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Sustainability and Design–Can We Evolve?

A new code-based emphasis on sustainability will end the green building movement as we know it

By William J. Worthen, AIA, LEED AP

AIA Resource Architect for Sustainability

What’s the difference between design and sustainable design?

This question has been the subject of passionate, ongoing debate with notable, differing views by architects, architecture students, and the AIA’s leadership for decades. The role and importance of design in the practice of architecture is a deeply rooted core value. Design is the primary focus of our education, our conventions, and our awards. An architect’s ability to design is what has elevated a select few architects to star status in our culture.

Sustainable design, however, while of growing significance, has been considered a distinct and separate method of design and practice. Since 1973, when the AIA formed the Energy Committee, to today’s national network of Committee on the Environment (COTE) groups with awards separate from the AIA’s design awards, many AIA members still see sustainability as a specialty service. Some AIA members even openly question sustainability’s relevance to practice.

Whether you’re a believer in sustainable design or not, or whether you’ve ever worked with green rating systems or local green building ordinances or not, over the next two years sustainable design and construction will change the very fabric of our profession.

Design and sustainable design are merging, as environmental requirements are integrated into our nation’s building codes with the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and CALGreen. When this happens, every architect needs to take note. When green building requirements become code, they will fundamentally change the architect’s standard of care, opening up new opportunities for architects to grow into, or less fortunately, to shrink from. Are you ready?

Architect as master builder

Since the invention of electrical elevators, steel frame construction, air conditioning, and modern HVAC systems, architects were free to design buildings limited only by creative abilities, our client’s budget, and the laws of physics. We confidently relied on engineers as the experts in building sciences and, over time, a notable distinction between the role of an architect and engineer evolved. 

Effectively, engineers have used their skills to select, design, and size the appropriate buildings systems needed to make our design work, and when energy was cheap and in seemingly unlimited supply, the role of the architect was notably diminished. We encouraged our engineers to assemble aspects of building projects that architects previously took responsibility for. We no longer serve the pre-modern engineer role of master builder.

As cost-driven, design, (lowest) bid, build projects drove our work, architects did not need, and in many cases happily delegated, the liability of considering the basic fundamentals of the building sciences to engineering counterparts. For decades, architecture schools and design leaders have focused on creating architectural form--the art of design. To most architects, when given the choice, this is certainly much more interesting than taking the limited resources and fees available on most work to focus on the science or energy behind design.

To regain lost relevance and meet the challenges of climate change, architects must evolve. We need to learn how to make our modern designs truly matter. We must delve deeply into sustainable building sciences as a profession and as a fundamental value embedded into every design school’s curriculum. We must learn to rethink design. And the new green building code requirements are offering a historic opportunity to do just that. To quote Donald Watson, FAIA: “Energy is a design topic, not a technology topic, and there are few of us who have always believed this.”

Green building is over?

Effective high-performance green building requires a reconsideration of typical design team roles. This is simply not a question of what the AIA or the profession should be doing with respect to the green building movement. This is a question of what the licensed architect must do when environmental issues become woven into the requirements to protect the health, safety, and welfare of occupants of the buildings we design. Let me be clear. This is no longer about simply having an LEED AP on your project team, or a client’s request for a LEED-certified building. That’s not going to be enough. In many ways, the green building movement as we know it today is effectively over when high-performance building requirements become codified. Our clients are going to expect that their architect (a licensed architect, not a LEED AP or anyone else) guide them through the much more complicated world of design, permitting, and construction requirements thanks to green construction codes like the IgCC and CALGreen.

To succeed at high-performance building design and construction, all project team members must shed their roles based in the typical design, bid, build or today’s typical design-build process, and move towards integrated project delivery (IPD). As a result of IPD, architects must begin to rethink their role on every project team, moving towards something larger than it is today; something that approaches the role of a modern master builder. We do not need to be the expert on all things, but there is also no other professional better suited to the role of managing and providing leadership in the much more complicated set of design and performance criteria that will be required under the forthcoming green building codes.

