Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to look back. Many of the earliest examples of architecture and design responded to both site and climate and incorporated natural “passive” climate control strategies. It was only with the advent of cheap energy and advances in environmental system controls that designers were able to decouple building design from the external environment.

This made most buildings intensively energy dependent, increasing their greenhouse gas emissions and making them diametrically opposed to the sustainable designs of the past.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative (SBCI) (UNEP SBCI, 2010) estimates that GHG emissions from the building sector are around 33 percent of total emissions. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that the building sector consumes nearly half (47.6 percent) of all energy produced in the United States (2013, Architecture 2030). Furthermore, 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S. is used just to operate buildings. To make matters worse, these numbers typically account only for emissions from building operation, although buildings also generate GHG emissions through construction materials and processes, water consumption, waste and even site work.

The climate crisis means that we must rethink the future of sustainable design, but it also means drastically altering our thinking of the present. All new buildings should be designed to be carbon neutral. To achieve this, buildings should be designed to high-performance efficiency standards and generate and/or procure enough renewable energy to offset emissions from other sources. I propose a three-pronged approach to the design of carbon neutral buildings through practice, education and research.

Several strategies organized in the following categories will lead to the implementation of low carbon/carbon neutral buildings in practice: design, codes, tools, basic principles and awards.

Most current research on sustainable architecture is directed to improving established technologies, such as HVAC systems while making buildings tighter and better insulated. The better way forward is for architecture to incorporate “passive” design strategies first. Passive design transfers energy from a building to various natural heat sinks, using heat flow paths that do not exist in conventional buildings. Because of how they collect, store and distribute energy, passive heating and cooling systems can provide thermal comfort with lower capital and operating costs than conventional systems. Their simple design also means that, in many cases, they can be built at lower costs, using local labor and resources. In turn, this generates income that stays in the community and contributes to economic and social sustainability and resiliency on top of the environmental benefits.

Sustainable design must also address social inequities. It is not enough to design the latest and greatest high-performance building; we must also design for those who have the least. During extreme heat events, for example, inadequate building design and expensive energy make air conditioning prohibitive for the poor. This can cause health problems and even death, especially in the elderly. The right design strategies can address the issue of energy poverty.

Building energy codes are another important tool for addressing the climate crisis. When implemented correctly, they promote innovation and improve performance. California is a good example: In July of 2018, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced that greenhouse gas emissions in California in 2016 fell below 1990 levels for the first time since emissions peaked in 2004. Emissions dropped 13 percent statewide since the 2004 peak while the economy grew 26 percent. California now produces twice as many goods and services for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of the nation.

Clearly, codes do not have to restrict growth but can help large populations invest in their own future. However, most building codes currently evaluate an incomplete reality because they regulate the effects of only some of a building’s physical properties and energy consumption. Architecture 2030, for example, has developed a zero-net-carbon building code standard. Their newly released ZERO Code is a national and international building energy standard for new building construction that integrates cost-effective energy efficiency standards with on-site and/or off-site renewable energy resulting in zero-net-carbon buildings. The ZERO Code includes prescriptive and performance paths for building energy efficiency compliance based on current standards that are widely used by municipalities and building professionals worldwide.

Digital Tools
3D printing, three-dimensional digital visualization and rendering tools, building information modeling (BIM) and virtual and extended reality are now common in architectural practice. These tools on their own cannot help us address energy efficiency; it is our responsibility as designers to better integrate energy modeling tools in the design process, especially in initial design phases. Energy modeling is still not very transparent, nor is it easy to move between architectural and energy modeling tools.

Two current developments that could contribute to an increase in energy modeling tools in architecture will be the new edition of the AIA’s Architect’s Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process, and ASHRAE Standard 209–2018 Energy Simulation Aided Design. As always, modeling early and often is a recipe for the successful design integration of passive and efficiency strategies.

Basic Principles
Understanding the foundational principles behind sustainable design is crucial to innovation. While rating systems are important and have helped achieve a market transformation, I would argue that they do not always promote deeper thinking or sustainable innovation. Furthermore, in some cases, the green rating system process is detached from the design process and is seen by the design team as a constraint instead of an opportunity to design a more exciting and innovative building. Having practitioners with a deep understanding of passive design strategies leads to a more comprehensive approach.

Design Awards
By recognizing excellence in sustainable design, design awards demonstrate innovation and promote advancements in sustainability. The AIA Committee on the Environment’s Top Ten Awards is just one example of a program that promotes the integration of performance-driven design through quantification as one of the criteria. More and different types of programs that reward this type of design would encourage sustainable innovation.

Beyond Carbon
Carbon is not the only environmental issue we face; water, scarcity of resources, indoor air quality, as well as social equity all warrant the attention of the design community. In addition to performance, design must now consider adaptation, mitigation and resilience. Buildings should adapt to local conditions through measures that reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems against actual or expected climate change effects. We must mitigate climate change through technological change and substitution that reduces resource inputs and emissions per unit of output. Finally, we must design resilient buildings that have the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance (Resilient Design Institute). Both adaptation and mitigation are important and complementary to each other. Effective mitigation measures will reduce the impacts to which we will need to adapt, and effective adaptation measures will reduce the impacts associated with any given climate change effect.

