Sustainable design in the United States is for many a sort of Rorschach test. The construction industry is either making steady progress toward the ultimate goal of a carbon-free building sector, or it’s moving entirely too slowly, missing key targets as the ecological clock keeps ticking. The perplexing truth to all of this is: both are ostensibly true. In recent decades the industry has become significantly more energy efficient. We’ve added building stock but flattened the energy curve. The cost of renewables continues to drop. But way more is required, much more quickly. At the same time, huge hurdles remain. Without a renewable grid and stringent energy codes, it’s hard to see how we can fully decarbonize the building sector in even 20 years, let alone at the timeline suggested by increasingly worried climate scientists. It’s the classic good news/bad news scenario (or vice-versa, depending on your mood).
In 2009, the AIA launched the 2030 Commitment, a voluntary program, created in collaboration with Architecture 2030, that lays out a series of energy reduction benchmarks aimed at creating a carbon-neutral building sector by the year 2030. To date, 822 firms have signed onto the pledge. That’s the good news. But, of those 311 reporting energy use, just 27 firms met the 70% energy-reduction benchmark set forth by the commitment (a note: that number might be somewhat higher, because renewables weren’t included in the reporting); for firms larger than 100, only two firms, Mithun and LPA, meet that goal. Recently I reached out to Dan Heinfeld, longtime president of LPA, to ask him how his firm did it, and why the rest of the industry, despite a lot of good intentions, is lagging behind.
Martin C. Pedersen (MCP): Of the 311 firms reporting energy figures for their projects, fewer than 30 reached the AIA’s 2030 Commitment target last year, for reducing energy use in new buildings. Why the low number?
Dan Heinfeld (DH): The traditional model of an architecture firm designing a project and then bringing together a group of consultants and outside firms simply doesn’t work. Energy-reduction goals were one of the main reasons we decided to grow as an integrated firm. It’s the only way to make significant progress toward our net-zero goals. In the traditional world, the architect goes through, at best, schematic and conceptual, or even design development, before they bring in the consultant team. The project is already baked at that point. The consultant can’t have any real input in how the project should be designed. Before we integrated, we were constantly bumping into the restraints of the traditional framework. Consultants typically didn’t want to work on the project until the end, when the architects were done with their work, so they didn’t have to redraw. Getting them to participate freely in our concept of collaboration, earlier in the process, was difficult, if not impossible. We realized we didn’t want to simply hire consultants—we wanted partners.
MCP: Why is the industry unable to meet its climate targets, despite making it a top priority?
DH: The AIA only recently started to make it a priority. Recent initiatives by the AIA include the passing of the climate action initiative, the adoption of the Framework for Design Excellence and the creation of the Common App to measure sustainability across award programs. But the 2030 Commitment is totally voluntary. Firms can sign the commitment and feel good by signing and not report their findings, let alone meet the commitment for energy reductions. I’ve been told that when it was originally adopted, the 2030 Commitment was aspirational, and for many it still is. But “aspirational” is not getting it done.
Two changes to the 2030 Commitment would speed progress. First, the commitment should give project teams credit for including a future renewable source in plans once they achieve a 70% energy efficiency on the project. The commitment needs to address that carbon neutrality can’t happen without renewable energy being a part of the equation. Renewable-energy components should be either part of the project budget now or in the future. Teams should create renewable plans that have infrastructure included in the project.
Energy reduction beyond 70–75% is not realistic with conservation measures alone. In 2020, the commitment increases to an 80% energy reduction, and we probably won’t meet that goal unless clients are willing to add a renewable component. But we’re future-proofing our buildings with infrastructure that allows PVs to be added. The intent is that building owners can add the renewables when their budget allows, as systems become cheaper, and new incentives make the addition of the renewable have a more attractive payback.
Second, the AIA needs to show that 2030 is a priority by making a 70% efficiency on a project a requirement for all design award programs at AIA national, state, and local components.
MCP: You’ve said, “Traditional practice is broken and can’t really address the issues that we need to address in today’s world.” How is it broken?
DH: You can’t possibly answer the design problems facing projects today by cobbling together design teams that don’t share the same organizational values and have different approaches to solving design problems. The best responses to the challenges of the built environment are integration and collaboration, a decision we made 25 years ago when we saw the business changing. We started by adding landscape architects and eventually grew to include engineers, planners, researchers, and interior designers. Today we have a wide range of talent working together, with specialties ranging from furniture and lighting to HVAC.
Internally, we knew that integration would inherently make us a better firm on sustainability issues, which it has. There are so many elements to creating energy efficient, sustainable facilities—site, MEP, structural, lighting—it made sense to approach the sustainability of each project as a unit. But what we didn’t understand was how profoundly it would change the practice when we adopted this integrated model.
