As I look out of my own window while I write this, I know this isn’t a rhetorical question. The glazing I specify for my clients who live, as I do, in the hottest and stickiest part of the US, matters as much as the plans I draw or the spaces I create. My choices on their behalf are matters of trust, and as my design choices improve the quality of life for my clients, their trust in me ultimately improves the quality of professional life for architects, builders, and product manufacturers.
I like to specify intelligent, high-performing glass that will provide comfort and a view on the world for years to come. I also like to specify glass and other materials smartly—as an ambassadorial commitment to architects and the vital role I believe we play in making a better world. Yes, I’m talking about the U-factor and the solar heat gain ratio for south-facing windows on any given project in Beaufort, South Carolina, where I live and work. But I am also talking about how seemingly tiny decisions like these can have a big impact. I’m talking about the small part we all play in the larger effort of reducing our carbon emissions. This is the new trust that I believe we, as architects, builders, and building product manufacturers, must forge with clients.
What’s at stake if we cannot emerge as honorable and upright leaders united in environmental action? The same thing that was at stake for public health officials in March, April, and May had they not prevailed, to the extent they could, in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Professional integrity, yes, but to a greater degree, the health, safety, and welfare of people who trust us to know how to make buildings and spaces that are harmless and beautiful. (And, yes, there is room for beauty here. More on that in a moment.)
COVID-19 will transform our economy, and this recession will challenge every architecture firm in every country. For some, the challenge will be to remain financially solvent. For others, the challenge will be to remain relevant. The irony? COVID-19 and the global economy’s slow-down has not derailed our collective action plans for the environment, but rather complimented them. As many of us stayed home for weeks on end, we reduced carbon emissions by more than 4%, according to analysts at Carbon Brief—an unthinkable achievement in such a short amount of time. It came at a high economic cost, and even as government bailouts attempted to stem losses across the board, a reckoning for retailers, airlines, and other industries is inevitable.
This virus will remake economies, and the already disenfranchised will struggle in unimaginable ways. With this in mind, it is bittersweet to learn that the International Energy Agency has projected that we will reduce our emissions by 8% globally at the end of this calendar year and, if we can maintain this 7-8% drop annually, we will be able to achieve the Paris Agreement’s tolerable 1.5° Celsius annual increase above pre-industrial levels.
Can we build on this momentum to reach our targets and reboot the global economy at the same time? That’s a regulations question, and from Washington to Whitehall, there is an army of committed environmentalists answering it right now. In partnership with policy, and on the program side, the climate action plan that I helped develop for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) joins similar plans proffered by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the climate action initiative of the Union of International Architects, and others in scope and urgency.
The AIA’s plan builds on its deep bench of research and resources in four interdependent “priority” areas: energy, design and health, resilience, and materials. Buildings must use and produce only clean energy; buildings must be designed to promote health and wellbeing, and buildings must survive disaster and adapt to future climate conditions. But, it is the fourth priority area, materials, that seems most actionable for readers of IGS Magazine: buildings must sequester carbon through adaptive use of whole structures and individual materials; new materials must be specified with an eye toward immediate factors like off-gassing, as well as end-of life reuse; architects must address building life cycles and practice what I call embodied carbon design; and new construction should address the strong preference for its adaptation one day. If reuse proves unfeasible, deconstruction should be as harmless to the environment as possible.
All of this is part of what we at AIA call the Framework for Design Excellence. The institute adopted the framework last year to pair these priority concepts with high-impact strategies to set climate action goals, frame conversations with clients (such as the homeowners I work with all the time), and provide tools to measure and track progress. Even in this milieu of an ongoing public health crisis and a pandemic that promises to disrupt life as we know it, we have the power to make changes, too, to the way we work today and to the way we wish to work tomorrow.
In order to make these changes meaningful- beyond epidemiology, beyond public health’s best practices, and even beyond political will—we must strike now while we have a window of opportunity to generate lasting ecological improvements. We must begin with the building sector and architectural practices (and specification) as the arena for climate mitigation. We must anticipate energy demands and adapt our buildings to meet them, all while pursuing net zero carbon emissions. Meaningful change like this requires leadership anchored by global cooperation. But, it also requires you. So, let’s stop asking rhetorical questions about big words like sustainability. Let’s start asking ourselves what we can do in our everyday lives, as architects, builders, specifiers, and product manufacturers, to make a difference using smaller, actionable words like energy, resilience, health, and—especially—materials. If we can get materials like glass right, then I believe the rest will follow.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Summer 2020 USA Special Edition: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: L. Jane Frederick, FAIA 2020 President
Jane Frederick, FAIA, is principal at Frederick + Frederick Architects, which received AIA South Carolina’s 2017 Firm Award and Southern Living magazine’s Best Renovation of 2009. The Beaufort, South Carolina, firm specializes in custom residences and has earned 18 state and local design awards. Jane has served AIA in many roles, including as south Atlantic regional representative on the Strategic Council, at-large director on the national Board of Directors, a member of the AIA Small Firm Round Table Executive Committee, president of AIA South Carolina, and a member of NAAB Accreditation teams. She has also chaired numerous local planning boards and is a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.