Rebranding the Energy Capital of the World
April 13, 2010
George Miller, FAIA
At first glance, it might seem ironic to have chosen Houston to host a conference focused on sustainability. After all, the investment and sweat of this great city earned it bragging rights as “Energy Capital of the World.” And the energy that powered its prosperity was by no means green, but decidedly black!
Yet the organizers of this Conference knew what they were up to. In light of the way this city has been transforming itself, it’s clear they could not have chosen a more appropriate site to raise the banner of sustainable design.
Consider these developments:
In the first decade of the 21st century, the City of Houston has emerged as the number one municipal purchaser of green power in the nation and a crucial leader in the alternative energy trend. That’s according to the EPA’s Green Power Partnership. Also, according to the EPA, Houston has the third highest number nationwide of energy-efficient commercial buildings.
At the AIA’s headquarters building in Washington, we’ve just taken down an exhibition put together by AIA Houston and the Rice Design Alliance. The subject? A design competition that challenged architects to design sustainable residences, with special consideration given to affordability, longevity, energy savings benefits, and appropriateness for Houston’s hot and humid climate. You can check out the truly creative ideas generated by this competition by going to www.the 99khouse.com.
Clearly, Houston’s elected officials, business leaders, and the design community are up to something big. They’re leading a green revolution to redefine this city’s identity by updating what it means to be an Energy Capital in the 21st century.
The evidence is everywhere: Green investment and green jobs are energizing this city’s economy. As the exhibition at AIA headquarters makes clear, architects are playing a growing role in this transformation, not only in Houston, but in communities of every scale around this nation and the world.
In one sense, those of us who shape the human environment are applying what we always knew—that energy is a form giver. That’s true in the natural environment, and until the 20th century with the advent of cheap fossil fuel, it was true of the designed environment.
Before oil and gas, we designed in partnership with the ambient energy of place. What we built mirrored local climate and the availability of building materials—brick on the East Coast, stone in the Shenandoah Valley, adobe in America’s Southwest.
New England houses had pitched roofs for rain and snow. The South and Gulf regions had a different environment and responded accordingly to maximize cooling breezes. In America’s Southwest with its desert climate there developed yet another, organic architecture. And so forth in this country and around the world.
Not only are the New England clapboard salt box and the Southwest adobe pueblo energy efficient both in construction and operation, they are (not so incidentally) beautiful. They offer their respective communities roots and identity, a welcoming sense of place.
I don’t want to give the impression architects forgot or ignored the lessons of the past. Consider the history of this conference’s hosts, AIA Houston and the Gulf Coast Green Committee, which grew out of the Houston Chapter of the AIA Committee on the Environment or COTE. Nationally, COTE, was the heir of the AIA Energy Committee, which began its work back in 1973 long before there was talk of climate change or even sustainability. (Is it a coincidence that the AIA Board endorsed the creation of COTE at the 1990 AIA Convention right here in Houston?)
Back in the ‘70s, the AIA Energy Committee and the nation with it wrestled with the soaring cost of energy triggered by the Arab oil embargo. Then as now, it was well understood that buildings ate up the lion’s share of America’s energy consumption.
Is it any wonder that the role of the architect in helping this nation achieve “energy independence” became front and center? Not only would less dependence on imported oil hold the line on the rising cost of constructing and operating buildings, energy independence was also a matter of national security. Architects were at the vanguard of real change.
The Federal Government allocated millions of dollars that went to architecture firms and universities for research into building science related to energy. There was even Congressional legislation, shaped by the AIA, that would have enabled a sweeping change in how we shaped the built environment.
It didn’t turn out that way. It didn’t turn out that way because in the early ‘80s, the cost of energy plummeted. That triggered not only a change in national priorities, it also changed the priorities of many, though not all, clients who no longer asked for or paid for energy-conscious design.
Ironically, while the rest of the nation refueled, this city went into an economic meltdown, another casualty of cheap energy. Is it possible that the memory of that recession sewed the first seeds for the soul-searching rethinking we see today of the consequences of binding Houston’s future to a fossil fuel economy?
Visionary leaders of our profession—like Bob Berkebile; Randy Croxton; Vivian Loftness; Greg Franta; AIA Presidents Randy Vosbeck, Jim Lawler, Susan Maxman, and RK Stewart—kept alive a vision of the role of the architect and design as embracing the full range of human settlement and ecological issues.
At the 1993 AIA National Convention in Chicago, AIA President Maxman offered this challenge: “We have the knowledge; we have the riches; we have the power. What is called for is a profound shift in the way we regard this planet and everything on it. Exploitation must be replaced by stewardship. And for stewardship to extend its healing hand, we must act responsibly.”
Back in Texas, it was just three years ago at the AIA’s National Convention in San Antonio that AIA President RK Stewart challenged us to take a really close look at the challenges and opportunities of going green, a theme taken up by a rousing keynote presentation delivered by Vice President Gore.
