How one firm incorporated the 2030 Commitment into practice

Sonoma State Stevenson Hall

Sonoma State Stevenson Hall, a project by mode associates

Nestled between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and home to the highly ranked architecture school at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo is something of a hub for small architectural practices. There are 89 firms, all with less than 12 employees, in local component AIA Central Coast. In 2010, 11 of those firms came together as early adopters of the AIA 2030 Commitment, recognizing that a collective effort to incorporate the principles and overcome barriers would be stronger than a solo approach. In doing so, those firms have not only made progress toward the energy reduction targets of the Commitment but have built and reinforced cultures of sustainability across firms and in the region.

As principal and owner at mode associates—one of six firms to achieve the 2030 Commitment target of 70 percent pEUI reductions in its 2016 portfolio—Stacey White, AIA, helped spearhead those initial steps. Going back to the days of submitting paper binders for LEED certification, her firm had incorporated environmental performance for some time. In the 2030 Commitment, she saw a framework that would help her firm, and others, reach the next level.

“The 2030 Commitment’s structure offers two key benefits to smaller firms. First, it applies a rigor to our work and provides access to great information that can inform our design work,” White says. “Second, it places us on the same playing field as the ‘big guys’ in our business, since we’re all working toward the same targets.”

In 2010, mode associates and In Balance Green Consulting not only became 2030 Commitment signatories but reached out to AIA Central Coast to share information with other local leaders, ultimately bringing on an additional nine firms. They all decided to join the Commitment as a collective, even doing related marketing and press releases as a group.

What it took to join

One of the first steps to joining the 2030 Commitment was drafting a sustainability action plan (SAP) for incorporating environmentally friendly practices into each office, alongside the 2030 Commitment’s energy use reduction targets for projects. The firms analyzed what many were already doing—recycling, double-sided printing, telecommuting, using daylighting at work and in projects—and looked for common ground on those and additional efforts, including joining a car-share service and getting a collective license for virtual meeting software.

The 11 firms adopted the SAP almost universally. At mode and many of the other firms, the document ties into the employee manual, offering current and prospective employees a sense of the firm’s dedication to “walking the talk,” as White says. These values then become self-reinforcing, continuing to attract both employees and clients who are “motivated by making an impact.”

The group of firms also examined barriers to Commitment participation, which came down to understanding, perceptions of cost, and time. For the small firms, pooling their resources on training and other tools was key in overcoming the first two issues. In addition to conducting trainings through the local component, firms were—and are—encouraged to utilize other available sources, such as the AIA+2030 series on AIAU. And though time is a consistent challenge for firms of all sizes, changes in tools and growth in understanding has streamlined energy modeling, leading to other efficiencies in the design process that more than balance the time devoted to the task of modeling.

Overall, explains White, the deep dedication to energy savings through the 2030 Commitment and the baseline values of sustainability underpinning firm culture at mode and its counterparts have made a world of difference. “Over time, we’ve seen a regular benefit in keeping our skills and understanding at the forefront of architectural practice, and our design processes are more efficient and effective,” she says. “We’re better at communicating with our clients, and showing alignment with our values internally. The 2030 Commitment is a key way to demonstrate that the work we do matters.”

Melissa Smith Nilles is an account director at Fifth Estate, a communications firm in Washington, DC.

Image credits

Sonoma State Stevenson Hall

mode associates

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