Climate Action Business Playbook

2020 COTE Top Ten Winner Etsy Headquarters

2020 COTE Top Ten Winner, Etsy Headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.

An urgent challenge, a looming deadline

Climate change affects every person, every project, and every client. Rising ambient temperatures and sea levels, extreme weather events, and the degradation of natural resources are a direct result of increased atmospheric carbon levels that threaten national security, global economies, and the health, safety, and welfare of local communities.

Architects have an unprecedented opportunity to be part of creating a safer and more sustainable world for generations to come by designing to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to changing conditions. AIA’s 2020 Climate Imperative outlines a plan for how firms can address this challenge. As a complement to that mission, this Climate Action Practice Guide offers a set of accessible recommendations and best practices for anyone wanting to meaningfully integrate climate action into their practice.

The Climate Action Business Playbook is a resource for building an architectural practice that embraces climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The Climate Action Business Playbook is a resource for building an architectural practice that embraces climate change mitigation and adaptation. Incorporating climate action into your practice requires action on two levels: project-specific actions and practice-wide shifts in culture, norms, and processes. Spearheaded by Buro Happold, Lake|Flato Architects, the Sustainable Performance Institute, unabridged Architecture, and assisted by many passionate professionals, this document offers accessible recommendations and best practices for everyone wanting to meaningfully integrate climate action and sustainable design into their practice. This guide is designed to be a springboard to the most effective practices, high-impact activities, helpful resources, and examples to help firms define and achieve goals.

This resource is designed to accelerate every firm's efforts to deliver consistent, high-quality projects aligned with the priorities for climate.

Introduction: Understanding the current landscape

Because almost 40% of U.S. greenhouse gases can be attributed to the building industry—including materials in the manufacturing processes for concrete, metals, and polymers, etc.; the construction process; and operational processes such as heating, cooling, and lighting—architects have the ability and responsibility to lead the change our society needs to simultaneously help mitigate as well as adapt to the impact of climate change. As designers of the built environment, the architectural design community must lead the world in decarbonizing buildings and associated construction and manufacturing processes.

Transform leadership & practice

Architects are collaborative leaders and rely on a team to deliver projects that are healthy, low-carbon, equitable, and resilient. Educating your studio team and creating new internal resources can serve two purposes: gaining direct benefit from the task and engaging your team to connect the task to the larger goal of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Invite your team to join your efforts to build their skills and commitment to climate action.

Embody climate action in studio operations

Sustainable and resilient operations provide continuity during shocks and stresses. In a rapidly changing world, it is critical to plan ahead for disruption in order to survive and thrive, drawing upon foresight, strategic planning, and creativity to prepare, react, and quickly adapt to a wide range of disruptive events. Consider how weathering a disaster might impact the firm either positively or negatively. A good reputation and a quick return to business allows the firm to provide uninterrupted services, reduce revenue loss, and may even lead to more commissions.

Communicate key principles

Investors increasingly care about climate risks but are often concerned about how adapting to climate change or net-zero buildings will affect project designs, schedules, and budgets. Preparing for these conversations with examples from your own portfolio can allay fears and show that sustainability and resilience can be innovative yet practical, transformative yet on budget, systematic yet on schedule. Leverage data to show incremental progress toward goals, and develop examples to show how your firm has implemented resilience measures for clients and is prepared to design for the next disaster.

Goal setting: Aim high

The social, economic, and environmental impact of an individual project can be significant, let alone a portfolio of work. Can an improved design process change the “business as usual” model across a firm’s portfolio of projects? The process begins with establishing clear goals. While architects may be familiar with making sustainable design decisions, such as optimizing orientation for climate, we may be less prone to creating standard decision-making processes to minimize carbon over the life of the structure. Design studios should establish processes to prioritize goals for the project, including carbon emissions (operational and embodied), healthy environments, materials, water conservation, waste diversion, and resilient and equitable design, among others, that might be unique to its context.

Measure progress & successes

Project delivery is the lifeblood of any practice. One critical action is to align your project delivery process with your goals to ensure consistency and develop a firm-specific method for success. This is a practice-level activity tied to management, collaboration with consultants, business development, organizational infrastructure, and processes such as quality control and use of tools and templates.

Planning for change

As the climate changes, the environmental factors impacting our buildings are becoming stronger, outpacing adaptation efforts. A big part of climate action is adaptation planning—making design decisions that allow adjustments to new patterns over time in addition to the costly weather-related events exacerbated by an already changing climate. Adaptation measures do not prevent climate impacts, but they do mitigate risks to people and the built environment. Firms that plan ahead to reduce negative impacts and take advantage of emerging opportunities will be better prepared to meet changing design conditions; their projects are likely to have an extended service life and minimal repairs after hazard events, avoiding additional embodied carbon consumption.

Participate & advocate

Climate action is a dynamic and long-term process requiring many disciplines, agencies, and communities to work together to create transformativ

Sustain research & innovation

Climate change is a complex problem, and climate action demands innovative thinking to learn and adapt. Architecture is constantly evolving to keep up with new codes, standards, technology, materials, construction methods, and ways of thinking. Your firm cannot deliver the best value to clients without keeping up on innovative technologies, research, and best practices.

Elevate all voices

Social equity is a critical component of environmental sustainability and community resilience for all.

Expand education

High-performance firms are committed to staff development, training, and education. Return on investment is high when you invest in your people. Continuing education is motivating, so support and encourage people in extracurricular activities.


Become more familiar with some of the terms used in the Climate Action Playbook.

Image credits

2020 COTE Top Ten Winner Etsy Headquarters

Garrett Rowland