I consider myself a pragmatic optimist, often looking for the inspirational possibilities of a situation, while also being mindful of practical obstacles that need to be addressed. I think that is why I so enjoy putting together each issue of eco-structure, where we seek to showcase forward-thinking work while addressing everyday contraints and challenges.
Lately, though, I’ve been fired up.
It started in mid-April, when I was invited to attend a lecture by Edward Mazria, AIA Emeritus, founder of Architecture 2030, at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I have always found conversations with Ed to be informative and thought-provoking, and his most recent presentation, titled “Architecture on the Brink,” was no exception. The U.S. renovates and builds 10 billion square feet of space each year, Mazria told the students gathered, emphasizing the potential for impact on the environment. So, he asked, what would happen between 2012 and 2100 if we continued pursuing architecture and urban planning with a business-as-usual approach? By 2050, he said, 25 percent of all species would go extinct. The coral reefs would die, we would be facing increasing water shortages, more wildfires and flooding, longer and more-intense hurricanes, and, by 2100, sea levels would rise anywhere from 0.75 meters to 2 meters. We’re on the brink, indeed. The take-home message: We’ve got a lot of work to do.
The following week, I attended Living Future, the annual conference of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI, formerly the International Living Building Institute). The three-day experience was one of the most enriching professional experiences I’ve had, and I came away reenergized and with a renewed sense of importance about the work our readers are pursuing. The experience also hammered home how much work there is yet to be done. Jason McLennan, Assoc. AIA, executive director of ILFI, author of the Living Building Challenge, and subject of our January/February 2011 Perspective column, infused the conference with a sense of optimism—this is a movement based on hope, not on shame or guilt, he said in his keynote—but also with a sense of urgency. “We’re losing every major environmental battle on a global scale,” he said, noting that he was inspired to write the Challenge because he saw the need for more dramatic and forward-thinking action. He dubbed attendees “green warriors” who must fight the popular tide and change the global conversation on the environment.
Two weeks later, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Friedman challenged attendees at the AIA National Convention in New Orleans to embrace a green global ecosystem for the sake of the country’s economic future. “Green is the new red, white, and blue,” he said, according to the AIA’s reports. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” He continued, “Right now we are having a Green Party, not a Green Revolution. Change or die—that’s a real revolution. When clients come to you, they should say we need to change to green or die.” It seems appropriate that this call to action take place in Louisiana. As reported in our sister magazine architect in May, climate change has an especially dramatic impact there: According to a U.S. geological study by the National Wetlands Research Center, coastal Louisiana lost an average of 34 square miles of land per year from 1950 to 2000, and a total of 1,900 square miles of land was lost from 1932 to 2000. The overall rate of wetland loss in the state, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, is the equivalent of one football field every 48 minutes.
I couldn’t fight a growing sense of urgency that for all the great discussions we have regarding the environmental impact of our buildings and the potential of this industry to influence and lead change around the globe, it’s also time for action on a much, much larger scale.
On the upside, the building industry is increasingly discussing environmental performance, but when it comes to action items, there’s a stunning lack of progress. The AIA recently released a report regarding progress of the organization’s 2030 Commitment Program. The intiative was launched in 2009 and participating firms pledged to make action plans and implement steps toward producing carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. The firms also pledged to institute at least four action items to reduce their own environmental footprints. The numbers, frankly, are bleak. I commend the 135 firms that signed on to the pledge, but can’t help but be disappointed. The USGBC has 20,000 member companies and organizations (I recognize that not all of which are architecture, engineering, or design firms), and the 2007 Economic Census, the most recent of its kind, reported that at that time, there were 25,144 practicing architecture firms in the country. To have 135 of more than 25,000 participating in a program is dismal.
I realize that not every firm aiming to meet the 2030 Challenge has signed on to the AIA pledge, and so this number is but one in a sea of statistics. But I hope it fires you up, too.
Being an optimist, I continue to be inspired and encouraged by the work that comes across my desk and that you find in the pages of the magazine each month. Being pragmatic, I challenge ECO-STRUCTURE’s readers to take the points offered by Mazria, McLennan, and Friedman to heart. We need plenty of discussion, yes, but we also need action. How will you help the industry grow and move forward today?