Wall Street Journal: A Blueprint for Green Buildings Struggles to Catch On

Wall Street Journal - 12.25.2020

by Russell Gold

The American Institute of Architects has for years challenged its members to design buildings to combat climate change, setting a goal to hit “net zero” edifices by 2030.

The architects have a ways to go. Last year, 27 of the 19,000 building-design firms owned by AIA members reported meeting their annual mark. That figure was an improvement: 16 firms met targets the year before, and 11 the year before that.

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A classroom inside the Environmental Nature Center Preschool, designed by architecture firm LPA, in Newport Beach, Calif.

Last year, the campaign called for a 70% reduction compared with a 2003 baseline. This year, the reduction ratchets up to 80% and is headed to net-zero buildings—structures that generate enough power to offset their consumption, usually by adding solar panels—by 2030.

Though the AIA is far short of meeting those targets, leaders of the group say it has made strides. Last year, more than 310 architecture firms reported energy-use data from more than 20,000 new- and renovated-building projects. Overall, the predicted energy savings were 49% versus the 2003 baseline.

“Change is hard,” said Jane Frederick, a South Carolina architect and AIA immediate past president. Ms. Frederick made climate a central issue of her yearlong term. “I’m pleased that we’re progressing. I would be happy if we were progressing faster,” she said.

In addition to reticence from clients, the set-up of most architecture firms emerged as an obstacle. Typically, architects design a building and then bring in mechanical and civil engineers as consultants. Many firms meeting the climate challenge integrate engineering and architecture at the start of the design process.

“That traditional practice, I think, is broken and really can’t address the issues that we need to in today’s world,” said Dan Heinfeld, president of Southern California-based architecture firm LPA Inc.

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A Santa Ana, Calif., county-administration building designed by LPA, whose new projects used 70% less energy than comparable structures.

LPA and Mithun, which integrate engineering and energy modeling into their architecture, were the only two firms of more than 100 employees to meet the recent 70% energy-use reduction goal.

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