So here we are today in Houston, a city redefining its relationship to energy, and here we are a profession reasserting our claim that design matters in securing a future anchored by healthy, productive, safe, and sustainable communities.
Will we experience the dashed hopes of the 1970s, when architects and architecture were poised to play a key role in our nation’s future? If the price of oil tumbles tomorrow, will the appetite for sustainable design wilt tomorrow as well?
I don’t think we’re destined to go down that road. I don’t think so because some fundamental changes have taken us to a whole new place, a place where today there is a growing appreciation for the many ways in which design matters.
Not a week goes by without the media drawing a connection between design and health issues like obesity. The medical profession gets it.
The growing hi-tech industry profoundly understands the relationship between productivity and the design of the workplace. So Google, Apple, and Microsoft get it.
Public officials grappling with the increasing gridlock strangling our cities understand that an efficient transportation system can no longer be an ad hoc investment, but a matter of design. They get it. (All they need are the funds to make it happen. But that’s another story.)
You don’t have to take a stand one way or the other on climate change to know that tying ourselves to non-renewable resources purchased from countries that don’t like us doesn’t promote national security.
And do we really want to leave it to future generations to sort out who was right about the impact of pumping millions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere every day? Our children get it.
All these insights have converged. They’ve converged in a way that offers an extraordinary opportunity for design professionals to uncover new economic opportunities for our communities, opportunities to renovate the future, and opportunities to shape the legislative and regulatory climate in ways that will facilitate the greening of America. More about that last point a bit later.
If the opportunities are there, how do we turn opportunities into action? How do we make our potential real?
Conferences like this play an important role. The symposia and workshops give access to the latest information about sustainable design. It’s also a venue for product manufacturers, the media, and other potential allies to hear from us to facilitate even greater collaboration. And the networking made possible by coming together in one place is invaluable. How many would have shown up for such a conference even as recently as a decade ago? Look around! There is strength in numbers.
The strength that comes from numbers, all 84,000 of us, is most evident in the increasing number of programs and initiatives made possible by the collective resources of our professional community, which is the AIA. In the remaining time, I’d like to share some of what’s available to our profession, our clients, and those in positions of leadership, from community organizers to the top tiers of the Federal government.
Since I’ve just mentioned government, let’s return to something I said a moment ago—the opportunity (I should say “responsibility”) of shaping the regulatory environment in which we work.
Last winter, at the opening of this session of Congress, AIA members from all over the country came to Washington. They came to meet with their representatives on the Hill and Administration officials. They brought to those meetings a legislative blueprint that outlines five planks or initiatives the AIA is advocating on behalf of America’s architects and the public we serve:
- Helping struggling communities rebuild through already-funded programs such as Community Development Block Grants
- Unfreezing credit
- Relief for small businesses
- Passing legislation to provide funding to local school districts to renovate and modernize K-12 public schools, and
- Expanding the Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction to encourage the commercial sector to build green.
This blueprint can be found on the AIA’s homepage. It’s also available for AIA members to adapt to take advantage of legislative opportunities at the state and local levels, something AIA Florida recently did with great success in Tallahassee.
Which brings me to the point I want to make:
More than ever we have to be Citizen Architects. We have to be prepared to step up to the plate to advocate on behalf of initiatives from school construction and mass transit to historic preservation, sensible land use, and green construction. If there’s any omission in the otherwise splendid lineup of workshops and symposia offered by this Conference, it might be the need for a greater focus on the role of advocacy. Whether the subject is the business of green or the geography of change, I urge all of us to keep in mind the importance of adding our hands to the legislative and regulatory levers that enable healthy, productive, and sustainable communities.
You are acknowledged leaders, leaders in reframing this nation’s built environment. Such leadership demands that we be prepared to be citizen architects, professional men and women willing to take coordinated, informed, and effective action, whether it’s at a town meeting or at a meeting with your Congressional representative, to shape change that matters.
To find out the different ways AIA members can be engaged as citizen architects in advocating for initiatives that advance sustainability, go to the AIA’s home page, click on “Practicing Architecture” at the top, and land on “Sustainable Design.” Under “Advocacy,” you’ll find links that include the Sustainable Design Policy Center and federal, state, and local advocacy green issue briefs. While you’re at the site, take a look at the states that have already passed green/high-performance building legislation. Is your state on that list?
One AIA initiative, certain to be discussed at this Conference, is the recently released first public version of the International Green Construction Code. This draft is the product of seven months of meetings, hundreds of conference calls, and thousands of e-mails. Work on the development of a safe and sustainable building code was led by AIA members, the International Code Council or ICC, and ASTM International. The focus is green design and performance in new and existing commercial buildings with a goal of driving sustainable building practices into everyday use.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s important to take more than a cursory look at this first draft. Unlike voluntary green building rating systems, the IGC Code is written in mandatory, legally-enforceable language. Please take advantage of the opportunity through the first of May to offer comments. Right now, the final version of the code is scheduled to be published in 2012.
