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Why Architects Don’t Get It

A few years ago, the American Institute of Architects, the self-declared “voice of the architecture profession,” announced that  “AIA members will no longer need to complete the sustainable design requirement to fulfill their AIA continuing education.” Why? Because “sustainable design practices have become a mainstream design intention.” Hooray! If sustainability is “mainstream” now, and knowledge about it is no longer necessary “to maintain competency” and “to advance and improve the profession”—the purpose of continuing education, according to the AIA—then the profession must have met its environmental goals, and there’s nothing left to improve. Mission accomplished.

If only.

A decade ago, the AIA adopted the 2030 Challenge,  which seeks carbon neutrality by that year. Since buildings account for nearly half of the energy and three quarters of electricity consumed in the U.S., this is an essential aim. In Paris last fall, the world’s leaders committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, and they cannot accomplish this without the building industry. In 2009, the AIA launched the 2030 Commitment to give architects a framework for reporting their projects, and it began collecting this information for the year 2010. In the five years for which data is available (2010-2014), the volume of projects reported has multiplied more than 700 times (from 3.4 million square feet to 2.4 billion), providing a progressively clearer snapshot of the profession. To get to a 100% reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 2030, the target for those years was 60%. So how are we doing?

During that time, the average energy reduction in AIA member projects flatlined around 35%. The highest average in one year (2012), was 37%, 22 points below the target. In fact, in the first year after the AIA “sunsetted” sustainable design requirements, energy performance went down three points. Furthermore, the AIA lists  over 80,000 members in nearly 18,000 firms, while some 360 firms have signed the 2030 Commitment, and a little over a third of those (140) actually reported energy data for 2014, according to the latest reports. In other words, only 2% of AIA member firms have committed to pursuing carbon neutrality, and less than 1% are actually reporting on their progress. So much for the mainstream.

A 2009 poll revealed that a third of architects are skeptical about climate change, and 13% believe it’s “a myth.” While these numbers generally align with the larger public’s attitudes about global warming, they don’t suggest that architects are leading the conversation. Furthermore, if two thirds of architects believe in climate change, why have only 2% signed the 2030 Commitment? What’s holding us back?

One possibility is a lack of education. Perhaps the most common criticism about green building is that it costs too much. In a 2008 survey of over 700 construction professionals, 80% cited “higher first costs” as the biggest obstacle to green building. Yet, evidence increasingly shows that higher performance need not mean higher costs. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculates that adopting current best practices can achieve 50-60% energy reduction—at no additional cost. How are architects supposed to learn how to do this, if the AIA considers sustainable design education unnecessary?

Lack of leadership is endemic in the profession, and many of the most famous architects dismiss sustainability outright. “‘Green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture,” Peter Eisenman has said.


Lack of leadership is endemic in the profession, and many of the most famous architects dismiss sustainability outright. “‘Green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture,” National Design Award winner Peter Eisenman has said, and Pritzker Prize winner Frank Gehry once called green building standards “bogus.” Gehry since has said that “green building is clearly something architects need to be concerned with,” but his work hardly shows it. James Wines, author of Green Architecture, has called Gehry’s work “mind-boggling waste.”

When many of architecture’s leaders fail to take today’s most urgent challenges more seriously, how can we expect the profession’s rank and file to do so?

If some architects don’t believe sustainability is essential, what do they believe? “I deeply consider architecture as an art—the most abstract of all of them,” AIA Gold Medalist Santiago Calatrava told a reporter last year. As I wrote in the Huffington Post in November, the architect-as-artist is one of the most enduring myths of the profession, and it justifies the most damaging and wasteful extravagances. The New York Times recently reported that Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, due to open this spring, has been plagued by cost overruns, construction delays, persistent leaks, and angry outcries from the community. Nearly $4 billion of public money has been put toward what the New York Post labels “a self-indulgent monstrosity.” Of course, the project is just the latest in a string of recent starchitect-designed buildings that are astonishingly expensive, wasteful, and sometimes even dangerous. Can we seriously hope that starry-eyed architects will tackle real-world problems when they’re so busy dreaming of “art”?

Metropolis magazine once asked its readers, “When will all design need to incorporate sustainable practices to be considered ‘good design.’” Over 80% said it would happen within 8-9 years, and half those said within 2-3. That was 2002. In 2010, for my then-column in Architect magazine, I surveyed fifty sustainable design experts to identify the “greenest buildings” of the past few decades and compared the results to a Vanity Fair poll on the “greatest buildings” from the same period. Not one building and not one American architect appeared on both lists. Standards of “good design” and “green design” are far from aligned.

Can we seriously hope that starry-eyed architects will tackle real-world problems when they’re so busy dreaming of “art”?


From Eisenman to Calatrava, the profession considers the science of building divorced from the “art” of architecture. In Consilience, E.O. Wilson writes that the perceived conflict between art and science inevitably undermines sustainability: “until that fundamental divide is closed…the relation between man and the living world will remain problematic.”

I wrote my book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012), to address a simple question: Does sustainability change the face of design, or only its content? Conventional wisdom is clear: “Sustainability has, or should have, no relationship to style,” claims Rafael Viñoly. AIA Gold Medalist Cesar Pelli has said that architects value “the looks” of a building, and “sustainability doesn’t necessarily photograph.” But consider this: studies show that up to 90% of the impact of a building or product is determined by the earliest design decisions: location, orientation, massing, form, fenestration, etc.

Furthermore, pursuing sustainability can inspire great innovation. For the KfW Westarkade in Frankfurt, Sauerbruch Hutton shaped the tower like an airfoil, minimizing solar exposure at the southwest and conveying breezes across the surface to aid passive ventilation. The result is one of the most elegantly efficient buildings in Europe, achieving a 70% energy reduction below standards: Form and performance merge.

Following the principles of sustainability to their logical conclusion inevitably changes everything about architecture, including its purpose, process, and products. Design isn’t separate from sustainability—it’s the key to it.


Featured image: KfW Westarkade Frankfurt. Photo by Igor Prahin.


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