Addressing global climate change through AIA’s 2030 Commitment

shanghai sunrise

The sun rising in Shanghai, China.

As the world's urban population grows, American architects must expand their influence and preach the value of a performance-based design process

Urban environments account for 75 percent of human-produced global greenhouse emissions. Currently, the world’s urban population is growing at a rate of 1.5 million each week, which translates to an expected increase of 1.4 billion people over the next two decades in our world’s cities—centered overwhelmingly in developing countries. For architects, this level of urban growth and impact translates into a more important role than ever to play in combating the significant climate change associated with the built environment in our cities around the world.

Fortunately, through efforts including Architecture 2030’s 2030 Challenge and AIA’s 2030 Commitment, architects increasingly have the targets and tools to guide sustainability endeavors in the built environment worldwide. These initiatives set the bar high, but not impossibly so, aiming for incremental reductions in energy use on the way to meeting the ultimate targets of net zero carbon (ZNC) buildings in new construction and major renovations by 2030. These very low-energy/high-performance buildings that meet building energy needs through carbon-free renewable energy are becoming even more readily achievable as the market push for renewables continues.

The 2030 Commitment acts not only as an important spur to meet climate goals domestically, but also reveals how US architects are showing leadership on a global scale. For instance, in 2016, while international projects only made up 10 percent of the number of total projects reported in the 2030 Commitment, they accounted for 42 percent of the gross square feet represented. With the bulk of future greenhouse gas emissions expected to come from new urban environments in developing countries, it’s critical that American architects share our expertise and resources with our international colleagues who aren’t yet well-versed in those tools and best practices, including connecting them with successful US programs like the 2030 Challenge and 2030 Commitment. This not only benefits the projects we’re involved with directly but also positively influences the massive number and scale of projects that aren’t touched by US architects.

The 2030 Commitment acts not only as an important spur to meet climate goals domestically, but also reveals how US architects are showing leadership on a global scale.

That’s why we traveled this fall to China to present at an innovative two-day training event, sponsored by Architecture 2030 and the China Exploration and Design Association Architecture Branch (CEDAAB) and aimed at providing Chinese architects and building industry professionals with the education and resources needed to meet the ZNC goals of the China Accord. The Accord—signed in 2015 by 52 Chinese and international architecture and planning firms, reaching 60 firms by 2017—signifies their commitment to bringing low-carbon and carbon-neutral standards to a country that’s expected to account for about 24 percent of all new urban growth worldwide by 2030 and adds roughly two billion square meters of new urban buildings annually.

While China faces some unique circumstances, the basic principles in high-performance energy design that we shared are the same wherever you work, and can be adapted to the specific needs of place, including climate and culture:

Getting involved early: Though many in China—as well as parts of the United States and other places around the world—believe that energy efficiency is the engineer’s responsibility, achievable through technology, there must be a shift toward design solutions that involve the architect at the earliest stages of the project. For ZNC to truly succeed, we must emphasize the strong business case, not just the performance: while engineering and technology systems are important—and their increased cost can be justified by the long-term return-on-investment—the architect’s ability to embrace passive design strategies for energy efficiency can actually reduce upfront costs, in addition to the long-term savings of improved performance.

Setting targets: When the client and project team understand the importance of tackling performance issues early in the design process, the next step is to set targets, typically focusing on energy use intensity (EUI). The 2030 Challenge and 2030 Commitment, along with the China Accord, are based on a fixed set of targets that act as a lens to evaluate options throughout the design process. Resources in the US, such as the EPA’s Target Finder, don’t provide baselines for international projects, but tools like the World Bank’s EDGE tool have begun to bridge the gap found when setting targets for international projects.

Utilizing an integrated, performance-based process: While American architects are becoming increasingly comfortable with a collaborative process that integrates early iterative energy modeling; analysis tools like Climate Consultant; and efficient design strategies like building envelopes, passive heating and cooling, and daylighting, these concepts are still gaining ground in developing nations. By working with our global peers, we can demonstrate how a collaborative team of design professionals can leverage process and tools to make smart design decisions and test ideas.  

The increasing pace of urbanization demands constant and diligent attention to addressing climate change, including a concerted push to design ZNC cities. American architects are well-positioned to expand their influence across the world in meeting the targets of the Paris Accord, both through their own high-performance designs for international clients, and in helping architects and developers across the globe understand the value architects can provide through passive design approaches and a performance-based design process. American architects can lead the way in showing that a ZNC built environment is not only essential to our future, but can be realistically—and cost-effectively—achieved.

Greg Mella, FAIA, is the director of sustainable design at SmithGroupJJR and a past co-chair of the AIA’s 2030 Working Group. Margaret Montgomery, FAIA, is the global sustainable design leader and a principal at NBBJ and a past chair of the AIA Energy Leadership Group.

Image credits

shanghai sunrise

Getty

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