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What does the 2030 Challenge mean for AECs?

The 2030 Challenge and the AIA 2030 Commitment ask the global architectural and building community to adopt strategies to get to carbon neutral buildings by 2030. A Designer exclusive investigates progress toward the goal.

By Cathy Hutchison   •  September 15, 2014 4:47 pm EDT

Tags: architecture, education, energy efficiency, sustainability,

While designing fuel-efficient cars seems to get all the press, it is actually buildings that are responsible for the majority of our energy use. The 2030 Challenge and the AIA 2030 Commitment ask the global architectural and building community to adopt strategies to get to carbon neutral buildings by 2030. That means buildings would use no fossil fuel nor produce any GHG-emitting energy in operation. The motivation behind the 2030 Challenge is about reversing climate change.

Clients and the 2030 Challenge

“There is a lot of confusion about the terminology that we are throwing around as an industry,” comments James Theimer, principal at Trilogy Architecture in Redding, Calif. “We were surprised at how few firms committed to the 2030 Challenge. It isn’t calling for new buildings to be Net Zero; it is advocating for buildings to be carbon neutral. We are finding that many clients are more attuned than our industry is to these issues.”

Mamie Harvey, principal at Architectural Alliance in Minneapolis, finds that certain types of projects may more readily lend themselves to energy efficient strategies than others. “Because one of our focus areas has been science and technology projects—which have an opportunity to use a lot of energy or save a lot of energy—we have seen a real focus on the design of efficient systems. The emphasis crosses public and private market sectors. Strategies that can benefit the client in terms of payback are at the forefront, especially with long term or build-to-suit projects.”

And Harvey adds, “In Minnesota, projects [that] are publically funded are required to meet the Minnesota Sustainable Building 2030 (SB2030) energy standards. This legislation has raised awareness of 2030 for the architectural community in Minnesota.”

Some architects, like Roberto Chiotti, president of Larkin Architect Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario, report that design professionals are oftentimes the best versed in carbon neutral objectives. “We see the primary buy-in coming from the building industry profession—led by architects and engineers,” he notes. “A speculative developer is less likely to buy-in because they aren’t sure if the market will pay the price to achieve the goal. However, in projects where the end-users inhabit the buildings—especially in institutional projects—they benefit from the investment and often bring the consciousness to the process.”

Harvey adds that client support or lack thereof is often a driving factor in how projects are approached. “Where architects have a hard time meeting the goals of 2030 is when the payback for energy efficient systems is not of value to clients,” she says. “In those cases, building systems are rarely designed for efficiency. Architects can use more passive systems to meet the goals, but unless the projects are modeled for energy efficiency, we won’t know how well the design performs relative to 2030.”

Measurement is Key

“How easy the 2030 Challenge will be depends on how well we calculate our usage,” highlights Theimer. “That’s the on-grid question that has to get answered—and our industry isn’t yet doing a good job of it.”

Theimer goes on to share that his firm, Trilogy, designed the local Redding School of the Arts. “We modeled the building and worked really hard on the calculations. We went ultra-efficient and made conservative assumptions on what they could generate,” he reports. “It was to be near Net Zero at 80%. Of course, a good architect has to test results. We found the project only generated about 50% of its electricity. We were shocked. Why did we have less? We found the usage for the project changed. Because it is a beautiful building, the teachers stay later to finish work rather than taking work home. Also, the client found all kinds of additional uses. What was supposed to be Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. became Monday through Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. More after-school activities. More performances.”

On the topic of measurement, Harvey states, “If you look at the reporting data, you will find that larger firms are more likely to report their project data. Architectural Alliance is a medium-sized firm and has a database where we gather 2030 data along with other project data. (Then it is just a matter of getting the project teams to report the data). Without that central database, it really is time consuming to collect and manage the information. In the past, [the] AIA has only been collecting a few data points, but now they are looking to expand the data collected in order to represent why some projects perform better than others. But the practical issue is that additional data points may push some firms over the edge of being able to support the time required to report project data.”

The Necessary Shifts

“I am very influenced by the writings of cultural historian Thomas Berry and psychologist James Hillman. I believe we are going to have to solve the ecological crisis not out of a place of guilt or zeal but from a place of love,” says Chiotti. “You can’t have healthy humans on an un-healthy planet. Until we see our planet as beautiful and revelatory we won’t love it enough to take care of it. The current view is one of consumption and fastest ROI, but all those equations look at negative consequences to the earth as externalities—like collateral damage that doesn’t concern us. Until we factor the Earth into our politics, healthcare understanding, and economics we cannot achieve truly sustainable environments. Currently, the dominant worldview is operating from a dysfunctional perspective. “

Theimer, too, notes, “We have to shift from increasing our generation of energy to reducing our consumption. If we simply create more efficient buildings, we wouldn’t need more power plants. But we don’t make efficient buildings and we try to compensate.

“That can be in the form of new power plants or generators on our own buildings, but it’s the same issue,” Theimer clarifies. “When we talk to clients about being energy efficient, the conversation often turns to solar panels. But, want to make your building good for the environment? Let’s talk insulation. It’s the cheapest and best way to reduce usage—and clients [are] blown away by that idea. Orienting a building so it faces the right direction, using overhangs … none of this is expensive and all of it moves us closer to being carbon neutral.”

Chiotti closes, “It isn’t just about tweaking this or tweaking that. The 2030 Challenge is about getting to a baseline. Even if a building gets to a place where it produces as much energy as it uses, what about the energy it takes to produce the building? We need to be able to offset that, as well.”

Find information on Architectural Alliance here:

Learn more about Larkin Architect Limited:

And find Trilogy Architecture at:

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