Why Aren't There More Energy-Efficient Buildings?

Data from an initiative to make architecture more sustainable shows progress, but there’s still a long way to go to make a dent in climate-change risks.

Image Nicola Bertolini / Shutterstock.com
Nicola Bertolini / Shutterstock.com

For the fifth year running, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has crunched the numbers on its national sustainability challenge, the AIA 2030 Commitment. Architects who sign up pledge to strive to meet an ambitious energy-efficiency target in their designs—a 60 percent reduction in predicted energy-use intensity (pEUI, or the amount of energy they expect their buildings to use) from baseline levels. A report on the program issued Thursday shows mixed results.

The good news is that more architects are taking the oath to design sustainably, and a whole lot more of the total building square footage now being planned is intended to be highly energy efficient.

The total square footage of the projects in the database has risen sharply. (American Institute of Architects)

The square footage represented in the AIA’s database has grown to 2.4 billion, an increase of 50 percent. The number of architectural projects represented has risen even more dramatically to 4,354, a 78 percent increase. These figures suggest that high-performance building is gaining momentum among U.S. architects.

The design data submitted by participants, however, paints a less rosy picture. The average pEUI reduction reported by the firms came nowhere near the 60 percent target: It was just 34 percent. And that number has hardly budged since the AIA began collecting this data in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the mean pEUI reduction improved by only 3 percent.

The percentage reduction in energy-use intensity has more or less flatlined since 2010. (American Institute of Architects)

There are a couple of reasons for the flatlining, according to Andrea Love, an architect with the Boston firm Payette who leads the AIA’s working group for the program. The first is that many architects are still not familiar with the new tools and processes that have emerged to support energy-efficient design. “We’re still in the start of that learning curve,” Love says. “As we get more literate, I think we’ll start to see the improvement we’re hoping to see.”

The second reason has to do with one of those new tools, the most important one: energy modeling. Building designers can now choose from an arsenal of software programs that run sophisticated energy analyses on designs and respond to changes the architect makes; if the model says your building will consume more energy than you’d like, make some adjustments to the design and recalculate to see if you’re closer to your goal.

Architectural projects that are energy-modeled (left) have higher predicted energy savings than those that are not (center). (American Institute of Architects)

The problem is that many buildings aren’t energy-modeled at all, while others are modeled too late in the design process—simply to show compliance with building codes or get a green certificate. Early-stage modeling can produce deeper energy reductions.

“In our firm, we’ve learned that the projects that have the early energy model have really outperformed the projects where the energy model might be done at the end, as a documentation tool,” Love says. Even when a later-stage model reveals significant potential reductions, architects (and their clients, building owners) may be loath to undo weeks of work to realize them.

The AIA is trying to speed up the learning curve. It co-organized a series of online courses on energy modeling and has launched its own digital platform for architects to track their projects’ energy characteristics, the AIA 2030 Design Data Exchange. The latter effort was a collaboration between the institute and partner agencies and groups, including the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Architecture 2030, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable building.

The year referenced in the names of the challenge and that nonprofit—2030—holds special significance for sustainable-design advocates. It’s the year they want the building industry to achieve carbon neutrality, and thereby stop emissions from rising past a point of no return for the climate. Buildings account for roughly 40 percent of global carbon emissions, so not curbing their energy use would be reckless; conversely, bringing the whole industry up to high efficiency standards would have a tremendous positive impact.

At this rate, architects still have a long way to go. This year, the AIA’s reduction target will go up from 60 to 70 percent, but the firms participating in the challenge—a self-selecting, green-minded slice of the profession—are likely to keep falling short. They aren’t solely to blame; building owners ultimately control the purse strings on projects, and may veto sustainable features because they see them as unnecessary or fear they will add to the cost.

As robust and user-friendly as the architects’ web platform is (they say), it’s not going to win over every laggard. Even among the signatories of the 2030 Commitment, the majority don’t yet report their project data to the AIA, making their pledge something of an empty gesture.

Although large and small architecture firms take part in the challenge, the share of those actually reporting their project data is higher among large firms. They are more likely to have staff or consultants who are well-versed in energy-efficient design. The AIA hopes its new online platform will make it easier for all architects to input data, track their progress, and measure themselves against benchmarks. (American Institute of Architects)

To really make a dent, architects are going to need help. They’ll get some from government-mandated building energy codes, which are becoming more stringent and raising the minimum standards for efficiency. There are also new state and city laws requiring owners of large buildings to disclose how much energy they consume, an incentive for owners not to embarrass themselves as energy gluttons.

Meanwhile, the cost gap between renewable and traditional power keeps narrowing, which should spur more architects to incorporate solar panels and other renewable-energy features in their designs. In fact, the number of net-zero-energy projects in the AIA’s database has spiked, a promising sign of things to come. Together, these factors should push expectations and efficiency upward, and building emissions down. Let’s hope so.

Top image: Nicola Bertolini / Shutterstock.com

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