At moments of crisis that call for special expertise, America's professionals have historically responded by organizing. With the built environment's ecological effects becoming more severe and better understood, an interdisciplinary group of design professionals and academics has proposed a National Academy of Environmental Design (NAED; ).The coalition, spearheaded by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), will foster research and communication about sustainable design throughout the relevant fields.

Although buildings account for nearly half of the nation's greenhouse gas production and 40 percent of its energy use, no single entity coordinates the expansion and application of knowledge about ways to improve this performance. The existing national academies “were all founded at moments of severe national need,” says Kim Tanzer, professor of architecture at the University of Florida and current ACSA president. The National Academy of Sciences formed in 1863, the National Research Council (NRC) in 1916, and the National Academy of Engineering in 1964. “We see sustainability,” she continues, “to be at least equal in importance to the Civil War, the First World War, and the space race.”

The ACSA is taking the administrative lead during the group's formative stage. Other organizations involved at press time include the American Institute of Architecture Students, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Architecture Research Centers Consortium, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, and the Environmental Design Research Association, as well as dozens of college deans and faculty members nationwide. Edward Mazria, founder of the environmental nonprofit Architecture 2030, will join the steering committee, says Tanzer. The NAED is seeking startup funding from philanthropic sources, she says, and aims to emulate the other academies and become self-supporting through research projects.

The idea for a new academy, says dean Thom as Fisher of the University of Minnesota College of Design, another of the organizers, arose from discussions of “place-based science,” as articulated in publications like the World Commission on Environment and Development's Our Common Future (1987) and the NRC Board on Sustainable Development's related Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability (1999). Although other scientific bodies address environmental questions within their own discourses, participants in NAED planning discussions with representatives of the academies in Washington, D.C., last year stressed the need for sustainable-design experts to speak to the public—and to the public sector, already richly served by lobbyists for environmentally detrimental interests—in a unified voice.

Along with participating in policy debates, lobbying for research funding, coordinating its distribution, producing publications, and hosting conferences, Fisher adds that the NAED will emphasize applied knowledge at least as much as conventional academic activities. Recognizing the key role of the construction trades in integrating best practices into on-site work, for example, he envisions NAED publications appearing in electronic formats that are accessible in the field.

Tanzer notes that the organization's purview extends well beyond melting ice caps and stranded polar bears. “Sustainability has to do with many things, including species extinction, water problems, toxicity, and overuse of resources.” All of these phenomena, the NAED team believes, require an institutional mechanism for ensuring that design expertise is at the center of the national response.