An Open Letter to America’s Architects

I love movies where life as we know it will end unless someone can stop the massive meteor, or other catastrophe, from imploding the Earth. Everybody freaks out until some unlikely hero emerges with a risky, but innovative idea to save the day. The risk typically elicits some reluctance from our hero, but in the end he or she proceeds and prevails. Ah . . . all is well again.

Most architects don’t know it, but you are one of those unlikely heroes. This isn’t why you went to architecture school, but it turns out that forces have aligned to put within your power to stop, or at least seriously beat back, the biggest threat to our way of life in the history of human-kind. The meteor I’m talking about is Climate Change. Most everyone knows about it and believes that climate change is real. If you don’t, you should take a look at a recent New York Times article classifying 2015 as likely to be the hottest year on record. A degree in temperature might not seem like much, but it is wreaking havoc with our weather and threatening ecosystems across the globe.Tracking Temperature There has been a lot of discussion and some action about strategies for scaling back emissions from their various sources and adaptation for dealing with the consequences of changing weather.

Some policymakers are even pulling out all the stops to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in their jurisdictions. Turns out that the leading contributor to carbon emissions is buildings, which are responsible for roughly 75% of electricity consumption and 40% of the carbon emitted in the United States. Cue the Architects! You know buildings and you are in a position to influence other people who don’t know buildings. You are the hero in this story, the question is will you be overcome by reluctance or will you proceed and prevail. We now have proven the feasibility that ultra-efficiency levels in buildings is possible. When coupled with onsite renewables, these buildings can become net zero—producing as much energy as they consume over the course of a year. Energy production comes from clean, renewable resources and while these buildings are not always net zero carbon, they dramatically reduce the emissions that are fueling our temperature rise.

These buildings are being built today in all climate zones for many building types and sizes. New Buildings Institute (NBI) has documented 39 verified buildings with 152 more in process and intending to achieve ZNE. These buildings represent schools, offices, libraries, medical offices, retail warehouses and others. They are both new construction and retrofits. We know what design strategies and technologies to utilize and heard just last week from manufacturing giants such as Panasonic, Danfoss, Kingspan and SageGlass that they are investing in and producing products to increase the viability of zero net energy performance outcomes.Number of ZNE Projects NBI and our partners have convened two National Forums on getting to zero net energy and has announced a third event next October in Denver. We continue to track ZNE buildings, document their viability and offer the tools and resources to help projects be successful. We want to see the number of verified and emerging numbers soar in the next decade and for ZNE to become the normal standard for buildings by mid-century.

While climate change may not play out as depicted in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, where climate change happened in one day, such a rapid 1.5 degree Fahrenheit increase is alarmingly significant given global temperate trends over the past century. The question that remains is whether the unlikely hero in this scenario will pick up this cause and accept this mission. Architects of America, now is the time to act! We are looking for heroes, won’t you join us?