Diving Into Waters of the AIA 2013 Commitment

Guest Post by Amy Seif Hattan, Corporate Sustainability Officer and Wolfgang Werner, Vice President, Thornton Tomasetti

In July 2010, our company became the first predominantly structural design firm to join the AIA 2030 Commitment, which supports the goal of carbon-neutral building by 2030. We joined the Commitment because we believe that buildings of the future will be dramatically greener than those of today and are committed to contribute  to a more sustainable built environment. We joined because we knew it was the right thing to do, but, like many firms that take the leap, we didn’t know at the time how we were going to meet the reporting requirements. We also did not predict how this decision would transform the way our firm operates.

The Commitment involves a step-by-step process that eases members towards a potentially challenging requirement – annual reporting on the energy use intensity of a firm’s project portfolio.  Within two months of the commitment date, firms are requested to establish a team or leader to guide the development and implementation of the firm’s plan. Fortunately, we were able to quickly appoint to this role a natural leader who had been the individual initially advocating for membership in the Commitment. Soon after joining the Commitment, Thornton Tomasetti, once a predominately structural engineering firm, acquired the green building consulting firms Fore Solutions and Simon & Associates, and established a Building Sustainability Practice.  The AIA 2030 Commitment was one market signal of the value of a sustainability practice, which enables us to formalize our attention to the Commitment. With the establishment of a sustainability practice, we gained a corporate sustainability officer who manages our efforts towards the 2030 goals.

Step two of the Commitment requires implementing at least four operational action items within six months of signing the commitment. This requirement is notable because, before firms get caught up in developing the processes for reporting on their projects, they are reminded that “practicing what you preach” is integral in the effort towards climate neutrality; after all, isn’t our own “house” part of our entire project portfolio? At Thornton Tomasetti, we were already making efficiency upgrades in our offices and were easily able to take on several sensible actions from the AIA’s list of operational action items. These included the procurement of Energy Star rated equipment and appliances; the provision of teleconferencing equipment in offices to encourage virtual meetings in place of travel; and the replacement of existing CRT monitors with LCDs. While this requirement may have kick started the firm’s heightened attention on sustainable business operations, we have now gone far beyond what is required. We are progressing towards our own goal of climate neutral operations by 2030 by taking actions such as getting LEED certification for all new office fit-outs and major renovations.

Within one year of signing the Commitment we developed a Sustainability Action Plan. Our initial plan outlined our commitment to sustainable buildings, measurements we would use to meet the Commitment, and an early draft of a sustainable operations policy for the firm. Later, we set measurable targets for sustainability throughout the firm – this includes targets for our projects and services, but also for our business operations and for social responsibility, an integral piece of the “three-legged stool” of sustainability (people, profits and the planet) that is not addressed by the AIA 2030 Commitment but that we feel is important.

While several activities are integral to involvement in the AIA 2030 Commitment, the reporting requirement seems most daunting to firms thinking about joining this initiative. Members are expected to annually report on the predicted energy use intensity of their building projects. As stated in the AIA 2030 Commitment 2012 Annual Report by AIA CEO Robert Ivy, “a key value of the 2030 Commitment is the act of tracking the energy performance of work.” Understanding that most firms do not track the energy performance of their work, the AIA provides members with a reporting form that assists the process. Adding new processes to an already busy schedule can be challenging, but considering that 110 firms submitted reports in 2012, it is certainly possible. We took on this challenge with the understanding that the resources available for tracking were not created for structural engineers but for architects. For us, entering the Commitment meant that we would have to create our systems of measurement and tracking.

We realized that the ‘standard’ AIA 2030 reporting protocol – based on Energy Use Intensity (EUI), i.e. operational energy efficiency – was not a viable reporting option for Thornton Tomasetti. As structural designers we are responsible for the conceptualization and design of load-bearing systems for buildings. These structural materials contain embodied energy/carbon that is a result of the energy used, and associated carbon emitted, for raw material extraction, refining, manufacturing and transportation. These embodied impacts are not captured in the EUI metric, yet they are by no means insignificant. In light of the company’s large structural design portfolio, we decided to focus on the metrics of embodied energy and embodied carbon (EE/EC).

To do this we developed an internal system and tools to achieve the following: To annually collect structural quantity data from the firm’s entire structural design portfolio, to calculate project EE/EC impacts as total and per square foot values, and to build a database of such EE/EC project data. As opposed to the operational energy use side of the life-cycle energy equation, there are, at this time, no generally recognized EE/EC baselines to which we can compare the results of our efforts. Therefore, our immediate goal is to collect a pool of project EE/EC data that is large enough to support statistically significant inferences. Such ‘intelligence,’ would enable us to develop less carbon-intensive designs.

Our involvement in the AIA 2030 Commitment has become more than just a way of going with the flow in the industry. It has become a competitive advantage. The reporting requirement alone has catapulted Thornton Tomasetti as a leader within the relatively unexplored realm of embodied energy and carbon. As designers get better at reducing operational energy in buildings, the embodied carbon footprint will take up a much larger share of a building’s impact. We hope to learn over time from our data, building up an ‘EE/EC literacy’ that will aid us in our collaboration with architects and other team members when carbon efficiency becomes – as we believe it will –  an increasingly recognized and tracked metric in building design and construction.  In addition, the AIA 2030 Commitment was the initial “grease” in the wheels of Thornton Tomasetti that helped to build a comprehensive corporate sustainability program. As stated by our CEO and Chairman Thomas Scarangello, “We aspire to be one of the most sustainable firms in the AEC world, in the way we design our projects and in how we operate as a responsible business. In embracing this challenge, we see an opportunity to lead by example.”