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A Turning Point in the 2030 Commitment

Allison McKenzie

Ten years ago, SHP signed on to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment to work toward achieving zero carbon emissions in our projects by the year 2030.  Now that we’re halfway to the deadline, where does SHP stand in our commitment? And, more importantly, what’s next?  

A Decade’s Worth of Data 

The 2030 Commitment includes target energy reduction rates based on baselines established from energy use data for buildings of a similar use type, collected by the U.S. Energy Administration’s Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) in 2003. These target energy use reductions get progressively more stringent every five years; for example, in 2019, the target was to reduce energy consumption by 70% compared to 2003 levels. This year, it jumps to 80%. Progress is tracked annually via self-reporting by each of the signatory firms, which submit their average energy reduction rates directly to the AIA. 

SHP is able to calculate the projected energy use reduction of each of the buildings we design by performing an energy simulation. Our models are based on each building’s design parameters for heating, cooling, lighting, building envelope construction and more. We then compare the expected energy use, to the amount of energy actually used, and finally to the baseline described above.  

I’ve been tracking SHP’s progress toward the 2030 Commitment since 2009. Including the data I just collected and analyzed for 2019, I now have a decade’s worth of facts and figures to report.  

The chart below shows our annual energy reduction year over year since 2009. In 2014, we hit an energy use reduction rate of 61.8%, beating the AIA’s 60% reduction goal. But that was a high markwe have ranged between 53% and 60% energy use reductions ever since. For instance, in 2018, the AIA report captured energy use data from 252 signatory firms across 15,603 projects, with an average energy use reduction rate of 46%. That year, SHP reported a reduction of 53.4%.  

 

This chart shows the progress SHP Design has made against the AIA's 2030 Challenge to improve energy reduction

 

While the composite report of all reporting firms’ data for 2019 has not yet been issued, I feel safe assuming SHP will again trend higher than average among firms across the country that are especially committed to reducing energy use and carbon emissions. That’s greatBut we’re still not currently hitting the targets of the 2030 Commitment 

What’s going on? Let’s dive deeper. 

Designed for Efficiency 

Our SHP team implements a variety of best practices when we design for maximum energy efficiency, including daylighting, building orientation, building envelope design, LED lighting, and standard HVAC systems based on boilers and chillersWe saw great early gains in our energy reduction between 2009 and 2013, as building energy codes grew more stringent and LED lighting became affordable enough to become standard. Add in more advanced geothermal heating and cooling systems, and you’ll find even higher energy savings.  

But it has become clear over the past five years that the maximum energy use reduction we can achieve using good design alone is around 53%. We can bump this reduction up to the high 60s or even 70% by installing geothermal heating and cooling systems, which you can see in the data between 2013 and 2017, when about half our projects were utilizing this technology. 

In 2018, however, our energy reduction rates dipped by about 7%. What happened?  

To understand, let me offer a bit of insight into SHP’s process. When we talk to our clients about choosing the correct HVAC systems for their project, we present lifecycle cost analysis so that building owners can see not only how much each system will cost on install, but also how much it will cost to operate and maintain over its entire life.  

Before 2017, the lifecycle analysis on geothermal HVAC systems – which are more expensive upfront – showed a payback period of around eight years or less, once energy use and costs were calculated. But in 2017, we saw significant drops in energy prices, especially natural gas. As geothermal systems started showing longer and longer payback periods, they became much less attractive systems for fiscally minded clients. Low energy prices will always make being less energy efficient more attractive, a common hurdle we are facing today. 

Four Factors for the Future 

So, where do we go from here? How do we all get back on track with our 2030 Commitment target? It will really take a combination of four factors: 

  1. Clients becoming more interested in carbon emission reduction and energy efficiency than in quick payback models. 
  2. The cost of energy – electricity and/or natural gas – increasing to make payback periods for energy efficiency more attractive. 
  3. More stringent regulation, including energy codes that require meeting enhanced energy reduction targets and/or governmental interventions like carbon caps or taxes. 
  4. Technology innovations around energyconsuming systems like lighting and HVAC, and/or renewable energy systems like solar and wind, that allow the costs of these systems to drop dramatically to make them cost-competitive.  

Unfortunately, as you can see from the four factors above, architects and engineers cannot achieve the AIA 2030 Commitment through good design alone. We also can’t simply throw up our hands and say it’s too hard and we can’t fix it.  

Large groups of citizens and governments – when aware of a problem and concerned with fixing it – can change the course of the issue. 

As a design community, we have a responsibility to advocate for environmental awareness and energy efficiency to our clients and local, regional and national governments. We can work with code councils and building officials to make regulations more stringent. Innovative architects are also working hand in hand with industrial designers and product manufacturers to create the technology needed at a price that is attractive.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that large groups of citizens and governments – when aware of a problem and concerned with fixing it – can make a huge impact and change the course of the issue. Nearly all scientists agree that climate change is a looming, accelerating issue that will soon become undeniable. Will we rally together in time to prevent devastation? 

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