January 23, 2013

Dear Mr. President:

Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m the 2013 President of the Boston Society of Architects. This voluntary one-year position is of course by no means comparable to the truly awesome office to which you were just re-elected. But we both serve with the hope that we can do lasting good.

Next, I would like to offer my highest compliments on your truly inspiring Inaugural address last Tuesday. As those of us who grew up listening to great old Boston politicians like Tip O’Neill used to say, it was a real stem-winder. I agree with Mr. James Fallows’ assessment that it was the “most sustainedly progressive statement” that we have heard from you. Well done.

Which brings me to the reason for this letter: You finally said it. You mentioned “climate change” in this very auspicious public address. Thank you. My like-minded colleagues and I jumped out of our seats and cheered when we heard it. You gave the subject a whole paragraph. I was thrilled.

Because, y’see, one of my goals in becoming BSA President was to promote greater building energy efficiency so our profession can meet the carbon-emission reduction goals of the 2030 Challenge. Our national professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, launched a program called theAIA 2030 Commitment. When our firms sign this Commitment, we pledge to design our projects to be progressively more energy efficient and to report the aggregated designed energy use intensity of our work to the AIA every year.

So when you, the President of the United States, said “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, all of us working to make a difference became energized. OK, you didn’t say that buildings account for about 48.7% of all the energy used in the US in a year and therefore for 46.7% of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but you didn’t have to. That’s our hunt. It’s our job as architects to beat that drum.

I know there will be follow-up questions. I know folks will be asking you how we can respond to climate change. We architects want to be part of the solution. I have some suggestions:

Lead by example: With 9,000 buildings and 350 million square feet, the General Services Administration of the Federal government is the country’s largest landlord. The GSA could reinvent sustainable design all by itself. It could hold its design teams to a higher performance standard. It could require Integrated Project Delivery. It could adopt a building asset labeling system. We loved the environmental visualization strategy IDEO did for the GSA. Was it implemented?

Re-start the Better Buildings Initiative: In December 2011, you launched the Better Buildings Initiative. You announced that Federal agencies would make $2B worth of building energy efficiency upgrades available to the private market with matching funds. Architecture 2030 estimated that this initiative would create 300,000 new jobs. Did it work? Don’t know. Maybe it’s time for Version 2.0.

Create a deep energy building retrofit tax credit: Tax credits work. We know the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive saved historic buildings. We know the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit drove affordable housing development. The Section 179D tax deduction isn’t moving the market. Making our existing buildings more energy efficient is the Holy Grail. We need an effective incentive here.

Give us uniform national interconnection standards: I know this suggestion begs the Federal-versus-state’s-rights question. But like you said, we can’t wait to solve a centuries-long debate about the role of government before we take action. Every utility company has different regulations for connecting building-integrated photovoltaics to “the grid”. In Massachusetts, we have a crazy quilt of public and municipal utilities. Zoom out to all of New England and the problem is confounded tenfold. This needs to be streamlined.

Finally, invest in a national 21st century smart grid: This could be our generation’s “Apollo Program”. From what I have read, our existing US power grid cannot accommodate the widespread proliferation of distributed generation and doesn’t allow us to maximize the energy-saving potential of demand-side management. We know the technologies that can drive building energy efficiency. The infrastructure to connect them isn’t there yet.

In closing, I will note that architects are an opinionated bunch. We don’t always agree on matters of politics, but we all want to make our buildings – and our communities – better. There are as many good ideas out there as there are people reading this letter. I have only scratched the surface! For readers who may not be the President, please feel free to add your suggestions or comments to this blog. I’ll be sure they get to the right people.

And just one more thing if I may, Mr. President. In your address, you didn’t say that every BSA member firm should sign the AIA 2030 Commitment. But I’m guessing you think they should. I agree.

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

Published Jan 23, 2013