Climate leadership to achieve net zero

Architects have long been advocates for sustainable design. The use of adobe building material in the Southwest and stone to weather the cold winters in northern climates are two examples of environmental design that have been around since before the Industrial Revolution. In its climate platform for 2020, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) calls for its members to lead the industry in sustainable practices.

The hard truth is that building construction, operation and construction materials manufacturing creates nearly 40% of the Earth’s carbon dioxide emissions. Estimates suggest that number will only grow as building square footage will likely double by 2060. According to Tim Hawk, FAIA, chair of AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee and an at-large director to the AIA Board, if we do not make progress now to establish more sustainable building practices, this building boom accelerate  environmental devastation.

“Cost has become the dominant driver in building design,” says Hawk. “The only way to address this problem is to push for updated building codes that prove the value of sustainable design.”

The AIA climate policy platform calls for the creation of a “Zero Code” for all federally supported buildings. This code would require these structures to achieve net-zero emissions through energy efficiency implementation, sustainable material choices and renewable power use. Hawk says that when federal building codes are updated, the rest of the industry will follow.

“We have to start thinking of buildings as timeless creations that meet the needs of today and the future,” says Hawk. He also notes architects can make a difference by specifying more sustainable materials for new construction. It is a concept that is already catching on in the manufacturing sector.

Platform priorities to reduce embodied carbon and enhance energy efficiency complement AIA’s 2030 Commitment to make “all new buildings, developments and major renovations carbon neutral by 2030.” This year’s platform goes a step further, calling for a return to American climate leadership. It specifically asks for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and to support U.S. Department of Energy research related to energy efficiency and renewable power.

Hawk says AIA is also encouraging additional investment in the existing building stock. “The most sustainable thing you can do is to save a building by retrofitting it to be more energy efficient,” he points out. “We have a whole host of brick-and-mortar buildings that should be adapted for continued use rather than scheduled for demolition.”

This type of environmental reinvestment can be especially beneficial in mitigating climate change’s disproportionate effects on communities of color. Hawk says that for too long, underserved communities have been hampered by poorly built buildings that are “energy suckers” and require constant repairs.

AIA President Jane Frederick reinforced this need in a recent opinion piece published for Real Clear Energy. “Everyone should live in healthy communities, and we believe architects can be a voice for the underserved,” says Frederick. “We must continue to champion investments in sustainable, resilient infrastructure in neighborhoods of color and work to erase a past that forced too many Black and Hispanic families to live in unhealthy buildings and systemically neglected communities.”

Her statement is about the interrelated nature of the built environment, society, and the country’s approach to future climate policy. This notion of connectivity is core to good climate decision-making, according to Hawk. Whether it’s a power grid that is feeding and receiving energy from a building’s solar panels, a retrofit that brings new life to an old building, or a commitment to new standards, he says all Americans benefit from sustainable policies.

Learn more about AIA’s policy platform and get involved with AIA Advocacy.

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