A summer of extreme weather underscored the urgency of climate change. How are firms — and their clients — responding?
by Dillon Goodson, Affil. AIA Chicago
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-July, a pair of National Park Service rangers in California’s Death Valley National Park stood smiling ear-to-ear next to a digital display of unofficial temperature readings from the hottest place on Earth. Meanwhile, the mercury inched ominously close to an all-time high of 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Bystanders gathered and snapped pictures that quickly circulated across social media channels, fueling apocalyptic comparisons likening the rangers to dinosaurs grinning in the foreground of the comet moments before it sealed their fate.
Unofficially, July was Earth’s hottest month on record. In Phoenix, the temperature hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 31 days in a row, nearly twice as many consecutive days as the previous record. Off the coast of Florida, water temperatures reached hot tub levels as scientists warned that nearly all of North America’s coral reefs could face bleaching by the end of the summer. And in Chicago, the reality of climate change hit close to home, with heat-fueled Canadian wildfires blanketing the city in a thick cloud of smoke that public health experts warned was like smoking half a pack of cigarettes in a day.
It was hot. It was hard to breathe. And it just might have been the wake-up call our world needed.
Nathan Kipnis, FAIA, was just 12 years old when his environmental wake-up call came ringing. It was 1973, and OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo against the United States and its allies, sending the price of oil sky-high. He remembers the long lines at gas stations and the feeling of panic that permeated throughout every corner of his hometown of Highland Park. In the nation’s capital, even the White House Christmas Tree went dark as a desperate President Nixon hit the airwaves, temporarily lowering speed limits nationwide and pleading with Americans to cut back their energy use.
“That was the first time I had ever seen a bunch of adults get freaked out,” recalled Kipnis. “And when you’re a little kid, it really has an impact on you.”
The impact was swift, materializing a fundamental shift in Kipnis’ understanding of the world. Recognizing that our reliance on fossil fuels was, at best, impractical, he designed his first solar home at the age of 22. Soon after, he launched a sustainable architecture practice, Kipnis Architecture + Planning (KAP), with an explicit focus on helping clients heal the environment. 30 years later — and with at least a hundred green projects to show for it — business is booming at the small five-person firm.
“[Climate change] has finally impacted people directly, so the calls have changed, too.” This is reflected not only in the sheer volume of calls but in the tone and content of the conversations he is having with clients, explained Kipnis. For example, he recently fielded an inquiry recently about an air source heat pump, a highly technical system that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels to heat and cool a home. “People realize if you design a home, which is your biggest investment you’re ever going to do, why would you make it obsolete from day one?”
Architects, and the clients who they design for, have a unique obligation to achieve a more sustainable future. The built environment is responsible for generating as much as 40 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions. Following decades of progress that has led to reductions in operational energy usage, architects have turned their attention to embodied carbon, which accounts for building and infrastructure materials and construction. This is especially important, says Marzia Sedino — an environmental engineer by training, who serves as senior associate principal and sustainability director at SOM — because emissions from embodied carbon cannot be rectified once a building’s construction is completed.
“By looking at all of those aspects of the building’s life — beginning to the very end, until it’s decommissioned — we have a way to assess it,” said Sedino. This process allows investors, property owners, and developers to make informed decisions from the outset of a project that can ultimately reduce a building’s environmental impact. It’s part of a new service SOM is advertising as whole life carbon accounting.
Sedino is part of a roughly 25-member team of sustainability specialists at the large, multinational architecture practice. They collaborate in a studio environment that unites many of the roles typically associated with the design of sustainable buildings: MEP, environmental, and facade engineers, landscape and health experts, and sustainability certifiers, among others. Long before pencil meets paper, Sedino and her team are called upon to listen to a client’s goals and identify a set of objectives that align with sustainability best practices. This process of intentional collaboration from the outset of a project is beneficial for both clients and the environment.
“I remember working on a project where our priority was to reduce energy consumption, but the client’s priority was actually to have a better-integrated ecology system. And they’re both very important,” explained Sedino. “But the way that we were able to shift our priorities to meet their priorities, and at the same time achieve something that perhaps was greater than we had envisioned before, was very illuminating.”
The benefits are economic, too. Decades ago, accomplishing net zero design would have meant paying a premium of 30-40 percent, according to Kelly Moynihan, AIA, principal at HPZS, a medium-sized firm. Since then, demand has driven prices down, enabling architects to focus on more than just the “bells and whistles” of solar panels and rainwater harvesting. This is facilitating real progress in the industry’s efforts to achieve net zero emissions by 2030, a goal known by the AIA as the 2030 Commitment, which has already welcomed 1,200 firm signatories nationwide. HPZS, SOM, and KAP have each pledged their commitment to the effort. Kipnis also served as the national co-chair of the 2030 Commitment working group from 2018 to 2019.
Whether the effort is successful or not is personal for Moynihan. In addition to her architectural work at HPZS, she is co-chair of AIA Chicago’s Committee on the Environment (COTE), which is focused on equipping architects for conversations with their clients about why sustainability matters — even if those clients deny the existence of climate change. Working alongside architects, allied professionals, and the public, the committee provides resources that practitioners can use to benefit their clients, firms, and the planet.
Moynihan admits not every client is receptive to calls by architects to “be sustainable.” Therefore, instead of treating sustainability as something of a novelty, she advocates for firms to approach the topic as part and parcel of their design process. In the same way architects don’t begin a project by debating whether it should incorporate walls, windows, and a roof, she thinks firms should weave in sustainability as a condition of doing business.
“We already know what we have to do. We already have the solutions. It’s more about whether or not the architect is willing and able to guide the conversation with their client to express to them why sustainability is so important.”