The Ten-Year Countdown
by Tony Schmitz, AIA, LEED AP, vice president, Hoefer Wysocki
As we begin a new decade in 2020, architects and designers have ten more years before reaching the sustainability-driven milestone of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment. The core requirement of the sustainable initiative is for firm members to achieve carbon neutrality across not only their own operations, but also those of their projects. This felt a lifetime away in the mid-2000s, and projects seemingly had ample time to meet the carbon-neutral requirement in the time allotted.
After reading the most recent AIA 2030 Commitment annual report, it is clear the design community, our consultant partners, owners, and contractors are making a positive impact. The AIA 2030 Commitment report for the year 2018 tracked and reported over three billion sq.ft. of new construction. The work done in 2018 accounted for an energy savings of 17.7 million metric tons of CO2. This is equivalent to the number of registered cars in entire state of Georgia. Additionally, over 700 projects met the 70% energy reduction goal, with another 131 achieving net zero energy.
While some projects are meeting the target goals and even achieving net zero, reading the report also causes some unnerving concerns. Diving into the numbers, it’s easy to see that barely 4% of the reported projects are hitting the current goals, 4.6% if you include the net-zero achievers. The report itself even states, “Our progress is not keeping pace with the growing urgency and impacts of climate change.” This can offer a grim outlook when considering 2020 is the year target goals increase to 80% energy reduction, a 10% leap from years prior.
Unnerving anxiety aside, the multitude of new sustainable goals, achievements, and innovations offer more than a glimmer of hope. Although reducing energy use is a key focus, our lingering carbon dependency should not overshadow other aspects and achievements of sustainable design. These triumphs should also be celebrated and promoted with the same enthusiasm as energy reduction. Many of these other achievements won’t have as acute of an impact on overall carbon emissions as reducing energy, but they still impact us in meaningful ways as a form of carbon control. They also change our understanding of how we move about our cities. They conserve water and improve processes that manage our drinking water. Lastly, they will improve the health of our populations, and reduce the economic impacts of natural disasters.
By encouraging commonplace discussions with urban planners, developers, and governments, designers can change dated mobility norms. Sustainable initiatives should challenge the status quo that has literally driven us to grow in unsustainable patterns, moving further and further away from resources, utilities, and urban cores. This includes planning for a variety of transportation options, changing how we approach and engage our built environment, reducing road congestion, and improving pedestrian safety.
Quickly pacing with energy reduction, the responsible use of water and how we can be better stewards of this invaluable and finite resource, also dominates sustainable design discussions. This has allowed for improvements in the management of non-potable water sources and drip irrigation designs, which are now the best method for landscape irrigation. Combining this with a renewed preference for native plantings has awakened us to unique landscape designs as we travel across country. Within the building, a steady improvement of plumbing fixtures and advancements in code have improved plumbing design and curtailed potable water use without adverse effects to function. A 40% water reduction for flush-and-flow design, and 50% for landscape irrigation should be the starting point for targets with your design teams and clients.
Material health, in combination with optimum natural and LED lighting, will significantly impact the way the built environment can become more conducive to the health and productivity of occupants, while reducing sick time. Selection of building materials such as paints, sealants, carpets, and other finishes that are free of carcinogens and VOC’s, and instead include recycled content, are the foundation of designing a healthy environment. This is an added value to the overall project, but not an added cost.
The use of LED fixtures and lighting control software has allowed designers to better control lighting’s visual features while being less wasteful with energy. This should not only continue to reduce the amount of energy consumed by lighting and heat generation, but also reduce costs for initial installation of the lighting and heating systems.
It is important to continually improve the built environment, so that spaces are prepared to handle and survive the increasing threat of severe weather and environmental impact events. Our buildings should maintain a component that provides emergency shelter to the public citizens of the area, while limiting the financial resources needed to repair and rebuild after an event. Carbon, energy, and water-use reduction have all provided human and environmental impacts benefits as a result of unique sustainable strategies. Despite the fact the AIA 2030 Commitment report states our progress is not keeping pace with the growing urgency and impacts of climate change, the shared positive impacts to our built environment and our health will continue to see benefits beyond our original targets for climate repair.