AIA climate action: Following landmark resolution, a year of progress

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An update from AIA’s Sustainability Leadership Group

Just as it always has when crisis strikes, the architecture profession mobilized immediately to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. From deploying 3-D printing technology to supply protective gear, to coordinating with health officials on converting structures to temporary medical facilities, architects have identified countless opportunities to pitch in, contributing their unique expertise to help overcome this historic global health crisis.

At the same time, work toward AIA’s sustainable design goals has continued.   In fact, climate and health crises are closely related – sharing both common root causes and common solutions.

AIA’s Sustainability Leadership Group (SLG) highlights how architects are pursuing multiple initiatives to tackle both challenges.

Disaster Assistance programs adapt for COVID-19 response

Existing programs including the Disaster Assistance Committee (DAC) and Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group (RAD AG), are primary vehicles for COVID-19 response efforts, and they are well-prepared to swing into action. Engaging with Disaster Coordinators across the country, DAC is working to identify needs and share best practices for near-term recovery. The Disaster Assistance Committee provided guidance during the early stages of the response to AIA components and members looking to volunteer their time or machinery as a community service; they continue to provide technical guidance on recovery, including publishing a Building Re-occupancy Assessment Tool.  

RAD-AG’s Business Continuity Guide already included pandemic response scenarios, and group members swiftly published the updated guide two months early and organized a live webinar to get information to firms on longer-term mitigation strategies to keep their practices strong amidst disruption.  

SLG members are also coordinating with other AIA committees and Knowledge Communities in COVID-19 response task forces to leverage new and existing resources for members. Resources include an Adaptability Deconstruction and Reuse Guide published by the Materials Knowledge Working Group, as well as Leveraging Energy Transparency, a white paper developed by the Energy Leadership Group (ELG) to outline new business opportunity for architects through municipal energy transparency ordinances.

Progress on sustainability initiatives

At the same time, it’s been a pivotal year for AIA’s flagship climate initiatives. In the year since AIA members overwhelmingly approved a resolution making environmental stewardship the organization’s top priority, steady progress has been achieved to develop a Climate Action Plan, evolve the Framework for Design Excellence, and increase participation in the 2030 Commitment.

Climate Action Plan

Under development for the past year and based on input from the full spectrum of AIA’s membership, the Climate Action Plan was recently approved by the Board of Directors. Full details will be released in the near future providing guidance to help architects achieve progress under three overarching goals:

Mitigating the sources: By actively addressing the building industry’s footprint as a primary contributing source of operational and embodied carbon, architects have a major role to play in catalyzing the industry in advancing zero-carbon projects, products, policies, initiatives, research, and education.

Adapting to the impacts: By designing buildings and communities to anticipate and adapt to the evolving challenge of climate change, our spaces, buildings, structures, and communities become more resilient and high performing.

Catalyzing architects to act: To lead transformation in the building industry, architects must commit, engage, lead by example, and work collaboratively with our extensive partner network to holistically effect the magnitude of change we are driving toward.

Framework for Design Excellence

As one of the primary tools to make the plan actionable for all members, adapting the COTE Top Ten Award measures to the AIA Framework for Design Excellence is a special focus. A member task force is taking on the task to evolve the Top Ten Toolkit, and adapt the Framework to answer key questions, like:

  • How can architects leverage the Framework as a design tool?
  • How can the Framework go beyond a single project to influence practice, planning and policy?
  • Where can projects benefit the community beyond the property lines?
  • How can AIA lead industry transformation through the Framework?

2030 Commitment

As the primary pathway to measure engagement with climate action, the 2030 Commitment goes hand in hand with the Framework for Design Excellence. For 10 years, the 2030 Commitment has focused on energy efficiency as a pathway to reducing carbon emissions from the building sector. In 2019, AIA added basic embodied carbon reporting to the program’s online reporting tool, the Design Data Exchange (DDx).

While COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn add new challenges, strong momentum at the beginning of 2020 provided a positive start: 10% of the program’s 765 signatories have joined since January. The 2030 Commitment Working Group and AIA hope to see those numbers continue to climb with the launch of a new, easier-to-use tool later this year. In addition to more detailed embodied carbon reporting, the refreshed tool will enable users to engage owners, engineers, and consultants as collaborators on projects.

Looking ahead

Although AIA members couldn’t meet in person at A’20 to build on the past year’s progress, this critical work is advancing virtually. AIA teams are continuing to develop partnerships with groups like the US Conference of Mayors, International Code Council, Architecture 2030, and Urban Land Institute; conduct education and outreach through the Blueprint for Better campaign, webinars, and guides; and develop additional tools through production of a Climate Action Practice Guide in late 2020.

Moving forward, the SLG plans to evaluate the impact of climate action on public health and vector-borne disease, while examining how outcomes of the Framework for Design Excellence can help prevent and prepare for another pandemic while driving climate action.

The ability to innovate and reimagine has always been at the heart of climate progress. Whether it’s rethinking energy use in buildings, envisioning more sustainable construction practices, inventing cutting-edge home innovations that withstand hurricanes, or – in the case of 2020 – going virtual with a major policy initiative, the architecture profession is in the business of adaptation and problem solving.

With the same vision and expertise AIA members are applying to continue climate progress even in the face of a historic pandemic, architects will innovate to project the health of both our society and our planet.

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