Why we made the AIA 2030 Commitment

Magnolia Apartments, a Brooks + Scarpa project

Magnolia Apartments is a 19-unit mixed use residential project in Los Angeles that is among the first entered into the AIA's Design Data Exchange tool by Brooks + Scarpa.

The principal of a small firm explains why she committed to the AIA’s energy initiative

This article originally appeared in the June issue of the Committee on the Environment's e-newsletter. Visit the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) homepage for more.

Growing up in Florida, I was aware of the power of the vernacular, a style born out of environmental conditions. In the shade of the Sarasota School, I learned that there was strength and immense beauty in a modern response to regionalism, and that in fact, the principles of modernism aligned closely with creative solutions to tempering the harsh climate through built form.

For the last 30 years in California, architects have been practicing under the most stringent energy code in the country. Our Governor, Jerry Brown, recently mandated carbon neutral buildings by 2050. In this fast changing regulatory environment, signing the AIA's 2030 Commitment seemed like a moot point. With five AIA COTE Top Ten awards (three that have also won Institute Honor Awards for design), including a building designed to be net zero more than a decade ago, I really didn’t see the need. Our firm has been committed to these goals for a very long time and we apply our principles to every project, whether the client requests it or not. A few years ago I went through my usual thought process: Will we learn anything from it? Will it matter to our clients? Do our colleagues recommend it? The answer was ‘no’ to all three.

We cannot, as a profession, know where we have to go without knowing where we have been.

Fast forward to 2016; never underestimate the power of a group to get an individual to do something. In my inaugural meeting of the AIA COTE Advisory Committee, as I sat among architects who made the 2030 Commitment years ago, I felt like I was missing something. Everyone was enthusiastically promoting the new Design Data Exchange (DDx) tool for project data reporting. If it was an important tool, why didn’t we have it, and if it was used to show how our profession was creating better buildings, why weren’t we a part of it?

Finding the value

I dusted off the commitment letter—which I had already written but never sent in—and followed through with it. Almost immediately, I was given access to the DDx. After a few minutes of instruction, I uploaded four current projects and was pleasantly surprised with the results. The goal is to track and monitor the energy reduction in all of our projects, in any location, and to make visible the energy benefits gained through design decisions. I see it as another tool in our toolbox, to graphically show energy use and energy reduction in a simple and highly effective way. It highlights the benefits and collaborative nature of energy modeling, and actually made me pause to consider the differences between California’s Title 24 of 2008, 2010 and now, 2013. I especially appreciated the graphic interface that shows how many acres of carbon we sequestered annually by reducing the energy load of our projects.

Granted, it does take a bit of time—for four projects, it took half of a day to upload our still-incomplete data—but it's worth it to see how your projects do individually and how your firm compares with others nationally. Reporting can occur throughout the year and you can modify individual projects as they are completed. For non-modeled projects, you can track performance by equivalents based on your design energy code (California Title 24 or ASHRAE, for instance). This is not just a repository of data; it is a tool that allows you to make changes to a building and see the corresponding reduction in energy use, helping us draw closer to the goal of a carbon-neutral future.

If it was an important tool, why didn’t we have it, and if it was used to show how our profession was creating better buildings, why weren’t we a part of it?

A glance at the graph for all of the ‘reporting firms’ suggests that it is easier for larger firms (over 100 employees) to participate. Smaller firms (under 50 employees) account for 99 percent of AIA members and 75 percent of the profession’s total billings, but only 32 percent of the total 2030 reporting firms (data via 2030 Commitment Progress Reports). We cannot, as a profession, know where we have to go without knowing where we have been; for it to serve its purpose, this tool should include all projects constructed by every size firm. We must look for ways to help, or incentivize, smaller firms to participate in the 2030 Commitment and follow best practices for high-performance design.

Our profession is an integral part of the built environment’s energy consumption and this tool will help us rise to meet the challenges of the future, but we cannot do it alone. We need everyone to buy in completely: Clients, politicians, policy makers, the construction industry, lenders and financing mechanisms. Only together can we reduce our impact on the planet.

Angie Brooks, FAIA, COTE AG, LEED BD+C, is the principal at Brooks + Scarpa in Los Angeles.

Image credits

Magnolia Apartments, a Brooks + Scarpa project

Brooks + Scarpa | Hillock Land Company

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