Our process is different. Bringing the talent in-house allowed collaboration to happen right from the start. It profoundly changed the firm. Automatically, we started to have these explosions of creativity that never would happen in traditional practice. And all of a sudden, we had a shared collective vision and a shared process. You can’t create that when people aren’t part of your company. Real creativity lives in those impromptu moments that happen in the work environment, day to day and hour by hour. That never happens when you’re working with outside consultants—the engagement is entirely different.
MCP: You talk about the value of integration, having all the specialists under one roof. That’s fine for a large firm that can afford to do that. What about smaller and medium-sized firms?
DH: As with most things, one size doesn’t fit all. While we’re an integrated firm, we still use outside consultants for 40% of our work. Projects often require a special expertise or experience. Many projects have teams that include both in-house and outside consultants. But we hold those outside consultants to the same standard: they must work differently, together in an integrated team process, not as separate disciplines. That requires the architect to set the ground rules from the beginning on engagement, collaboration and goals of the project. Obviously, it’s much easier with a team that shares the same culture and values, and that’s why we chose the path of in-house consultants more than 10 years ago.
MCP: One of the elephants in the room is the LEED rating system. At the outset, it was a positive, since it helped reframe the debate and gave clients some validation for good intentions. But it’s worth asking now: Has the rating system outlived its usefulness? If not, how would you reform it?
DH: To its credit, the U.S. Green Building Council changed an industry that isn’t particularly receptive to change. LEED moved the needle. It was the first thing that had to happen to change the industry and to begin making our projects less bad. But we’re at a point now where it can’t be about being less bad. We need to be restorative and achieve more substantive goals on energy, water, stormwater management, and open space. The focus needs to shift toward making real progress in changing how projects perform and how they impact the environment. LEED is a starting point, not the end, of our responsibility. You can still do a building that’s marginally better than the ASHRAE energy code and be LEED certified. That’s not nearly good enough.
If our buildings aren’t net-zero now, we need to find ways to make them net-zero in the future. Our goal is for every one of our buildings to meet the AIA 2030 Commitment. It’s not a perfect standard, but it focuses on real reductions in energy use and provides a framework for carbon neutrality. The goals move beyond a checklist of building elements to a more holistic view of the built environment’s role in managing the impact of climate change, protecting and enhancing natural resources, providing clean air and water, generating low-cost renewable energy and developing more livable communities.
MCP: The other elephant in the room is building codes. You could make a good argument that without codes that mandate carbon neutral buildings, we won’t get there voluntarily.
DH: I agree that if building codes mandated carbon neutral buildings this discussion about 2030 would be mute. But that’s a false narrative. Does anyone believe that a national energy code is coming anytime soon? Right now, eight states don’t even have energy codes, and many others that have codes are not particularly rigorous. So what do we do in the meantime? Wait for codes to change? I’m not sure we have the time for that. More importantly, there’s so much more that architects and engineers can do, right now. Architects, engineers, and designers should be leaders in this effort. We’re the ones who orchestrate the project team. The time for debating goals and aspirations has passed. We don’t need more aspiration or waiting for codes to change. We need more doing.
MCP: Your firm was one of the few firms that met the energy goals. How was that accomplished?
DH: We made energy savings a priority. In 2004, we made the commitment that every LPA project would be better than California’s Title 24, the country’s strictest energy code, by 25 percent. At that time, the utility companies in California all had a robust program that paid design firms and building owners for energy efficiency. Sadly, even though those programs were successful, they have been gradually either eliminated or modified and are not effective today.
We also changed our firm from a traditional architecture firm that “hires” consultants for individual projects to a fully integrated practice where civil engineers, landscape architects, structural engineers, and MEP disciplines are all working collaboratively with architects and interior designers in real time. Having the teams in-house breaks down so many of the traditional barriers in the process: we’re all one team and share in the success in the project. That’s profoundly changed the firm: the engineers make the architects better, and the architects make the engineers better.
Lastly, early on in every project, we make the connection between building performance and design excellence, as they live in the same process. We rarely talk about design awards or “great design.” We believe that if we trust our process and create a project that has great performance in water use, energy, and indoor air quality, we’ll be creating a project that will have design excellence. Instead of chasing fashion, we’re solving problems, which is inherently firm ground to stand on.
MCP: What advice would you give to firms who want to move more quickly but have been unable to do that? What are the first steps?
DH: First: Get started. I see so many people talking about the issues, spending a lot of time analyzing why it’s so hard, and how they have to put together a corporate strategy or a committee or a working paper or something silly like that. Like everything at an architecture firm, it happens one project at a time. So, pick a project, set an 80% energy efficiency goal, and communicate that goal to your team.