Neutral Zone

Neutral Zone

An initiative created by the AIA helps architectural firms turn the 2030 Challenge into a 2030 Commitment.


By Alexandra DeLuca

“I am such a believer that the hardest line to draw on a canvas is that first one,” says Greg Mella, an architect at SmithGroup JJR and co-chair of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment Steering Committee, which was formed in response to the challenge in 2006 by architect Edward Mazria for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Since 2009, nearly 400 firms have taken that initial step, tracking and reporting their entire portfolios—representing more than 2.6 billion square feet of project work in 2015—thanks to a national standardized framework developed by Mella and AIA to help measure the progress toward a carbon-neutral built environment.

“Our members really drove this,” says Melissa Wackerle, director of Sustainable Practice & Knowledge at AIA. “The creation of this initiative makes adopting the 2030 Challenge into a 2030 Commitment. It’s a commitment to design to those goals and measure progress.”

AIA collects data that includes the type of building, area, baseline energy performance, and predicted energy performance. “The program grows every year, so we’ve exponentially grown the square footage that’s being recorded along with number of committed firms. It’s an impactful program,” says Wackerle. “Our current goal is 70 percent reduction over the 2003 commercial energy and substance survey baseline.”

Greg Mella, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a vice president and co-director of sustainable design at SmithGroupJJR.

In 2015, the average energy savings reported by projects was 38.1 percent. Four percent met the 70 percent target with an additional 3 percent hitting the 60 percent reduction goal. The year also saw further efforts to help firms track and report their progress in a standardized way with the introduction of the new 2030 Design Data Exchange (DDx), an architectural dashboard and web-based tool to help firms benchmark and drive energy efficiency.

Melissa Wackerle, LEED AP BD+C, ND, is the senior director of sustainable practice and knowledge at the American Institute of Architects.

Melissa Wackerle, LEED AP BD+C, ND, is the senior director of sustainable practice and knowledge at the American Institute of Architects.

“In the beginning, we tried to create the simplest means of reporting possible, and I was very active early on to come up with a definition of what reporting is and working with others to develop the earliest Excel file that ultimately was used for five years for firms to report,” says Mella. “We dreamed of someday making this web based, and it took about five years before the Department of Energy got involved and helped fund the creation of DDx. DDx is now everything the Excel file was, just done in a way that is easier to share with teams.”

“The other big advancement in the DDx is not only in the database of the energies of your projects, but it helps firms visualize their projects in a new way with some of the research and reporting tabs,” he adds. “It’s all now embedded in the DDx.”

Both Mella and Wackerle hope this new tool combats the perception—especially for smaller firms—that this data is difficult to collect.

“We want to change firm culture,” says Wackerle. “We want to make sure that the firms are looking at the energy impact of their buildings early in the design phase. By doing early iterative analysis of the building’s performance, they can reduce energy consumption right out of the gate and maximize passive strategy before they start looking at efficient systems. It’s better to have a smaller system than it is to use passive strategies like daylighting and natural ventilation and those things where you’re able to build systems in.

“Behavior doesn’t change overnight. That’s a fact. Architects have a unique position in that they have a lot of control over the energy consumption of a building and a lot of power to reduce that,” she adds.

Mella agrees: “Anything we can do to just help them with that baby step. The DDx, when you first look at it, can be overwhelming, but you use that thing for 5 minutes and you’ll see it’s really intuitive and user friendly and a lot less scary. I hope we can help bridge the gap between firms that want to report, and the firms that actually do report.”

To further help, Wackerle, Mella, and the 2030 Commitment Working Group at AIA see DDx as progressing to serve as an educational hub where firms can share resources such as individual sustainability action plans. It’s all in their goal to become more “process versus outcome focused,” says Mella.

“We want to better define what the components of that sustainability action plan should be, and also change the idea that this is a one-time thing,” says Mella. “It’s more of a wiki, crowd-sourced tool that allows firms to share with the public and other firms the techniques and strategies that have been working for them—to move the needle to get us where we need to be on climate change. As DDx evolves from solely focused on that final EUI number, we envision it as a tool to get firms to where they actually need to be.”