A Bold Challenge for the Building Industry

The AIA 2030 Commitment pushes architecture firms to find new ways to reduce energy use and carbon emissions in the built environment.

The 2030 Challenge, launched by a non-profit think tank in 2006, sharpens the focus of sustainable design, with the goal of transforming the built environment “from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central solution to the climate crisis.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has operationalized the ambitious goals of the 2030 Challenge into the AIA 2030 Commitment — a quantifiable set of energy use reduction targets for architecture firms and system to track progress towards those goals.

The 2030 Commitment compels building designers to evaluate their projects carefully and better understand the impact of their design choices on energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions. The current target is to reduce net energy consumption for newly designed buildings by 70 percent below a benchmark level. The 2030 Commitment targets continue to ratchet down, striving for all new projects in 2030 to have zero net energy use emissions.

More than 525 AIA member firms — including LPA — have signed on to the initiative, pledging to strive to meet the carbon-neutral goal. “The 2030 Commitment is dealing with something important — building energy use,” says LPA president Dan Heinfeld. “It is challenging us as designers to evaluate our work and strive to make a real difference in how our projects perform.”

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Meeting the Challenge

Progress is being made. The AIA received project information from 212 firms nationwide in 2017, a 21 percent increase from 2016. Those firms reported an average 44 percent reduction in energy use for buildings in design. LPA reported an average reduction of 67 percent compared to the baseline. Overall, 560 projects met the 2017 target of 70 percent savings or above, with 99 projects reaching net zero, according to the AIA. The result was savings of 17.8 million metric tons of carbon over the 2030 baseline equivalent buildings and a reduction of $3.2 billion in annual operating costs.

Technology is not the only answer. “We’re constantly trying to have conversations with our clients about the right solutions,” says LPA associate principal Keith Hempel. “A lot of building owners love the idea of lots of views and daylight, but that can be counterproductive for high-performing buildings if you don’t think of design solutions holistically.”

For Building 16, a six-story, 250,000-square-foot administrative building for Orange County, California — part of a 20-year plan to overhaul the county seat — the LPA design was able to achieve a predicted 76 percent reduction in energy consumption bettering the AIA 2030 benchmark, without any renewable energy offsets.

“Building 16 is a great example of how maximizing passive systems like proper building orientation, solar shading components that control heat gain while, maximizing daylight with an efficient envelope and energy-efficient HVAC systems can create a project that doesn’t need renewable energy to meet the 2030 Challenge” Heinfeld says.

LPA extensively studies how buildings perform, using post-occupancy evaluations and data collection to determine what is working — and what is not. LPA’s in-house research department, LPAred, helps the firm study energy efficiency and track data over time.

Research and design innovation can help to minimize energy consumption, even in a challenging setting. For Edwards Lifesciences in Irvine, California, LPA designed the Starr Atrium, which serves as the gateway to the medical device maker’s corporate headquarters. The LEED Platinum design uses photovoltaics (PV) on the roof of a parking garage and abundant natural light to help reduce energy use. LPA’s mechanical engineers also designed a thermal-displacement ventilation system that supplies air via perforated metal panels along the interior walls to slice cooling costs. The result was a predicted 80 percent reduction in energy use compared to the benchmarks.

“At LPA, we’re always looking for new ideas and innovative approaches that make sense for our clients and our projects,” Ring says.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems often are essential in generating enough renewable energy to meet the 2030 Commitment standards, but they can’t be the only approach. For the second phase of the West Hollywood Park, a 75,000-square-foot infill project — featuring a park, a rooftop aquatic center and a gym — the design was able to achieve a predicted 86 percent reduction in net energy use, even with limited space available on the roof for PV panels, Ring says. Instead, the design focuses more on energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems to achieve the 2030 Commitment targets.

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Changing the Conversation

Despite the obstacles, the 2030 Challenge and AIA 2030 Commitment are promoting the right conversation at the right time, says Hempel. “For the longest time, design awards were given based on what buildings looked like,” he says. “We’re seeing change. Good design means that a building is healthy, efficient, sustainable.”

According to Architecture 2030, nearly 1,200 firms, organizations and individuals have adopted the 2030 Challenge, including 80 percent of the Top 10 U.S. architecture, engineering and planning firms. Nevertheless, Hempel says, “to say every new building will get there by 2030 is a tall order.”

LPA designers are optimistic that the 2030 Challenge is leading to real change in the building industry. Advances throughout the industry will make carbon neutrality in buildings more readily obtainable. PV systems are becoming much less expensive than in years past, making it possible for many building owners to achieve payback on the initial investment in only five to six years. “If you think of public entities using buildings for 40 to 50 years, there is some real money to be saved,” Heinfeld says.

The utility grid is also getting cleaner as more PV systems are installed on homes and schools and as states require more renewable energy from the utilities. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have declined by 14% from 2005 to 2017.

“We are starting to see real evidence that the building industry and society are doing better,” Heinfeld says. “But there is still a lot of heavy lifting to do to mainstream the discussion on energy use reduction.”

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How It Works

The 2030 Challenge and AIA 2030 Commitment sharpen the focus for sustainable design efforts, putting the emphasis on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. For years, the industry standard for sustainable design has been LEED certification, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, launched in 2000 by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED created a mechanism for rewarding projects for meeting a wide variety of green standards,

“When you say LEED, most people say, ‘that’s a sustainable building.’” Heinfeld says. “But projects can achieve a LEED certification and perform only marginally better than the current energy code.”

The 2030 Challenge recognizes that buildings generate nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, we are in the midst of a building boom, with more than 2.48 trillion square feet (230 billion square meters) of new floor area expected to be built by 2060. “This is the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years,” according to UN environmental data. Architects and engineers, therefore, play a critical role in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Achieving the 2030 Commitment targets is not easy. The current standard calls for a 70 percent reduction in a project’s net energy use compared to a baseline standard. The target rises to 80 percent in 2020 and 90 percent in 2025, while striving for a 100 percent reduction in 2030.

The idea of making every building carbon neutral by 2030 is “inherently an aspirational goal,” says Erik Ring, who leads the integration of engineering services from LPA’s Irvine office. “It’s not regulatory. It’s not code. The 2030 Commitment requires best practices for building energy performance and pushes us to think hard about how we can design better buildings.”

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 1 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.