AIA announces Big Move Toward Environmental Stewardship

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Last week, AIA’s Board of Directors ratified a bold resolution outlining the decisive action the association will take on climate change over the coming decades. Introduced at the 2019 Conference on Architecture by Betsy del Monte, FAIA, and fifty other members, the resolution is a way of formalizing leadership around climate action in the architectural community, according to AIA CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA. In conjunction with what the AIA has informally nicknamed the Big Move Toward Environmental Stewardship, the resolution marks a bold step forward in positioning the architectural profession as key leaders for climate action. It outlines three key areas: declare an urgent climate imperative for carbon reduction; transform the day-to-day built practice of architects to achieve a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient and healthy built environment; and leverage support of peers, clients, policy makers, and the public at large.

“The Board is energized by their commitment to leadership and environmental stewardship,” Ivy says, noting that architects have a long history of championing sustainable design. The commercial and residential building sectors are the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the United States—39 percent per year, according to USGBC—and time is running out to make the necessary impact to meet key goals in emissions reductions by 2050.

“Now that the Board has ratified the resolution that the members overwhelmingly supported, the vote was decisive,” says Marsha Maytum, a member of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE). “There are all these activities that are headed in the same direction, and the AIA can be really impactful.”

“On every project we do, architects have direct and consequential impact on climate change,” says Dan Hart, FAIA, a member of AIA’s Board of Directors and Chair of the AIA Board Knowledge Committee. “The Board is committed to progress against climate change in ways that respect the diversity of perspective our membership represents.”

Changing and transforming practice

The biggest component in spearheading a decrease in building emissions going forward will be transforming how architects practice, a major focus of both the resolution and the Big Move. Based around 10 tenets now known as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence (formerly called the COTE Top Ten Measures), the board recognized the holistic nature of the criteria. All ten design elements matter, from water to wellness.  However, for the immediate future, particular emphasis will be placed on three: designing for energy, economy, and equitable communities. The Institute will continue to encourage architects and firms to participate in AIA’s 2030 Commitment, and will develop new programs and resources that will support and educate architects in fighting climate change—and help them translate the urgency and importance to their clients.

“Climate change requires a holistic approach, addressing the inter-dependencies among people, buildings, infrastructure, and the environment,” says AIA President William Bates, FAIA. “Our training allows us to look for solutions and ways to mitigate climate change comprehensively and creatively, which we do every day.”

There’s no question that there’s a lot of work to be done in a short period of time. “Our profession is well-suited to be in a position of leadership on this topic, and so now we have to seize it,” Maytum says.

Taking action

“All of this is building up to 2020 being a redirect of our knowledge, content and resources toward this one message,” says Terri Stewart, Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Practice at AIA. Much of the work of AIA over the next several years will involve the association unifying all of its work, and focusing the majority of its efforts – dollars, staff, and volunteers – on its climate messaging, tools and resources. It will also involve working with components to deepen already-existing grassroots efforts. “We’re building impact in one area rather than 20,” Stewart says. “This climate action resolution is starting to define the messaging.”

Architects will make a significant difference to the built environment. This means not only through mitigation efforts, but also by adapting buildings to the adverse effects of climate change. “It’s both the mitigation and the adaptation piece – how climate is changing communities and the planet, where they build, how they build,” says Stewart.

Stewart points out that in the 1970’s, architects emphasized the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental factors when promoting green design. Ivy adds, “Architects were at the forefront of creating buildings that are responsive and responsible.” In many ways, the AIA hopes to steer architects back toward those earlier conversations, while making the parameters of the conversations larger.

In December, the AIA Board of Directors will allocate staff and budget to support the initiative’s high-level goals.

While the Big Move Toward Environmental Sustainability and the concurrent Resolution will guide much of the work of AIA National in the coming decades, they do not reflect a mandate for components – AIA leadership wants to be clear that they represent a request, and that the larger organization will be focusing on the plethora of resources and tools already available to AIA members, but also new resources and tools for the economy, energy, and equitable communities for components to draw on, since much of the work will take place at a local level.

In the coming months, the AIA has a number of programs and initiatives focused on helping architects narrow their focus on reducing carbon emissions, including a climate action plan for the organization where members can learn how to engage. “The hope is that, through measured and consistent action, every AIA member will join the effort,” Ivy says.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) calls on architects around the world to support humanity’s collective call to climate action through an unrelenting commitment to sustainable and resilient design. Read AIA's Where We Stand statement on climate action.

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