It’s the architect who must step up to the task at hand. Simply put, if the profession does not move toward this expanded role of the architect, someone else will. And if some other professional assumes the role of green building expert, it will only further minimize the role of architect and exacerbate the ongoing fight for the relevance of design. The key to the future success for our profession is based on learning and practicing IPD and requiring that we are allowed to work under collaborative, performance-based design/build contracts. This is how we can ensure design continues to lead the way to a truly more sustainable built environment.

While many of us might fear the changes that are about to ripple through all aspects of our profession, I see opportunity. And this opportunity will only come once. Architects need to embrace the challenge at hand. We must provide leadership to change the current state of our siloed design and engineering practices and stop supporting adversarial contract relationships. We must become effective team leaders and managers of collaborative shared risk project teams. We must stop seeing ourselves as only the directors of the design process. We must learn to share and collaborate in new ways.

Sharing and collaboration

As we prepare for the sea change coming to the architecture and engineering communities with high-performance building codes, there will certainly be many unintended and unexpected consequences as we enter into the much more complicated world of sustainable building policy and politics. The AIA is making every effort to provide the tools and resources AIA members will need to allow their firms to thrive and continue to achieve design excellence when green building codes come to a permit office near you.

The AIA is already working with our professional colleagues at ASHRAE, NIBS, IES, ICC, DOE, EPA, and USGBC to change the current status quo and alter the way we work and practice. We need to find new ways to work together and share ideas, lessons learned, and even our project team failures. We must also share the risks of high-performance design and code requirements with other members of our project teams, owners, and contractors.

It is worth noting, even in context of the green building codes, that the debate on the relevance of sustainability to design continues. Last spring the AIA set up an online tool allowing any AIA member to submit comments on the first public draft of the IgCC. The following quote is a sample of the range of member comments: “Haven't you figured it out that the whole premise for green is a huge hoax? You are doing nothing but hurting the profession by continuing to pursue even greater regulations and [harming] the credibility of our profession.”

While this type of statement might come as a surprise to many, it accurately reflects a notable, and vocal minority of members. It also speaks to the diversity of our membership, and the values and purpose of the architect in society. This is part of who we are.  The AIA encourages and supports the right of any AIA member to express their views on any relevant subject. But the AIA needs to look forward and act in the best interests of our total membership with regard to the IgCC.  Ultimately the support of green codes can be boiled down to a simple question: Will the AIA provide leadership on a subject unmatched in its potential impact and substantive change to the way we work and the knowledge and skills needed to design and practice  since architects started using CAD?

The AIA would be doing a disservice to our members and our 150-plus-year legacy of great architecture and design if it did not rise to the task necessitated by the evolution of high-performance green building codes.


Climate Camouflage by Jason Oliver Vollen. Image courtesy of CASE/Rensselaer.


Recent Related:

What You Need to Know About the New Green Code

Public Comments Sought on International Green Construction Code First Draft

With Energy Modeling, Virtual Models Lead to Real Sustainability

What is Next After Green?

That Old Building May Be the Greenest on the Block


Please send feedback to

See what the Committee on the Environment is up to.

Visit the 2030 Commitment Web page.

Visit AIA Seattle’s + 2030 Web page.

Visit the International Green Construction Code Web page.

Read Integrated Project Delivery (IPD): A Guide

Managing the Risks and Embracing the Benefits of Going Green

Visit the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Research Support Facility Web site.

Read the US Department of Energy’s Presentation: Getting to Net Zero Today Through a Performance-Based Design/Build Process

Vote No on Proposition 23

Guide to Nonresidential CALGreen Code

AIA California Council CALGreen Webinars: 101, 102, 103

AIA California Council Announces Development of Educational Resources Related to the CALGreen Building Code

CALGreen Non-Residential Comparison to LEED for Building Design and Construction

CALGreen Low-Rise Residential Comparison to Greenpoint-Rated and LEED for homes

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “Greening North Knoxville: Visualizing Sustainability in Urban Conditions,” by Todd Shelton, AIA.

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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