Sustainability Front and Center: AIA Convention Recap

Jonathan Rowe | June 5, 2015

atlanta skyline_770x400

Sustainability was a central theme at this year’s AIA National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Bill Clinton’s keynote rallied designers to continue their charge towards environmental excellence. Dozens of classes covered case studies and tools for creating hyper-green buildings. Manufacturers on the expo floor all had their “green pitches” down cold.

Not surprising, considering the AIA was the first organization to adopt the 2030 Challenge shortly after Ed Mazria—winner of this year’s Kemper Award for elevating environmental awareness in the architecture profession—issued it back in 2006. Nearly a decade later, designers across the U.S. are working hard to drive towards carbon neutral buildings and low-impact building products. Here’s a snapshot of where things are today.



Progress Toward 2030 Targets

In the past year, more firms have adopted the AIA 2030 Commitment—AIA’s response to the 2030 Challenge—which requires reporting the predicted energy use intensity (pEUI) of projects. While the increase in adoption is a positive step, the bad news is fewer firms are actually reporting progress—citing tedium as a major barrier—and only 7% of the 1.6 billion square footage of reported projects hit the Challenge’s 60% reduction target (which just jumped up to a more aggressive 70% this year). There’s lots of work to be done.

But there are bright spots too. To address the decrease in reporting, the AIA teamed up with the Department of Energy to create an online reporting tool for tracking data. Firms used energy modeling—a critical component for achieving low-energy targets—on two-thirds of the total GSF of projects, up 14% compared to the previous reporting year. And the number of net zero energy buildings (73) jumped up five fold.



Net Zero and Beyond

Net zero continues to grow as a central theme in the sustainability discussion, but confusion remains about what it actually means to industry practitioners and the public alike. Without getting too deep in the weeds here, depending on where you draw the boundary around a building, net zero can mean a lot of different things.

In a presentation called Zero: The Path to 2030 Defined, representatives from the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Building Sciences presented their work to converge on an industry-accepted national definition of zero energy to cut through the confusion and support federal & state program and policy goals. DOE will publish the report later this year.

A presentation called Making an Impact: Turning Existing Buildings into Net Zero Wonders focused on the challenges and opportunities of deep green retrofits of the buildings we occupy today. With technology enabling high performance building design becoming more advanced, getting to net zero—or even net positive, where a building produces more than it consumes—for new buildings is becoming easier.

But at the core of achieving 2030 carbon neutrality targets is a difficult question: how do we decide which existing buildings (38% of which are expected to still be around by 2040) to keep, retrofit, or replace? There’s a strong need to triage the stock of existing buildings to understand which candidates are best suited for retrofits. Considering the time it takes to do a full-on ASHRAE energy audit, this is no small feat, and it’s the reason Autodesk developed our Rapid Energy Modeling solution to help accelerate this process.

Going Further: Materials and Products

There’s a groundswell of activity around quantifying and conveying the environmental and health impacts of the materials we build with. Confronting Climate Change through Stewardship and Reuse made the case—based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)—for building reuse, citing an EPA study that found in the past 50 years humans have consumed more raw materials and created more waste than in all previous human history. In recent years, LCA has incorporated into a wide spectrum of codes and green rating systems (and Revit tools like Tally can help).

But parsing through LCA data isn’t easy for architects. In response to Architecture 2030’s Challenge for Building Products—which called for reductions in the embodied carbon of building materials—Cannon Design has been working on a graphical open standard for Environmental Product Declarations (think of it as a nutrition label for a building product). The EPD Quicksheet is meant to simplify the process of reading, comprehending, and using the hundreds of EPDs projected to come online in the coming years in response to rating systems like LEED calling for their use.

Other design firms are taking action on material transparency too. Environmental impacts of materials can be confusing on their own. Throw in the impacts to human health—the kind of information product labels like Health Product Declaration, Pharos, and Cradle to Cradle are meant to convey—and it becomes a daunting task to know which product is preferable. In a session titled Implementing Material Transparency into Firm Culture, HKS presented their mindful MATERIALS initiative, created to provide easy access to product ingredient information where designers need it: on the spines of product binders in their materials library.

The DNA for Designing a Better World

The AIA National Convention showed some amazing green building work over the past year (check out the 2015 AIA COTE Top Ten presentation if you need some inspiration for your next project). In his award acceptance speech, Ed Mazria’s words reminded me why I started caring about green building during my early career in architecture. “Architects, planners, and designers, are pre-disposed to do the right thing, they see the purpose of it. Our entire professional training is about designing a better world ­­–– we have a moral compass which gives meaning to our work, it’s part of our DNA, it’s who we are.”

Stay tuned for more conference recaps, and check out the Connect page to sign up for our quarterly newsletter.

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