Work on a new International Green Construction Code and our legislative agenda for 2010 are just two of the AIA’s many initiatives to advance a commitment mandated by the AIA Board to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.
“2030” is a number you hear a lot of among AIA members. It’s the label of a “2030 Toolkit,” which is a virtual connection to resources and examples that demonstrate the greening of our built environment. Materials are gathered under three headings: Advocacy, Design, and Community.
2030 also appears on the “2030 Commitment,” which is a voluntary program for AIA member firms and others that asks participants to make a pledge, develop multi-year action plans, and implement steps that can advance the AIA’s goal of carbon neutral buildings by the year 2030. To date, nearly 100 firms have signed on. Is yours one of them?
Want to learn how your firm can be part of the 2030 Commitment? Go to the AIA’s sustainability site. It’s easy to join. Or, if you have the time here in Houston, come talk to me.
Other resources include the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assistance Teams or SDATs; “Sustainability Resources for Clients”; “Green Meeting Guidelines”; and the “50to50” initiative, which offers 50 readily available and effective tools and techniques that will have an immediate impact on the design team’s ability to achieve significant carbon reduction. These run the gamut from broad-based site and planning objectives to specific, building-based concepts. And of course there is the AIA’s support of Integrated Project Delivery, which is an increasingly valuable tool for sustainable design and construction because it allows us to optimize the delivery of new projects.
If none of this is news to you, that’s great. It means the AIA has gotten the word out and you’re using these tools in your practice.
However, no overview of AIA resources to advance sustainability would be complete without mentioning the extraordinary work of our Conference host, the AIA Committee on the Environment.
By promoting sustainability through COTE’s annual recognition of Top Ten Green projects, publications, and so much more, but most especially creating a vibrant knowledge community, COTE has built on and carried forward the vision of the sustainability movement’s founders and heroes. COTE has been and is today a leader in demonstrating that design matters if we as a profession and a nation hope to achieve the goal of healthy, productive, safe, and sustainable communities.
I have a glimpse of what that future might look like and what it will take to get us there. Earlier this month, I was in that Vatican of contemporary design, Columbus, Indiana. I was there to participate in an evening town meeting. Earlier that same day, I had an opportunity to take a look around Columbus. I wanted to see how design worked in that small town in America’s heartland.
What I saw was further proof that a democratic society is just as capable as any other to nurture design excellence. It’s just that we architects have to negotiate the relationship with the client in a different way, since our ultimate client is after all not a single patron, but the public.
We must listen—listen carefully—to the hopes and aspirations of all those we would serve. We must be respectful and collaborative as we engage the community in giving voice to its values, because it’s from these values that together we can articulate a vision that can be brought to light by design. We must be prepared as citizen architects to be advocates with other members of the design community and with our neighbors for that vision.
Admittedly, not every design icon in Columbus was primarily driven by a concern for sustainability. Yet every single project whatever the scale and whenever it was designed demonstrated that design matters in the most fundamental, human way; that in our fragmented and restless culture, design has the power to create a nurturing sense of place. But to get there, we have to do it together: bringing into life healthy, safe, sustainable, and, yes, beautiful communities is a shared endeavor. It has to be; it must be.
The trip to Columbus was a curtain raiser to National Architecture Week, which was officially launched by the AIA last Sunday. National Architecture Week was created by Presidential proclamation on the occasion of the AIA’s 150th anniversary. This particular week in April was chosen not only because it marked the AIA’s founding in New York back in 1857, but also because it coincides with the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, our first and to date only architect President.
Jefferson, like many of our nation’s founders, instinctively understood that architecture expresses and in turn shapes a nation’s values. He believed that in a free and democratic society, design excellence could not be the exclusive property of the privileged; it had to belong to everyone. Everyone had to be engaged.
The commitment to engage the public in thinking about the power of design to give shape to our values was the animating spirit of that first National Architecture Week. It’s the same spirit that drives National Architecture Week today.
Here, at this Conference, we will engage one another in conversations about green design…conversations about what can and is being accomplished by a commitment to sustainability. This is important; it’s good. And I look forward to more of these conversations next June in Miami, at our National Convention, where we will focus on design for a new decade, and how a commitment to sustainability will be the key to more livable communities.
If this sounds like a plug to come to Miami, it surely is. With all of us there in one place engaged with the largest gathering in this nation of our colleagues, we can take these conversations to an even higher plane.
But we cannot keep those conversations to ourselves. To fulfill the promise of more livable, sustainable communities, we must initiate conversations with the public about the power of design to drive positive change. We must engage our neighbors and community leaders back home in our schools, churches, temples, town halls, and everywhere people gather.
Only when our vision is a shared vision….only when our knowledge is a shared knowledge…will we together, as a profession and as a nation, be truly able to renovate the future.
For when it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.
Let’s not be on the sidelines. We can and must do better than that. Let us, in partnership with our neighbors, dare to be the dreamers…the doers….the makers of a beautiful, sustainable future!
George Miller, FAIA, 2010 AIA President