for moving the energy-saving dial. “It’s just mind-blowing what’s happened in the last few years,” Jacobson says. “Solar costs less than traditional grid-based fossil fuel electricity. It has crossed that line. So we’re pushing photovoltaics more than maybe others are. When you do your calculations in the 2030 Challenge, energy produced counts as much as energy saved.” He says not only EHDD’s public-sector clients are embracing solar but even speculative developers, “because they see it as higher returns on their investment.”

Jacobson says most medium to large firms “tend to do much more modeling in-house than us.” Instead, he explains, EHDD favors local consultants. “In other areas people may struggle to find that talent, so they have to go more internal and use their BIM tools to do the analysis," Jacobson says. "But I think for us it’s a little bit more old school: coordination.”

Arkin Tilt Architects
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Firm Size: Nine
Year Joined: 2016
pEUI Savings Reported in 2016: 76 percent
Specialty: Residential, commercial, education, camps, and recreation

Arkin Tilt Architects is deeply rooted in sustainability, placing climate analysis at the beginning of a project before any forms or materials are chosen. Yet co-founder David Arkin, AIA, (who runs the office with his wife, architect Anni Tilt, AIA) has a confession to make about the firm’s 2030 Commitment reporting:

“I have to be honest: I believe we are one for one,” he says. “Only last year did we join the 2030 Commitment. So we've reported one project so far.” And that project, designed to both LEED Platinum and Passive House Institute standards while also achieving net-zero energy, happens to surpass the 70-pEUI benchmark.

Arkin Tilt Architects' Project Green house in Palo Alto, Calif.
Ed Caldwell Arkin Tilt Architects' Project Green house in Palo Alto, Calif.

Arkin Tilt’s portfolio nevertheless may serve as an argument for attending to sustainability beyond just energy efficiency. Arkin, who co-founded the California Straw Building Association and is a past president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, shares with Tilt an emphasis on materials and carbon neutrality. For the firm's projects, “it’s the construction of the building itself—photosynthetic materials that can sequester more carbon than is emitted in their manufacture and use—that represent a growing percentage of the carbon impact of a building, and its more immediate one,” Arkin says.

Yet signing onto the 2030 Commitment isn’t something the architect takes lightly. “For us it set real targets as well as a means of communicating to our clients why we are targeting carbon-neutral buildings today,” Arkin says. The firm performs some in-house energy modeling early in a project to determine glazing and daylighting strategies, and to rightsize mechanical systems or photovoltaics. But Arkin also cites collaboration with outside engineering and energy consultants.

Has embracing energy and carbon neutrality been good for business? “When we started our practice 20 years ago, we decided to wear our environmental and solar values on our sleeves,” he says. “Each published project, each class I taught, each award seemed to lead to another client motivated to express their environmental values in their building projects. I’m not too worried if it’s driven some clients away … the ones it has attracted are fantastic. And the larger value of our work is priceless.”

