March 12, 2014 | Amanda Kolson Hurley

In January, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its 2014 Honor Awards for architecture and urban design. These are the most prestigious architectural awards granted in the United States (with the sole exception of the Pritzker Prize, the “Nobel for architects.”) Winning projects are the cream of the design crop, ranging from highly crafted, progressive new buildings like Ammahian Winton’s Community Rowing House in Boston to the LEED Platinum renovation of the historic King Street Station in Portland, Ore.

After it rolled out the 2014 winners–complete with stunning slideshows–the AIA followed up with a much quieter, more technical, but equally significant announcement. Beginning in 2015, architecture firms submitting their projects for consideration in the Honor Awards will have to include energy and water use projections, as well as a narrative on the project’s sustainable features. These metrics, recommended in 2013 and 2014, will be required from 2015 on out. The jury will be free to decide how much weight it wishes to give them, however, and no minimum threshold or standard will be set.

Green Design Is Good Design

As Environmental Building News reported, some architects (green design trailblazer Bob Berkebile of BNIM among them) were pushing for the Honor Awards to weigh sustainability and energy efficiency as far back as the 1980s. But just a few years ago, the idea was rejected by two-thirds of the AIA board. What won them over, it seems, was the advocacy of William Leddy, a San Francisco architect and partner in the admired sustainable practice of Leddy Maytum Stacy. Leddy rallied architecture firms around the country and AIA member committees for their support, spearheaded an effective letter-writing campaign, and argued that sustainability is integral to design excellence in an op-ed published in an AIA newsletter last fall.

The change is about more than architects having to submit another appendix or check extra boxes on an entry form. By requiring metrics on predicted building performance, the AIA underscores the principle that “architecture isn’t truly excellent unless it deeply engages the natural world and promotes health and resilience,” as Leddy wrote.

Incorporating building performance into the Honor Awards will help overcome the false distinction between “green design” and “good design,” which is sadly endemic in the architectural profession, and which the AIA may have (despite its best intentions) perpetuated by establishing a sustainable design awards program, the Top Ten green projects, separate from the Honor Awards.

Requiring more information on sustainability doesn’t undercut aesthetics; it “send[s] an unambiguous message to the profession and the public of our forthright commitment to building a better world,” Leddy wrote.

Of the board’s no vote in 2012, Leddy now says, “They were just scared. They were scared about this notion that – I’ve heard it actually said to me – that including building performance in a discussion about design excellence compromises design.” He believes that the board’s swift 180-degree turn was made possible by the support of AIA staff; the fact that about 60 percent of Honor Awards submissions in 2013 included energy and water metrics even without a requirement; and the impression left by big, visible impacts of climate change like Hurricane Sandy. “The board just saw the writing on the wall.”

Benchmarking Not a Driver

Rand Ekman, Director of Sustainability at Cannon Design, pitched in on Leddy’s campaign and calls the new requirement “a big deal.” “This is going to change the need for [architectural] projects to be attentive to consumption of energy, consumption of water, and [to] articulate a story around that,” he said. Ekman is a well-known advocate within the design community for energy-efficient buildings and for energy modeling as a sustainable design strategy.

You might assume that the wave of recent energy benchmarking ordinances, in cities including Chicago and Boston, has prompted architects to think more about how much energy their buildings will use once completed. Not so, Ekman says. The group of people who understand the links between benchmarking ordinances and design is very, very small.

“Right now, there are a whole lot of people focused on building operations, and a whole lot of people focused on design and new building and major retrofits,” Ekman said. And they don’t often meet in the middle. Instead, each group tends to fall back on simplistic arguments that “operations is what really matters” or “design is the key” to an efficient building. “We need to be much more thoughtful about the connection between what happens in the design community and the facilities community,” Ekman notes.

We’re not there yet, but we can look ahead and see the gap being bridged. If and when energy benchmarking is required in most large U.S. cities–in several years’ time, say–architects will be expected by their clients to predict the energy use of their designs. The actual performance data gained through benchmarking will tell them when they meet, exceed, or fall short of their targets. It will also help refine energy modeling tools, which in turn will make the architects’ predictions better and better.

This kind of feedback loop would continuously improve building performance across the United States and put hard numbers to the value of sustainable architecture. With its decision to require performance metrics in the Honor Awards, the AIA can help close the loop.


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Amanda Kolson Hurley

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