Why the Building Sector May Be Humanity’s Best Hope for Averting Catastrophic Climate Change
Architects have enormous sway in specifying building materials and modes of operation; they also understand the political, budget, and client-education barriers to executing zero-carbon designs better than anyone.
You can be forgiven for side-eyeing another “sustainability” panel. In a spring of dire climate predictions accompanied by losses of homes, farms, and infrastructure to storms, floods, and wildfires, talk feels slow. As death tolls have mounted at even one degree Celsius of global warming above preindustrial levels, so has a sense of alarm among architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals. Planners know: The built environment is simply not ready for the planet’s heat spike.
But what if those same pros who carry such agency in the building sector could slow down the warming and buy humanity some time? After all, building operations and “embodied carbon” (the energy and materials used in construction) account for a whopping 40 percent of the world’s current carbon emissions. Architects have enormous sway in specifying building materials and modes of operation over the next ten years. And they understand the political, budget, and client-education barriers to executing zero-carbon designs better than anyone. Could AEC practitioners evolve their traditionally quiet, careful service mentality to make eco-strategic power plays and speak frankly to policy makers?
On March 18, more than 80 high-profile architects, designers, and city officials made just such a collective move. They sent a letter to California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, that began: “We are heading into an extremely dangerous period. If we do not take action now, the planet will overshoot 2 degree C warming by a wide margin with consequences that are projected to be devastating to California, our country, and the entire world.” The signers, who included Edward Mazria, founder and CEO of the carbon-reduction strategy nonprofit Architecture 2030, asked Newsom to commit to zero net energy performance in all new commercial construction by next year.
“2030 is no good anymore. We have to move it up to 2020,” Mazria says. “If you’re going to lead, you have to really lead, and all the tools are in place to do that.”
It was a bold local action, coming only a month after the American Institute of Architects (AIA) publicly endorsed the most ambitious federal climate change proposal in history, the Green New Deal (GND). Introduced on February 7, 2019, by New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts senator Ed Markey, the GND resolution—a nonbinding vision statement, not a bill—called for net-zero emissions across all sectors by 2050. It proposed a ten-year mobilization that would include “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency…including through electrification.” The GND also pledged to provide universal health care, affordable housing, higher education, and job training as the nation transitions from fossil fuel use to 100 percent “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources.”
The day after it was introduced, AIA president William J. Bates issued a statement supporting the GND “framework,” encouraging Congress “to swiftly enact public policies today that will address the dire consequences we’re facing.” According to Sarah Dodge, the AIA’s senior vice president of advocacy and relationships, one reason why the AIA was comfortable backing the resolution is that more than 570 firms have already signed on to the AIA’s 2030 Commitment, which has tighter energy efficiency timelines than the GND.
The 2030 Commitment is a long-running AIA program based on Mazria’s original 2030 Challenge, which he launched in 2005 as a way to provide clear building-sector accountability goals for a 90 percent reduction in fossil fuel use in all new buildings and major renovations by 2025, and full carbon neutrality by 2030. The AIA was one of the first major industry groups to embrace Mazria’s targets, and in 2014, it began a data collection effort called Design Data Exchange to record the progress of firms that had joined the 2030 Commitment. In 2017, participating firms reported 560 projects that met challenge targets, with nearly a quarter of those already net-zero.
The AIA’s GND support received some blowback from members who didn’t want to be associated with the quickly politicized GND resolution, but according to Dodge, it was nothing like the member furor over the AIA’s postelection welcome letter to President-elect Trump in 2016. She says the GND has amplified a conversation that was overdue.
“It’s already stimulated proposals from both sides of the aisle,” says Dodge. “Right now, there are over 2,500 bills in Congress that deal with climate change or energy…. You’ve got at least eight committees of jurisdiction that are going to have a hand in what this looks like. We’re trying to collaborate with all these groups.”
Architects have a rhetorical advantage in the way they sometimes frame green building policies as simply “energy efficiency” in political discourse. This gives them a potential bipartisan end-run to incessant climate debates, something incredibly rare in American government these days.
In early March, 605 AIA-member architects from 48 states and three U.S. territories spent an entire Wednesday in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress and their staffs, covering 92 percent of the House and Senate. The architects were an anomaly on Capitol Hill: They got attention. “There was a lot of black, a lot of funky glasses,” remembers Cleveland architect Jodi van der Wiel, who was part of the delegation. Though the AIA asks its members to lobby on a regular basis, this was van der Wiel’s first time, and she says congressional staffers listened intently as her Ohio team asked for an extension and expansion of IRS code 179D—which offered a federal tax break for energy-efficient new construction—to cover renovation projects too. “When your message is focused, you will get further, and our goal is to really make a difference here,” says van der Wiel.
Not trusting the federal government to move fast enough on any carbon-reduction measures, especially with current White House leadership, some AEC professionals are turning to activism, targeting California and New York specifically as states that could serve as national—and global—influencers. In March, retired city planner Bruce Rosen joined hundreds of New Yorkers gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan for a “Green New Deal Accountability Forum.” The activists targeted “dirty buildings” as one of their top five priorities. After more than three decades in the City of New York’s planning office, Rosen is hyperaware of systemic barriers to major change—he calls planning “the sex slave of the real estate industry” in New York—but he has come to believe that public pressure speeds policy evolution, particularly in local contexts.
“We need to calm down the planet, and we’ll try anything reasonable that works,” says Rosen. “What can be replicated and brought to scale?”
New York governor Andrew Cuomo has set a “Green New Deal goal” of carbon neutrality in all of the state’s building stock. Activists like Rosen point out, however, that Cuomo is also moving forward on fossil fuel infrastructure projects, so how quickly the state’s emissions goals will net out is uncertain. “‘All of the above’ is not a solution,” says Rosen. Still, some activists were encouraged this March when Cuomo launched a three-year, $30 million “Buildings of Excellence” competition through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). The competition will distribute grants of up to $1 million to “around 15” multifamily dwellings this year—either new construction or rehabs—according to Janet Joseph, NYSERDA’s senior vice president for strategy and market development. “We’re looking for buildings that are highly replicable,” says Joseph. “Responsible design is not a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have.”
Meanwhile, Architecture 2030’s Mazria, who has become something of a building-sector Al Gore, appearing at global conferences with pie-chart slides, says he believes another industry-wide strategy could curb carbon emissions even faster than policy. “Twenty percent of all the construction in the world is influenced by a small percentage of AEC firms. That’s where the power is,” he says.
Mazria praises the precision of the global building sector, which has managed to reduce carbon emissions since 2015 even while floor area has expanded. That success story has been underreported, partly because the world is understandably more focused on record-breaking overall carbon emissions in 2017 and 2018. But Mazria believes AEC firm leaders could flip the graph during the next few, critical years. He’s focusing on relationships with CEOs at the AIA’s Large First Round Table, a group that meets twice a year. Nearly all those firms have signed on to the 2030 Commitment, which, since these giant firms bill internationally, has a global impact. Mazria has brokered carbon neutrality commitments from CEOs at major AEC firms in other countries too, including China.
“We understand the issue. We’ve had an awakening,” says Mazria. “Now we just have to be very, very aggressive. If we don’t solve it, it doesn’t get solved. It’s as simple as that.”
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