Four lessons from the leading edge of sustainable design

Lessons from the Leading Edge

The Ballard Library, which adorns the cover of "Lessons from the Leading Edge," the latest report from the AIA Committee on the Environment.

Analyzing 19 years of awards from the AIA COTE Top Ten

Since 1997, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) has pored over dozens of submissions each year to find 10 projects at the epicenter of both beautiful and sustainable design. The aptly named Top Ten that emerges is the gold standard for green design excellence; what no one has done, however, is examine these award recipients for commonalities. What binds them together? Has the evaluation process changed over time? And what progress has the profession made since this program's inception?

Enter a team led by Lance Hosey, FAIA. Hosey is a member of the COTE Advisory Group who set out to document the evolution of this program and its recognized projects. The result is Lessons from the Leading Edge, a detailed report on 19 years of the COTE Top Ten. Four lessons from the report, in particular, stand out as important takeaways:

The size of top-of-the-line sustainable projects is growing. The data show that 70 percent of COTE Top Ten recipients fall under 100,000 square feet, which is no surprise: It's simpler to make smaller projects sustainable. What he did uncover, however, is that the average size of the 10 projects doubled from 1997 to 2015. In fact, in 2015 the median size of the projects exceeded 100,000 square feet for the first time. It seems that as technology and knowledge catch up to the cutting edge, architects can provide efficiency on a larger scale.

The West Coast is sustainability's home turf, but D.C. holds its own. Of the 189 projects analyzed, 41 are located in California. If you factor in Oregon and Washington, more than a third of the projects are located on the West Coast. Yes, the temperate climate welcomes passive design, and those states' stringent energy laws require higher performance overall. But it's also culture and clientele; calculating the number of Top Ten award recipients per capita shows that Washington, D.C., home of the federal government, has twice the ratio of any state.

It's not just office buildings anymore. The three most prominent types among Top Ten award recipients are office, educational, and public projects; they've accounted for 71 percent of the total so far. Office buildings, in particular, dominated with 30–40 percent of all award recipients during much of the program's earlier days. That's changing, though, as Bud Clark Commons in Portland, Ore.—a transitional housing project awarded in 2014—and the New Orleans BioInnovation Center—a lab for biotech startups that was recognized in 2015—illustrate just how increasingly diverse high-quality sustainable design can be.

The COTE Top Ten is bleeding into the AIA Honor Awards. In 2015, the AIA made sustainability metrics a mandatory element of awards submissions. Henceforth, projects would be judged not only on their beauty but on how they impacted the environment. This was a welcome change championed by COTE and also a long time coming: 13 projects have won both Top Ten and Institute Honor Awards since 1997, and seven of those crossovers have occurred since 2009.

Meaning there may come a day when sustainable design and good design are one and the same, and the COTE Top Ten is no longer necessary. When that day comes, it will be in large part due to the past 19 years of recognition outlined here.

For more on Lessons from the Leading Edge, read the full report. The 2016 recipients—COTE's 20th year of awards—will be announced on April 22.

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

Lessons from the Leading Edge

Courtesy of the COTE Top Ten Awards

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