Developments in architectural practice and the need to further advance the profession emphasize the importance of research. The construction industry evolves very slowly and building design and construction are behind other fields in innovation. While automobiles are advancing to driverless after their first century, buildings are essentially the same as they were in the same period. If we prioritize innovation, and if all designers innovate in at least one area of every project, we could quickly advance the profession.

Architectural research is becoming increasingly important but it’s far from being sufficiently recognized in practice and even in academia, where architecture schools are strong in either training architects for the profession or for scholarly research, but typically not both. Furthermore, funding for architectural research is minuscule compared to other fields such as physics and engineering. Architects are problem solvers and effective as innovators. There are many opportunities for research in architecture connected to sustainability, developing and improving passive cooling systems with new technologies and materials, and developing more sophisticated energy modeling tools. Many universities and research institutions have already developed tools and programs to support sustainability and resilient research, but they have no funding for continued development. In addition to state and federal entities, this funding could come from other sources such as energy utilities.

Education is an important part of the three-pronged approach toward achieving carbon neutral buildings. Future architects must have the knowledge and skills to design the buildings needed to keep our global temperature rise well below the 2-degree limit. For this to happen, architecture schools must provide a more comprehensive sustainable design education to all students. Currently, architecture students in the United States are exposed only to basic concepts in sustainable design. They are introduced to more advanced concepts such as energy modeling or the design of zero net energy buildings only in advanced graduate or undergraduate seminars or upper division studios. Because these courses are not required, only a small fraction of architecture students can enroll in them.

The following principles should be considered to improve sustainability in architecture education:

• Introduce sustainability as early as possible in the program and teach research methods to undergraduate students.
• Integrate design directly in lecture courses that teach sustainability. Architecture students typically learn by implementing concepts from lecture courses in their design projects, especially in studios. This learning can also occur directly in a lecture course, where students develop a design project to implement concepts learned in lectures.
• All design studios should incorporate sustainability. When necessary they can reduce the number of variables to consider in a design problem, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of sustainability.
• Increase student understanding of building physics, with a special emphasis on heat transfer through the building envelope by conduction, convection and radiation.
• Increase student understanding of energy modeling tools, teaching students how to use digital and analog simulation software as appropriate to test concepts and ideas. Once the students understand the concepts, they can use tools to evaluate them.
• Education should include hands-on activities that provide students with unique learning opportunities to be more creative and go beyond established strategies and methods providing them with opportunities to test ideas. Yes, insulation and shading are good, but what if the building becomes the air conditioner or the furnace? Is this idea familiar or radical? Students would then design, build and test passive heating and cooling systems that perform incredibly well, learning how to integrate research in their process. The look in their eyes when they feel the cooling or heating and collect the results is priceless!

Organizations like the Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) or Building Technology Educators’ Society are dedicated to supporting excellence in the teaching of environmental science and building technologies through a broad range of practical activities. SBSE at their 2009 Retreat in Québec proposed that the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) and the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB/CCCA) set as a Condition for Accreditation that every North American architecture school’s curriculum provide all graduates with the theoretical and practical competence to consistently design high-quality carbon neutral/zero net energy built environments. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected and even though this seems to be a priority for the planet, it does not seem to be a priority for architectural accreditation boards.

Still, sustainable education is important to architecture firms and is typically one of their hiring priorities. Design firms want to meet their 2030 Commitment targets and hire graduates that know how to use analysis tools to inform their designs.

Continuing education for architects is also an important part of the education component. Since 2012, AIA members no longer have a sustainable design education requirement. However, it would be helpful to reinstate it. Even though there is more awareness, sustainable design practices are far from being mainstream.

We need technical knowledge to innovate and ensure that our ideas will work but we also need sustainable design skills. Architecture is the marriage of art and science. In my view, if a building is not environmentally responsive, it cannot be a beautiful building.

We must urgently move toward buildings that John T. Lyle would call “regenerative” and that can ultimately regenerate deteriorated environmental systems back into existence, creating a “better” environment than initially found.

We must teach architectural research methods, implement more research in practice and invest more in building research.

Clear ecological literacy goals should be implemented in the accreditation requirements for architecture schools, which should include carbon neutrality, resilience and adaptation to our rapidly changing climate.

Our responsibilities increase by the minute. Our buildings not only have to perform well, they must be resilient and designed for passive survivability. Climate-related natural disasters will only increase in frequency and intensity and we cannot continue living in buildings that become uninhabitable in the absence of outside energy.

As we strive to meet these challenges, it is good to remember Glenn Murcutt’s saying: Follow the sun. Observe the wind. Watch the flow of water. Use simple materials. Touch the Earth lightly.

There is much to do. And there is little time.


Pablo La Roche is professor of architecture and interim director of the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at Cal Poly Pomona University, and sustainable design leader and associate vice president at CallisonRTKL. “Building energy codes are another important tool for addressing the climate crisis. When implemented correctly, they promote innovation and improve performance.”

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018 edition, where you’ll find more articles about sustainable, regenerative, resilient design.