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Climate change demands shift in responsibility for AEC industry

By Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, LEED Fellow

The latest climate report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) anticipates that the world will experience the more extreme effects and consequences of climate change much earlier than originally thought, all within most of the global population’s lifetime.

This news, paired with the ongoing world climate crisis, pushes us to maximize our efforts toward a more sustainable future.

As professionals in the AEC industry, we must first acknowledge the effect our work has on the environment and then focus on what steps can we take to mitigate those impacts.

Through our work, we are constantly involved in projects and policies that will have a very real effect on climate change. There have been multiple, global campaigns pushing us to “go green” and to reduce our personal waste, but what about our professional responsibility to the environment?

One organization working to advance our role in mitigating climate change is the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which is taking bold steps toward ensuring that architects understand their professional responsibility to protect the environment. Earlier this year, the AIA adopted new rules and ethical standards that makes sustainable design an imperative for its members, who must “make reasonable efforts to advise their clients and employers of their obligations to the environment. The AIA’s National Code of Ethics also expanded on what architects’ goals should be in terms of energy conservation, water use, building materials and the ecosystem. Climate change is now front and center.

We must work toward ensuring that these and other important environmental guidelines become the professional norm. We not only have a moral and ethical obligation to our clients, but to the environment as well.

Architecture 2030 is a non-profit organization committed to transforming the global built environment, from being the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution. Its focus is on lowering building energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by setting target levels for new and renovated buildings. The organization offers a comprehensive set of online tools and resources on design and planning, education and policy in an effort to promote its sustainable agenda.

We need more professionals and firms to commit to Architecture 2030’s goals. To that end, the AIA has launched the 2030 Commitment, which provides access to its Design Data Exchange, a national framework with simple metrics and a standardized reporting format for measuring progress.

The tools are there. Following through on the reporting admittedly takes time, but it is the right path so we may learn from our process and approach. Imagine the impact we would have as a profession if we all committed to Architecture 2030.

As architecture, construction and engineering professionals, we need to push for the design and construction of buildings with zero net energy consumption. This means that the total amount of energy used by a building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on site. It is understood that some sites may need off-site generation, yet that should be pursued after exploring all on-site solutions.

To get there, we need to understand the actual performance of our buildings, ensure they are operating as intended and look for to make them more efficient. This involves using smart devices to measure performance, being smart in how we operate the building, and properly training property managers.

Net Zero can be achievable through thermally sound, climate-responsive architecture. Understanding sun path movement, wind direction and defining levels of comfort for the building type are the first steps to take. We also need to be smart about system selection for ventilation and comfort that can be tuned for increased controllability and performance. The goal is to extend occupant comfort range based on intelligent, climate-responsive design and reduce loads on the building to the point they can be off-set by on-site power generation or a combination with off-site power through connection with the grid.

Achieving net zero energy design it is not new. We have been doing it for some time now. My first net zero project was the Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine completed in 2012. While the scale was small, it set the stage for evolving success. We have continued with approaches to performance using the Passive House standard, and recently committing to laying out a path to net zero on every project we take on.

We are not lacking the knowledge, the tools and in many cases the budget. We may only need to convince our clients that we can deliver better projects with better outcomes. It’s about aligning the investment and the ROI, and getting away from unreasonable paybacks of 3-5 years as a cap on improved performance.
Sustainability should be front and center when addressing a client’s needs. We have a responsibility to inform our clients of the environmental impacts of their projects, as well as provide solutions to minimize and eliminate any negative environmental effects they might pose.

Not all clients are environmentally aware or proactive to the same degree. Regardless, we must do everything in our power to educate them, and should not wait for them to ask how their projects can be more sustainable. We must guide and encourage them to put the environment first.

There is a big misconception on cost when it comes to sustainable, net zero buildings.

It is important that we provide targeted information to our clients about how going green is an investment as well as its return.

Energy costs will lower considerably and value will increase, making sustainable alternatives a win-win situation. Not only will clients benefit from it economically, but they are also playing an important role in reducing the impact on climate change. And remember, money isn’t the only motivator. We can bring others along with us through the shared value that this is the right thing to do.

The projects we work on involve constant collaboration with other AEC consultants as well as professionals in the marketing, public relations and property development and management fields.

Similar to our environmental responsibility to clients, we should make an effort to educate our peers on sustainability issues. We should share best practices and information on the latest approaches, encourage net zero energy design and direct them to initiatives like Architecture 2030.

Let’s face it. We can all do better, and embracing these five concepts can help us all to become part of the solution.

The IPCC has sounded an alarm, and it is in our collective best interest to advance the work we do. We can do this. We must do this.

It is up to us to take responsibility and to be visionaries and create projects and communities that are part of the global solution for a more sustainable future.

Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is Principal and Sustainability Practice Leader at Thornton Tomasetti, a Member of the AIA COTE Advisory Group and a contributor to new AIA Code of Ethics language.)

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