The AIA 2030 Commitment: A Conspiracy Theory

April 21, 2015


Want proof that college is worth it?

This was the title of a recent article in the Washington Post. The story included a chart of 100 different college majors ranked by median lifetime earnings in millions of dollars. Architecture was around number 26, just ahead of Political Science. The top nine majors: all Engineering.

I had lunch with an engineer the other day: Kim Shinn, PE, LEED Fellow, of TLC Engineering. Kim calls himself a recovering physicist (physics came in at #14 on that chart) doing engineering to make a living. He was intense. Tall, lanky, bald, and dressed in black. Picture Yul Brynner with a Texas twang. And he spoke with urgency as if to share dire prophesies.

Bergmeyer hired Kim for a unique assignment. One of our commercial building clients had new sites in California. They wanted to know how the prototype we designed for them could conform to CALGreen, the state’s 2014 Green Building Standards Code.

Kim’s short answer: Not easily. CALGreen required a 20% increase in energy efficiency. Title 24, the state building code, had gone from basing its Energy Conservation Chapter from ASHRAE 90.1-2007 to ASHRAE 90.1-2010 in one fell swoop. It was the single biggest jump in energy codes he had ever seen.


His example: If a building designed to meet ASHRAE 90-1975 had a theoretical baseline energy performance of 100, that same building measured by CALGreen would be below 50.

And Kim was convinced that California was just the beginning. The rest of the country would eventually adopt these more stringent building energy codes. “I know where this is going! We’ll all be there soon!” (If by “being there soon” he meant in Sonoma County with a nice zinfandel, I was ready.)

But he didn’t. He had a warning for architects. Pressing his fists firmly together, he added “there’s fixin’ to be some conflict here!” because new energy codes would start influencing Architecture!

Like this: the newest version of the International Energy Conservation Code (which is also based on ASHRAE 90.1-2010) mandates skylights and daylight controls for single-story commercial spaces over 10,000 SF with 15’ high ceilings. It set a window-wall ratio (WWR) of not more than 30% glass, unless 50% of floor area was in a “daylight zone” and high Solar Heat Gain Coefficient glass was used – and that just nudges the WWR to 40%. All-glass buildings? Only possible through energy modelling and the “performance” code compliance path. Which meant COMcheck – the old standby code compliance checklist – would be useless.

Excited by the thought of truly progressive building codes, I asked: What’s driving this change?

Kim had more insight. He lowered his voice and looked around the restaurant. It’s the US Department of Energy, he said. The US DOE wants to get us to net zero by 2035. ASHRAE and the International Code Council are on board, too. And they have the Pacific Northwest National Labs doing cost-benefits analyses. If a new energy code causes a $2-$3/SF increase in construction cost and produces a $0.25-$0.50/SF/year in energy cost savings, it’s a 4 to 8 year payback and within their “sweet spot”. So it gets adopted in the next code update. That’s how they’ll get us to net zero by 2035.

Just then, I had a vision. I saw a Dr. Strangelove–like setting. A windowless room, huge computer screens on every wall, big conference table in the middle, full of . . . engineers. With a red desktop telephone connected directly to the DOE. All conspiring to make building energy codes so rigorous that engineers and energy modelling would soon become indispensable. And then, engineers would take control of the design of the built environment . . . for good.

And I smiled. I suddenly felt the Architecture 2030 Commitment might be a little easier to achieve. Because engineers were together and mobilized. And on our side.

I promised not to tell anyone. And I paid for his lunch.

4/22/2015 update: For architects heading to Atlanta for the 2015 AIA Convention, I highly recommend a full-day pre-conference workshop titled “Transforming Firm Culture and Process: Embracing Sustainability and Getting to 2030.” With all-star presenters Barbra Batshalom, Nadav Malin and Betsy del Monte, this is a don’t-miss. Here’s a link.  

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA