I was in Denver last week for the 2013 AIA Convention. Denver’s a great town. Lively, walkable downtown, excellent public transit and some pretty interesting buildings. I recommend David Adjaye’s Museum of Contemporary Art up in Lodo near the Cherry Creek Trail. Nice. Libeskind’s DAM? Been there, seen that.

But enough with the travel tips. One reason I go to the AIA Convention is to see Kelly Pickard’s presentation on the state of the AIA 2030 Commitment. In it, she unveils the AIA 2030 Annual Report with the aggregated designed energy use data for all the AIA firms that have submitted their compliance scores. It’s a field day for data wonks. But this year, instead of leading off with bar charts, Kelly began by introducing something new.

Since 2008, the AIA COTE and the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) have teamed up to fund the AIA/AIAS COTE Research Fellowship. Last year’s recipient, Megan Turner, an M. Arch student at Cal Poly Pomona, produced a pretty fabulous study called “AIA 2030 Commitment Case Studies: Studying the Experiences of Participating Firms.” And since that just so happens to be what this blog is about, she had my full attention.

Five firms graciously volunteered to participate in Ms. Turner’s project, and they formed an excellent sample set: small firms Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago and High Plains Architects in Billings, Montana, Miller Hull Partnership from Seattle (the 2003 AIA Firm of the Year), a big multi-office regional firm from the west called HMC Architects, and the largest AE firm in the USA, the interplanetary HOK.

You should absolutely download and read this document. The “lessons learned” were heartening and refreshingly familiar. All the firms were concerned about under-performance, challenged to make a clear business case to their clients and staffs, and constrained by what they perceived as the extra work of compliance reporting. The average pEUI reduction for the five firms was very good. At 45.9%, it was better than the Commitment’s 2011 average of 34.6% but still behind the AIA 2030 target of 60%.

But my favorite part of Ms. Turner’s report? Her very well-substantiated analysis (OK, I used to teach a writing class, I’d give her an “A”) of the common challenges faced by all five companies. Claiming that these types of challenges are typical to any organization trying to make strategic change, Ms. Turner’s primary reference was the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

Now I’m sure this book is worth a read, but personally, I’m done with the business-leadership-change-agent genre. Peter Senge’s work resonated with me. Built to Last, Collins and Porras? Liked it. Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”? Committed to memory. My friend Barbra Batshalom recently quoted John Kotter’s eight stages of organizational transformation in her blog. It’s all seriously important and fascinating stuff, but my brain can only retain so much.

But a phrase that Ms. Turner pulled from Switch clicked with me: “Shrink the Change”.

To shrink the change is to make it incremental. One of Kotter’s eight stages involved celebrating “short term wins”. Meadows wrote about creating “positive feedback loops”. It all makes sense. To lead an organization through any purposeful change, you need to establish metrics along the way so people will know that they are going in the right direction. That their efforts are producing results.

Sitting in that seminar room in Denver, I came to a realization. Frankly, I had been under a bit of a cloud since learning that my firm’s AIA 2030 Commitment numbers for 2012 were no better than our 2011 scores. Clearly, we needed to do something differently. But instead of looking at the seemingly insurmountable gap between where Bergmeyer’s work was now (maybe 35% better than baseline) and where we needed to be by 2030, the key for us was to set interim goals. I did some quick math. If we could improve our designed EUIs and LPDs by only 4 or 5 percent per year, we’d make it.

Little improvements lead to big changes. We don’t have to get our projects to zero fossil fuel consumption all at once. If we can shrink the change, the change will seem more achievable. I left the seminar early (so many parties, so little time), but re-energized.

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

Published Jun 28, 2013