2030 In Depth: An Opportunity for Impact

The environmental imperative for saving energy comes in the reduction of emissions from the combustion of fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 90% of our nation’s energy use comes from oil, gas, and coal; the combustion of these ancient carbon-based life forms as fossil fuels creates four primary greenhouse gases. Of these, carbon-dioxide is most mentioned, as it is the most prevalent. At atmospheric levels, these emissions trap solar energy, not unlike your car on a hot summer day. The rising level of these emissions can be graphed almost directly to our planet’s rising temperatures.

While ecological change, especially unpredictable change, can severely disrupt global markets, the economic imperative for energy efficiency is more straightforward. The more energy a building, a company, a household, or a vehicle can save, the more money can be saved. This is almost a linear comparison, meaning that saving 20% of your energy over past years implies a financial savings of 20% as well. If energy can be saved without compromising human comfort and machine function, then one would consider this a “win-win” solution.

What Does This Have to do with Buildings?

In the face of this deep-seated global issue, is there anything that can be done? And what does the built environment have to do with it? Simple answer: Plenty. Taken as a whole, buildings are the largest contributors to climate change. Buildings use 49% of our nation’s energy, almost as much as transportation and industry combined, and contribute nearly half of our country’s emissions. Of the 47.8 quadrillion BTUs used by buildings in the U.S. annually, only 12% relate to the building materials and actual construction of the building. The operations of buildings, however, comprise roughly 84% of this amount.

What Can We Do?

As we are a species growing in population and enlarging our collective carbon footprint, we are also growing in our abilities to address complex problems like these. The awareness of this issue, the availability of information, innovations to deliver more efficient buildings, and the desire by clients to achieve energy efficiency are all evolving. Architects, working together with engineers and design and sustainability teams, are in a unique position to lead us towards carbon neutrality. By setting realistic, ambitious goals and then working to follow them, architects have a distinct skill set and position within projects to exert their influence in order to create meaningful results.

The 2030 Challenge and AIA 2030 Commitment

In 2006, Architecture 2030, an independent non-profit research organization, issued the 2030 Challenge for industry entities. Fittingly, the 2030 Challenge was first adopted by the American Institute of Architects, which has been an advocate and resource since that time. The two groups created the even-broader AIA 2030 Commitment, which looks not only at the energy efficiency concerns of the 2030 Challenge, but also at indoor air quality, water, recycling, and purchasing.

The 2030 Challenge and the AIA 2030 Commitment are both stand-alone commitments, but the 2030 Challenge is deemed essential. The goals of the 2030 Challenge are aspirational and center around the fossil fuel use and the corresponding carbon emissions of buildings. The challenge is to gradually increase fossil fuel reduction standards for all new buildings and major renovations. By taking as baseline the average amount of energy that buildings use per square foot – the 50th percentile – adopters of the Challenge must today design buildings to consume 60% less energy than an average building. By 2015 buildings must be designed to be 70% more efficient, by 2020 buildings must be designed to be 80% more efficient, by 2025 buildings must be designed to be 90% more efficient, and by 2030 the ultimate goal is building design to be carbon neutral, emitting no greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, renovations of existing buildings are to be designed to perform 50% better than average performance for their building types. But this per-square-foot average will be a moving target, as the performance of all buildings steadily improves.

Bolstering these goals is the fact that, according to 2030.org, we in the United States build and renovate approximately 10 billion square feet of space each year. Over the next 30 years, nearly 75% of the built environment will be new or renovated. This is where the opportunity lies. Taking into account that the vast majority of our building stock will be built or rehabilitated in the next 30 years, the ability for us to impact this construction is what makes carbon neutrality in the built environment something for which to strive.

Aspirational Goals as Tools

Fifteen years ago, the advent of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System ushered in a structure by which the setting and reaching of goals has created building projects with less environmental impact. Striving for aspirational goals unified project teams and created measurably better projects than would have been conventionally delivered. As a rule of thumb, the sooner in a project sustainability goals are established, the better success the project will have in incorporating them in an integrated and cost-effective manner. We have seen this repeatedly in our own work: Goal setting is critical.

Locally, AIA Pittsburgh resurrected its Committee On The Environment (COTE) earlier this year. Our first task has been to offer courses aimed at educating architects, engineers, contractors, building owners, and facilities managers about how to deliver buildings that are highly efficient. These courses are part of a national curriculum called AIA+2030, and are designed as a comprehensive 10-part program aimed at understanding how to design, build, and operate more efficient buildings.

The large energy uses of a building are roughly divided into heating and cooling, lighting, electrical plug loads, and the building envelope. The AIA+2030 curriculum breaks the energy generation and usage of buildings into a series of seminars that build upon each other. While interest is being developed in the desire to build and renovate in a low-carbon manner, these courses offer a comprehensive way to learn to design and deliver these buildings.

These courses offer a good counterpart to the Green Building Alliance’s Pittsburgh 2030 District, which seeks to have the buildings in downtown Pittsburgh sign on to the 2030 Challenge and target similar incremental goals for water efficiency, indoor air quality, and transportation emissions. As of earlier this year, building owners controlling over 50% of downtown Pittsburgh’s square footage (within the district) have signed on.

Leading the Way

Whether you feel that the planet exists in order to serve our needs or that we must work to improve it, there is something about the Challenge, Commitment, and the AIA+2030 program for everyone. This is a momentous opportunity for the architecture and building community to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and for project team leaders to demonstrate leadership at a time when it is truly needed.

Sources: US Energy Information Administration; Architecture 2030

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