Sizing up an Architectural Firm's Carbon Footprint

Posted by: Michael Arndt on May 26, 2010

There are plenty of yardsticks to assess the environmental impact of new commercial construction, notably the LEED checklist created by the U.S. Green Building Council. Now there’s a tool to reveal how firms are doing across their entire practice. I’d liken it to a full-body scan vs. a site-specific x-ray.

The Excel-based software was developed over the past year by the American Institute of Architects. It will become available for free on the institute’s website on June 11, Day 2 of the AIA annual convention. But it won’t be open to everyone: Firms will have to sign on first to the AIA 2030 commitment to reduce the predicted energy consumption of their designs by 60% through 2015 and produce only carbon-neutral projects by 2030, to slow global warming.

I got a peek at the program from Rand Ekman, director of sustainability at OWP/P|Cannon Design in Chicago, who helped design and test the new software. The process is simple and straightforward. Firms input a few particulars about every project (even those in conceptual stages) such as projected annual energy usage, gross square footage, building type, and current energy standards (to establish a baseline). Do the math, and you get a three-part score for the complete portfolio, not just a few exemplary projects.

There is a hard part, however, and that is collecting all the facts and figures for the spreadsheet. Based on his experience at Cannon Design, which has 15 offices across North America and two more in Asia and a catalog of more than past and current 650 projects, Ekman says it could take big firms at least a couple of months to come up with the required data for the first assessment. But after that, the data gathering should become speedier.

So far, 103 firms have made the 2030 commitment. That’s a relatively puny tally at a group with 80,000-plus individual members, though it includes several of the very biggest, such as Gensler, HOK, and Perkins + Will. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Kevin Harris, a one-man residential designer. The AIA will publish the annual scores of each pledge, and Ekman hopes that peer pressure will prompt more architects to join in and try hard.

“Every firm is considerably more facile with the issue of energy than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Ekman told me. But he added: “One of the major premises of this tool is to drive change within the design practice. There’s little bit of the keeping up with the next player that is going on here as well.”

Reader Comments

Joanna Yaghooti

June 3, 2010 7:00 PM

The title of this article is somewhat misleading. It appears to indicate that the AIA’s upcoming software tool will help an architecture firm determine their own carbon footprint rather than one which will help a firm to understand the performance of the buildings in their design portfolio. While the 2030 Challenge does address the green operations of a design firm, the primary focus of the Challenge is what this tool seems to be designed to address.

While data collection and entry required for even the most streamlined carbon calculators is far from simple, it should not take the “couple of months” that the article indicates. The article indicates that even large firms may need to take some time to compile this data. Architecture and engineering firms committed to the 2030 Challenge, as PageSoutherlandPage is, are well positioned to enter in the pieces of data the article indicates.

Gross square footage and project type are, of course, the simplest components. Arriving at the baseline energy usage is slightly more complicated and involves calculating the EUI (Energy Utilization Index) from Energy Star’s Target Finder database of CBECS data. This can get slightly more involved as it requires detailed information about the project such as building population, operating hours or the presence of cooking facilities. The baseline energy usage for any project undergoing this analysis is a conventionally designed similar project type from the year 2003.

The most complex element with this type of footprinting is, by far, the projected annual energy usage which is a delicate balance of both architecture and engineering components and the analysis of how they interact. The more accurate the desired result, the more detailed the input information needs to be in the energy analysis. This is the largest obstacle to using this new tool for projects which are still in early conceptual design. However, firms which have signed onto the 2030 Challenge are better equipped to understand their designs at this more detailed level and long ago created a tracking mechanism which can be used to leverage the power of the upcoming tool from the AIA.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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