Architects participating in a global campaign to transition to carbon-neutral buildings by 2030 are making progress, but efforts so far are falling well short of current targets.

That’s the word from The American Institute of Architects, which recently posted its 2018 report on the AIA 2030 Commitment. Participants have pledged to design new buildings and major renovations to lower greenhouse gas emissions in stages. The ultimate goal is carbon neutrality—buildings will use no fossil fuels to operate—by 2030, with intermediate steps of an 80% reduction in 2020 and 90% in 2025.

For the time being, all new buildings, developments and major renovations should be designed to use 70% less greenhouse gas emitting energy than the average/median for the building type, according to Architecture 2030, which issued the challenge in 2006.

The impetus is global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The AIA says buildings consume 40% of all energy in the U.S., underscoring the importance that designers have in lowering energy use through more efficient designs.

How are they doing? For 2018, the report says, 252 firms reported data to the Design Data Exchange on projects totaling 3 billion square feet in 92 countries. The projects should reduce carbon emissions by 17.7 million metric tons and cut operating costs for buildings by more than $3.3 billion when compared with “baseline-equivalent” buildings.

The reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are the equivalent to removing 3.7 million passenger vehicles from the road for a year (the number of private and commercial vehicles registered in Georgia). It’s also the equivalent of 20.8 million acres of forest carbon sequestration, and the energy equal of powering all houses in the state of Maryland for a year.

“Nevertheless, it’s clear that we must double down on efforts to meet our 2030 targets,” the report notes. “This year’s average weighted [predicted energy use] reduction — 46% — is the best in 2030 history, but less than the current 70% target.”

In order to hit the 2030 target of carbon neutrality in buildings, efforts must “vastly increase” the number of firms that have signed on to the 2030 Commitment.

The report outlines a number of steps that would help:

  • Wider adoption of energy modeling. Energy modeling is the use of software to predict energy use based on specific building components, such as insulation and windows, and climate. Modeled projects reported about 25% better energy reductions than projects that weren’t modeled. But only about half the reported projects got this extra design step, “leaving untapped a powerful tool to drive design and improve performance.”
  • Use more renewable energy in design, both on-site and off-site. “Innovative design and passive strategies alone cannot bring every project to zero net carbon emissions,” the report says.
  • Push for more stringent building codes.
  • Encourage more firms that have signed the pact to share data about their projects because “reporting project data is the only way to show accountability and progress toward the 2030 goal.”

The report singles out 16 firms that have managed to cut energy consumption by at least 70% across their entire portfolios. They include Kaplan Thompson Architects, based in Portland, Maine, whose work has appeared a number of times at GBA.

Green Building Council also weighs in

Separately, the U.S. Green Building Council—publisher of the LEED building performance standards—issued the second volume of a report on the impact that buildings have on climate change. It concludes that many people are confused about the issue.

The path to wider appreciation of the problem is not throwing more statistics at people or issuing “dire warnings” that urge people to radically change their way of life.

“We’ve got to start engaging wider audiences to convince the public of the reality of climate-related threats,” a summary of the report reads. “We’ve got to illustrate the importance of small, everyday actions. And we’ve got to connect the dots between people and the planet they call home.”

The authors believe that a heavy reliance on data and numbers isn’t working. “Scientific language and startling statistics have their place,” the report says. “But if we are ever to reverse the dangers of climate change, we’ve got to bring more humanity into our conversations.”

That should include encouraging people to make small, gradual changes instead of radical, life-altering moves.

The first volume of the report—The Standard Issue 001—found that 40% of survey respondents say the environment is one of their biggest concerns for the future, but less than 25% say it’s one of their biggest concerns now. Issues that outranked the environment for immediate attention included health care, immigration, the economy, gun policy and political polarization (in that order).

“Saving the planet is too overwhelming, too abstract, and too distant from peoples’ realities,” the report says.

The second volume suggests ways that people can, in the report’s words, turns anxiety about the environment into action. It’s especially aimed at people who believe that environmental problems exist but aren’t actively engaged in fixing them.

“We need a revolution in the near term, but it must start by growing gradually in order to bring everyone along and have maximum impact,” the report says. “This means taking baby steps today, even though we know we will need to make big steps in the future.”

It also notes that the buildings where people live and work have a big impact on health, but even among the strongest environmental advocates the connection between “living green” and “green buildings” is not understood. Most people think of green buildings in terms of how much energy they use, the report says, adding, “We know that green buildings are so much more.”

-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.