The 2030 Commitment Signatories

4240 Architecture AC Martin Partners ADD Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture Aecis Arkitektura AECOM Aedis Architecture and Planning Aidlin Darling Design Albert Kahn Associates Alliiance (formerly Architectural Alliance) Ankrom Moisan Ann Beha Architects ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge Archimania Architecture is Fun Architekton Architerra Arkin Tilt Architects Arrowstreet Atelier Ten Ayers/Saint/Gross Bahr Vermeer Haecker Architects ■ Ballinger ■ BAR Architects ■ Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers ■ Bergmeyer Associates ■ Bernardon ■ Beyer Blinder Belle ■ BKSK Architects ■ Blackbird Architects ■ BLGY ■ BLT Architects ■ BNIM ■ Bohlin Cywinski Jackson ■ Booth Hansen ■ Bora Architects ■ Boulder Associates ■ Braun and Steidl (formerly Braun+Yoshida Architects) ■ Brooks + Scarpa ■ Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf ■ BRS Architects ■ Bruner/Cott ■ Building Center No. 3 ■ Buro Happold Consulting Engineers ■ BWBR ■ CallisonRTKL ■ CannonDesign ■ CBT Architects ■ Clark NexsenCO Architects ■ Coldham & Hartman ■ Coolearth Architecture ■ Cooper Carry ■ Coulson ■ Crenshaw Consulting Engineers ■ Croxton Collaborative ■ CS&P Architects ■ CTA Architects Engineers ■ Cuningham Group Architecture ■ Cunningham | Quill Architects ■ Dake Wells Architecture ■ Danciart Architects ■ Dattner Architects ■ David Baker Architects ■ Davis Partnership Architects ■ Dekker Perich Sabatini ■ Design Organization ■ DesignGroup ■ DesignLab ■ Dettmer Architecture ■ Dewberry ■ DIGSAU ■ DiMella Shaffer ■ DLR Group ■ Dore & Whittier ■ Dougherty + Dougherty Architects ■ DRAW Architecture + Urban Design (formerly Davison Architecture + Urban Design) ■ DSGN Associates ■ Dull Olson Weekes-IBI Group Architects ■ DWL Architects + Planners ■ Dyron Murphy Architects ■ EHDD ■ Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects ■ Elizabeth Eason Architecture ■ Elkus Manfredi ■ Ellenzweig ■ Elness Swenson Graham Architects ■ ELS Architecture and Urban Design ■ Emersion Design ■ Engberg Anderson ■ English + Associates Architects ■ Ennead Architects ■ Epstein ■ ESG Architecture & Design ■ Eskew+Dumez+RippleEwingCole ■ EYP ■ Fairfield/Architects ■ Farr Associates ■ Feldman Architecture ■ Fentress Architects □ FFA Architecture and Interiors ■ Finegold Alexander Architects ■ Firmitas Architecture & Planning ■ FKP Architects ■ Flad Architects ■ Fraser Seiple Architects ■ Fraytak Veisz Hopkins Duthie ■ Fredrick + Fredrick Architects ■ FXFowle ■ Garcia Architecture+Design ■ GarthShaw ■ GBD Architects ■ Gensler ■ GFF ■ GGLO ■ GHT Limited ■ GKKworks-All Offices ■ Goettsch Partners ■ Goody Clancy ■ Green Hammer ■ Green|Spaces ■ Gresham Smith and Partners ■ Grimm+Parker ■ GSBS Architects ■ Guidon Design ■ GWWO Architects ■ Habitat Studio Architecture ■ Hacker (formerly THA Architecture) ■ Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanford ■ Hamilton Anderson Associates ■ Handel Architects ■ Harley Ellis Devereaux ■ Harriman Architects + Engineers ■ HarrisonKornberg Architects ■ Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture ■ Hastings ■ HDR ■ Helix Architecture + Design ■ Helpern Architects ■ Hennebery Design ■ HGA Architects & Engineers ■ Hickok Cole Architects ■ High Plains ■ HKS ■ HMC Architects ■ HMFH Architects ■ HOK ■ Holly & Smith Architects ■ Holst Architecture ■ HOLT Architects ■ Hord Coplan Macht ■ HPZS ■ Icon Architecture ■ IKM ■ In Balance Green Consulting ■ Innovative Design ■ Integral Group ■ Interface Engineering-Chicago ■ Interface Engineering-San Francisco ■ Invision ■ iStudio Architects ■ Jacobs Global Buildings ■ Jahn ■ JAMASLO-SE ■ Jer Greene ■ Jones Design Studio ■ Jones Studio ■ Kaplan Thompson Architects ■ KieranTimberlake ■ Kipnis Architecture and Planning ■ Kirksey ■ KlingStubbins ■ Kluger Architects ■ KMD Architects ■ Krueck+Sexton Architects ■ L.M. Holder III ■ Lake|Flato Architects ■ Landon Bone Baker Architects ■ Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects ■ Leers Weinzapfel Associates ■ Legat Architects ■ Lehrer Architects LA ■ Leo A Daly ■ Levi + Wong Design Associates ■ LHB ■ Limbacher & Godfrey Architects ■ Lionakis ■ Little Diversified Architectural Consulting ■ LMN Architects ■ Lord, Aeck & Sargent ■ LPA ■ LS3P ■ M.C. Harry & Associates ■ Maclay Architects ■ Mahlum ■ Map Lab ■ Marner Architecture ■ Maryann Thompson Architects ■ Mazzetti Nash Lipsey Burch ■ McGranahan Architects ■ Metrix Engineers ■ Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle ■ MHAworks ■ Miller Dyer Spears ■ Mithun ■ Mode Associates ■ Moody Nolan ■ Moseley Architects ■ MSR ■ Murphy Burnham & Buttrick ■ NAC|Architecture ■ NADAAA ■ nArchitects ■ NBBJ ■ NC-office ■ Neumann Monson ■ Nicholson Kovalchick Architects ■ O2 Architecture ■ Office for Local Architecture ■ Olson Kundig ■ OPN Architects ■ Opsis Architecture ■ Orcutt Winslow ■ Otak ■ Overland Partners ■ Pacific Energy Co. ■ Page ■ Paul Poirier + Associates Architects ■ Payette Associates ■ Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects ■ Pelli Clarke Pelli ■ Perkins Eastman ■ Perkins+Will ■ Perry Dean Rogers Partners Architects ■ Peters, Tschantz & Associates ■ Pickard Chilton ■ Pill-Maharam Architects ■ Positivenergy Practice ■ Quattrocchi Kwok Architects ■ Quinn Evans Architects ■ Ratcliff Architects ■ Ratio Architects ■ Ravatt Albrecht and Associates ■ RB+B Architects ■ RDG Planning & Design ■ Renaissance 3 Architects ■ Retail Design Collaborative & Studio One Eleven ■ RMW ■ RNL ■ Robert A.M. Stern Architects ■ Ross Barney ■ Rossetti ■ RSC Architects ■ RSP Architects ■ RVK Architects ■ Ryall Porter Seridan Architects ■ Sasaki ■ SBLM Architects ■ Schmidt Associates ■ SERA Architects ■ Serena Sturm Architects ■ Sheldon Pennoyer Architects ■ Shepley Bulfinch ■ Shive-Hattery ■ SHKS Architects ■ SHP Leading Design ■ Siegel & Strain ■ Sink Combs Dethlefs ■ Smith Seckman Reid ■ SmithGroupJJR ■ SMMA ■ Snow Kreilich Architects ■ Solomon Cordwell Buenz ■ Skidmore, Owings & MerrillSpector Group ■ Spiezle Architectural Group ■ SRG Partnership ■ Stanley Studio ■ Steffian Bradley Architects ■ Steinberg Architects ■ Stephen Tilly, Architect ■ Sterner Design ■ Stonorov Workshop ■ Studio Ma ■ Studio Nigro ■ Studio2G Architects ■ Studios Architecture ■ Swanke Hayden Connell Architects ■ T. Howard + Associates ■ Taylor & Syfan Consulting Engineers ■ TBDA ■ TerraLogos: Eco Architecture ■ The Aztec Corp./Aztec Architects ■ The Beck Group ■ The Design Alliance □ The Green Engineer ■ The Miller Hull Partnership ■ The Sheward Partnership ■ The SLAM Collaborative ■ Thompson Young Design ■ Thornton Tomasetti □ TK-Architecture ■ TLC Engineering for Architecture ■ Touloukian Touloukian ■ Trapolin-Peer Architects ■ Treanor ■ Trivers Associates ■ TRO Jung | Brannen ■ Tsoi Kobus & Associates ■ TVS Design ■ Urban Design Group ■ Valerio Dewalt Train Associates ■ Vanderweil Engineers ■ VMDO Architects ■ VOA Associates ■ Wallace Roberts & Todd ■ WBRC Architects-Engineers ■ WDG ■ Weber Thompson ■ Westlake Reed Leskosky ■ WHR Architects □ Wiemann Lamphere Architects ■ Wight & Co. ■ William Rawn Associates, Architects ■ Willoughby Engineering ■ Wilson Architects ■ WLC Architects ■ WRNS Studio ■ Yost Grube Hall Architecture ■ ZeroEnergy Design ■ ZGF ArchitectsZiger/Snead Architects