AIA defends sustainable design

Designing buildings to be sustainable, resilient and resource efficient is at the core of what architects do. And architects understand that sustainable design is not only good for the environment, but is good for the bottom line. Yet in recent months, policymakers in Washington and in the states have attempted to roll back sustainability laws, all in the name of helping the economy and creating jobs.

On the federal level, the most recent development on sustainability was the Trump Administration’s decision June 1 to withdraw the United State as a signatory to the Paris Agreement, the climate accord signed by almost 200 countries in late 2015. In announcing the withdrawal, President Trump expressed his view that the agreement was bad for the U.S. economy. This follows efforts on Capitol Hill to end financial incentives for green buildings and cut federal budget proposals that help architects design more sustainable buildings.

In the states as well, efforts to weaken sustainable design policies have spread. In Florida, where hurricane season has just gotten under way, there are moves to roll back sustainability efforts in the built environment. Awaiting the signature of Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott is HB 1021, legislation that would severely imperil Floridians’ safety by abandoning the two-decade-old code development process that has given the state some of the strongest and safest building codes in the world - in order to save costs. And the state of Indiana nearly allowed its energy code to expire last fall.

“There’s a misperception among some policymakers that sustainable design policies equal ‘expensive’ and are therefore not worth pursuing,” says Sarah Dodge, the AIA’s Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Relationships. “The fact is that energy-conservation and sustainable design save clients and homeowners money in the long run, and we are in a full-court press to make sure policymakers at all levels of government know this.”

Taking Action

The AIA is working at all levels to advocate for policies that help architects design more sustainable buildings, while making the case that “green buildings” can lead to the other kind of green: savings.

In response to the announcement about the Paris agreement, AIA President Tom Vonier, FAIA, reiterated the importance of the agreement to the global competitive position of American business – in particular the architecture profession – and spearheaded an international call by architecture societies from around the world, recommitting to the goals of energy conservation and climate change mitigation. AIA members have also begun to take action, sending letters to the editors of their local newspapers on their opposition to withdrawal from the agreement and making the argument that sustainable design is a winner from both an economic and environmental standpoint.

In Florida, an AIA state component is working to block the code bill. The AIA and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) last week co-signed a letter sent to Governor Scott urging him to veto this bill, which home builders have been pushing. The letter notes that “a weaker code could lead to much higher costs for rebuilding following a major disaster – at the very moment that policymakers in Washington are looking to reduce funding for FEMA and other programs that help communities after disasters.”  While the outcome in Florida is not known, AIA-Indiana’s active lobbying intervention in the Hoosier State in December convinced then-Governor Mike Pence to extend the state’s energy code.

To make the case that sustainable design is good for the economy, the AIA and its allies unveiled the results of an economic impact study that documents the job-creating potential of the Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings Deduction, otherwise known as Section 179D of the tax code. The study found that as many as 77,000 new design and construction jobs would be created annually over 10 years - along with almost $7.4 billion more in annual GDP - if Congress and the Administration continued this important energy efficiency tax policy.

“We have a terrific story to tell about how sustainable design is good for the environmental and fiscal bottom line, and we have the data to back it up,” says Dodge.

Speaking Up for Architects

Most critically, the AIA is making its case directly to policymakers. On May 16, AIA met with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. The meeting, led by AIA Executive Vice President and CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA, and AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Advisory Group member Jon Penndorf, FAIA, followed a letter sent to Pruitt in March and signed by almost 800 architecture firms across the country. That letter urged EPA to protect programs like Energy Star, which helps architects design more sustainable buildings. AIA reiterated these points to Administrator Pruitt, using the opportunity to explain the economic power of the profession and the importance of EPA programs to designing a better built environment.

Meanwhile, AIA’s Committee on the Environment has launched a new advocacy group to help members become engaged in advocacy on sustainability issues. This group spearheaded the effort to get firms to sign onto the letter to Pruitt and a similar letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry in support of energy programs that help architects design better buildings.    

“It promises to be a very active political season, one with the possibility of exceptional impact on the architecture profession, and one that requires the participation of every AIA member who wants this organization to have a seat at the table when it comes to sustainability issues,” said Dodge. “That’s why the AIA has embarked on a multi-year effort to build a culture of advocacy that enables all members to get engaged. Our annual SpeakUp advocacy training event next month in Colorado affords an excellent opportunity for members to learn the ins and outs of advocacy, at a time when it is more important than ever before. Architects have a powerful voice; we want to make sure that voice is heard.”  

John Schneidawind is AIA's Director of Public Affairs & Media Relations

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