What makes AIA 2030 signatory firms stand out?

Originally Published December 7, 2017 on AIA.org.

The message is clear: institutions of all sorts are looking for architecture firms with trackable metrics, a staple of the 2030 Commitment.

Clients of all types are committing to carbon-elimination targets and seeking out design teams that can deliver energy-efficient projects, including an increasing focus on net zero or carbon-free buildings. The newest trend is the appearance of a “preference for AIA 2030 signatory” as a credential in RFQs or RFPs. In recent conversations with a variety of institutional owners―UCLA, Partners Healthcare, MIT, Harvard, TD Bank, and a number of capital projects staff from cities around the United States―one message was consistent: Metrics are key.

These institutions have invested in setting and tracking their internal metrics, and they recognize that 2030 signatories are making similar investments. In being accountable to track their entire portfolio―not just a subset of exemplary projects, certified by a third party―signatory firms can actually learn from their work and continuously improve. Firms who do not commit to this disciplined introspection rarely understand how their projects perform or more importantly, how to close the gap between predicted energy use intensity (pEUI) and actual energy performance.

My organization works with firms around the country to help them institutionalize the capability to get to net zero and deliver consistently high-quality projects. We have seen that 2030 signatory firms have a distinct advantage. They have discovered that success depends on an organization-wide culture change, accountability, and an intentional effort to transform the project delivery process to align with their performance goals. We also work with owners—from commercial to institutional to municipal to large scale multifamily—on the same objective of institutionalizing sustainability. This often includes helping them change their design team selection process to get the best teams.

Tufts University’s recent RFQ for a new Science and Engineering Complex is a great example. In addition to ambitious performance goals, it needed to house a variety of wet and dry labs, along with a vivarium, and foster cross-pollination amongst researchers. The university knew that they needed a design team that could lead the way—as opposed to delivering a business-as-usual project—so we advised them to limit RFQ respondents to AIA 2030 Commitment signatories. The goal was to ensure the best possible candidates—and the responses were incredible.

In interviewing signatory firms, six key characteristics have differentiated them from the rest:

  1. An internally driven commitment: Signatories have committed being able to design for net zero by 2030. Firms who are self-motivated and not merely reactive to their clients have better control over the quality of their product and put protocols in place that result in better consistent outcomes. Signatory firms create a strategy for reaching these performance goals, which normally doesn’t happen.
  2. Culture is key: A focus on performance is part of the firm’s ethos. This is manifest by accountability across project teams, constant internal discourse about pEUI and LPD (lighting power density) and a sustainability leadership structure that reinforces priorities. These firms don’t have just one spokesman or a key “green team” but proficiency across the firm, which translates to consistent, reliable capability.
  3. Fluency in performance metrics: These firms communicate about their work, both in their marketing materials, in their interviews, and in metrics (pEUI, LPD). They understand what target performance for a project should be, how to prioritize strategies, what’s been achieved in the market, and how their projects have improved over time. This means they learn from their work and are constantly improving, rather than point to their green consultant or resort to vague generalities instead of specific data.
  4. Articulate a methodology: These firms can talk—in detail—about how they “make the sausage.” While many firms make nebulous references to ‘integrative design processes’ but can’t get into detail, signatory firms can break down how and when they leverage the team expertise, conduct analysis, and ensure that critical-path decisions are mapped out clearly. Eighty percent of the project is decided in the first 20 percent of the design process, and these firms know that once an opportunity is missed, it can’t be fixed without great pain and expense.
  5. Own your relationships: Having a methodology means that the typical dysfunctional architect/engineer relationship is not tolerated. These firms really take ownership of their relationships, ensuring they are aligned and integrated so that the process of analysis provides the owner with the most comprehensive and accurate range of options.
  6. Research and innovation are good: A focus on research is not present in every firm, and there are great firms who do not invest in R&D. However, the firms who do—especially in the areas of building science or occupant behavior and productivity—are able to provide the owner with the thought leadership and innovation that yields the best solutions.

All of these attributes contribute to excellence at the organizational level, and not just for sustainability. Owner awareness of the AIA 2030 Commitment is emerging and growing quickly. If your firm plans on being in business for in the next five years and beyond, you are going to want to be as competitive as possible. The AIA 2030 Commitment provides your firm with a framework to improve many aspects of your organization and then the ability to communicate those capabilities effectively.