The Living Future Unconference (LF18) is always simultaneously awesome and hard. On one hand, it’s amazing to see case studies of projects with high aspirations for sustainable design—actual built projects that are net zero energy and net zero water made out of nontoxic, sustainably sourced and manufactured materials. Amazing!
Then again: A number of architecture firms have signed this thing called the AIA 2030 Commitment. Buildings are responsible for 40% of US carbon emissions. These firms have committed to reducing the energy usage in our new buildings by 70% compared to the baseline for each building typology we work on, and by 80% starting in 2020. But the average energy use reduction across project types, among firms reporting their progress is less than a 50% reduction. The hard truth is that we, as an industry, are not meeting this goal.
The distress in the room at this year’s LF18 2030 Challenge report-out was palpable. Designers who care deeply about doing their part to reduce carbon emissions are distraught that we are not succeeding.
Over the course of the four days of sessions and workshops, I kept wondering why we can’t routinely deliver buildings that meet the 2030 Challenge. We know how to do it technically; we’ve done it before. The equipment is tested. The products are off the shelf. The data is out there showing that this stuff works. Combined with ambitious design thinking on the part of ourselves and our clients, astonishing (but also quietly balanced, aesthetically perfect) things are possible. We want to be doing this work. Why is it so difficult to make a 70% reduction a reality?
In my mind, the barriers boil down to two major factors, underscored by the case study projects shared at LF18.
- Energy and water aren’t expensive yet, and codes don’t require extreme efficiency. This fact is tough for designers and clients alike at the moment. It means the right choice is currently not the incentivized or required choice. It means naysayers do not have to work hard to argue against best practices when the payback period for a given strategy is decades.
- The other major, big picture factor is the urgent need for committed collaborators.
Collaborators meaning consultants. A great mechanical or structural engineer is fundamental to the delivery of a high performance project. When the engineer is not on board with the spirit of a high performance project, the architect and client will simply never know what could have been possible.
Collaborators meaning general contractors and subcontractors. Sustainability and health goals in buildings can fly or die at the hands of the general contractors and subcontractors who physically build the project. How can the builders be empowered to own their sphere of influence when it comes to making a sustainable project happen? How can we better support collaborators who are already performing their trades in more sustainable ways, or those who want to do better?
Collaborators meaning clients. Designers may have the technical expertise to deliver net zero energy and water and the knowledge base to specify healthy materials, but we can go only so far if the client is not 100% on board.
We can’t change #1 (but we can keep talking about it) for the moment.
Item #2, however, should be our top priority. We are always looking for good collaborators. Going where others have not gone before takes guts. If you are this collaborator, we want to talk to you. I’d love for next year’s 2030 Challenge reporting out to be different. Let’s hit that 70% reduction target. Or better yet, let’s strive for all of our projects to embody the conservation ethic of net zero. We want to do this work.