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AIA Board of Directors Sets Ambitious Agenda for Sustainability

By now the statistics are familiar: Buildings use massive quantities of raw materials, and consume nearly half of the energy used in the U.S. and 70 percent of the electricity generated. In fact, research shows that buildings are bigger resource hogs than the pollution-spewing cars and trucks that clog our nation's arteries.

But last week, in a bold step to reverse the environmental impact of the design, construction, and operation of buildings, the AIA's board of directors released policy statements that set a goal of slashing the fossil fuel consumption of buildings by 50 percent in four years, with additional 10-percent reductions every five years thereafter. They also expressed support for consensus-based standards for sustainable design (To read the full text of the policy statements, click here).

Architects applauded the Institute for the statements, while acknowledging they were long overdue. "This is a wonderful initiative by the AIA," said Bruce S. Fowle, FAIA, senior principal of FXFOWLE ARCHITECTS and architect of several sustainable buildings, among them Conde Nast's New York headquarters, the nation's first green skyscraper. "It is essential that we begin taking a leadership role in changing the consumptive culture of our country and demonstrate to the global community that we are serious about this. Only then can we expect to influence others."

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The need to create a sustainability policy became clear from the growing body of research about global warming and the environmental impacts of buildings, as well as increasing requests from AIA members seeking assistance in designing green buildings, says R.K. Stewart, FAIA, principal of Gensler in San Francisco and the 2007 incoming national president of the AIA. To help develop the policy, the AIA hosted a two-day summit in Washington, D.C. in July 2005 in which researchers presented sobering statistics about environmental degradation. Industry groups such as the USGBC and the Green Building Initiative (GBI) explained their green building rating systems to a specially-convened task force, which consisted of board members, architects from the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE), and other advisors. The task force has been finessing the language for the board's policy ever since, says Vivian Loftness, FAIA, the 2005 national chair of COTE and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Stewart admitted that a 50-percent decrease in fossil fuel use in four years is "an aggressive target." It was developed based on discussions with architects and researchers, in particular Ed Mazria, author of The Passive Solar Energy Handbook and a researcher who has spent his career analyzing building energy consumption. "You can achieve a 50-percent reduction with existing building technology at no extra cost, by simply using the right design strategies" such as daylighting and passive heating and cooling techniques, says Mazria.

Quantifying energy savings and other benefits of green building may be the most difficult task ahead. "You need measurement and documentation to make this real to the clients who pay the bills," says COTE's Loftness.

While careful to avoid endorsing any particular green building rating system in its statements, the AIA says these systems should be consensus-based, with design and performance data verified by independent third parties, and documentation of results needed. "At the summit meeting it became clear that there is little life-cycle analysis of design, construction, and operation of buildings," says Stewart. "We want the ratings systems to move in this direction, and many are already showing signs of doing so." In a statement released last week, Tom Hicks, vice president of LEED for the U.S. Green Building Council, said, "We commend the AIA for taking a strong, progressive leadership position on fossil fuel consumption." The LEED rating system offers points for several energy-reducing design strategies, including using less energy than required by code and specifying materials with low embodied energy. USGBC's members, who are largely architects, have also emphasized the incorporation of life-cycle analysis into future versions of LEED.

Stewart acknowledges that AIA's statements are long on ambition but short on specifics of implementation at this stage. "We don't have all the answers, clearly," he says. "But we want to get more tools into the hands of designers to bring together all parts of this very complex puzzle." A sustainability task force will be assembled in early 2006 to work with the knowledge communities within AIA to implement the goals, says Stewart. The board also advised AIA to hire a staff architect to work with educators, researchers, government agencies and others to pursue the new green agenda in practice and education. "We want to collaborate more closely with public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control so we can better understand the linkage between human health and healthy buildings," says Stewart. Recently, Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the CDC, joined AIA's national board as a public member.

Stewart says COTE will have a key role in the new task force and policies. With 7,000 members and more than 50 chapters, COTE is one of the largest and most active knowledge communities within AIA; they created AIA's Top Green Awards program and have long been the sole voice on sustainability issues within the organization. In the near term COTE will continue to administer the Top Green Awards, according to Loftness, although its specific role in the larger, Institute-wide green agenda is not yet clear. "We're pleased that the AIA has made this a national priority and has made a firm commitment to these issues," she says. "Hopefully it will encourage designers to better quantify the advantages of green building and also spur AIA to play an advocacy role for these issues within the government. And, as an educator, it would also be great to see AIA working with educational institutions to improve the curricula in this area." Fowle agrees that many design programs are "shamefully behind" on teaching the basic principles of energy-efficient design.

In implementing the policy, the traditional design process must be changed, says Loftness. "The stereotypical lone visionary, who has a 'stroke of genius' solution as he arrives at a client's door, cannot possibly solve the complex issues of sustainability, which requires a multidisciplinary approach," she says. She adds that architects also need to begin considering issues outside of buildings itself, such as land use, transportation planning, and infrastructure. "The next generation of sustainability goals will not be to do less harm, but to create built environments that are regenerative, healing and enriching the ecology of place and the health and spirit of the inhabitants."

According to Mazria's research, building design and construction could have a greater effect on reversing the pattern of global warming than any other industry sector. "By setting this stake in the ground, what the AIA has done is nothing short of monumental," said Mazria. "But now the real work begins."

 

Deborah Snoonian, P.E.

 

 

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