Redefining Architecture: Pursuing Sustainable Design Excellence in the 21st Century 

Imagine looking at a modern-day proposal for a sustainable architecture project. You will most likely see graphics and verbiage that claim to transform the setting. Such a ‘vision’ for the project might even contain photorealistic renderings that closely resemble a finished product. Would it be hyperbole to say that as our challenges have gotten more difficult, we seem to have gotten quicker at formulating design solutions?  

In a fiercely competitive world, we need to have a project integrating all disciplines, right? But what if the client is already sold on what the product by the time the commission is awarded? Is there a way out of such a Catch-22? When it comes to incorporating sustainability, why does there seem to be no intermediate between ‘too early’ and ‘too late’?  

As different disciplines have gotten more specialized and scientific, wrangling the chaos becomes much easier when we choose to let the product emerge out of the process rather than backfill the process into the preconceived notion of a product.   

In this post, we will examine some precedent literature and the tools and resources at our disposal t

Rethinking Sustainable Architecture 

Just over a decade ago, the Architectural Review ran a yearlong campaign called ‘The Big Rethink,’ with Part 1 titled, ‘Towards a More Complete Architecture’.  

In a compelling introduction, the author Peter Buchanan calls “buildings and our dispersed cities” major contributors to the environmental crisis we’re experiencing.

Some architects are now designing brilliantly sophisticated and effective ‘green’ buildings’. But these are still not sufficiently broadly conceived to deliver sustainability. They will merely reduce the degree of unsustainability, but are not conceived of in terms of the profound cultural changes necessary to inspire the urgent and radical transformations we must undertake to reach true sustainability. A thorough rethink is required to arrive at more imaginatively exciting yet pragmatically achievable approaches.  

The Living Building Challenge, a certification system and an advocacy tool, conceived by the International Living Future Institute more than a decade ago, is now in version 4.1. Consider its provocative question in nudging us towards socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative world.

What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place? 

So, what does a ‘rethink’ sufficiently addressing such concerns mean for the sustainable e-design process?  

Sustainable Design, Rooted in Research  

Now, imagine that the proposal and the project pursuit resulted in the project scope being awarded. Hopefully, the project is not being designed without practice or firm-level values, policies, commitments, and best practices.   

The owner's sustainability disclosures, often framed around Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles, usually serve as foundational criteria in establishing sustainability goals for a project.  

Such disclosures tend to have relatively general core values or specific areas of performance that are a priority for the owner. These areas of performance can come with baselines, targets, timelines, and tracking of any ongoing progress.    

However, while ESG criteria may inform some client approaches, it is not uncommon for projects to also incorporate first-layer aesthetic or demonstrative goals, such as the inclusion of photovoltaic (PV) panels, without necessarily embedding deeper performance objectives.  

Nonetheless, the most insightful clients present their goals and objectives in ways that empower architectural designers to propose solutions that not only meet but exceed the initial project expectations, thereby fostering enhanced outcomes and synergies within the project.  

This advanced client engagement facilitates a more integrated and innovative approach to design, ultimately leading to more sustainable and impactful architectural achievements. 

What is a baseline? Let’s Compare & Define the Industry Standard...

If one zoomed out from owner priorities progressively, here are some questions to consider:  

  • How can a site harmoniously accommodate what is being considered?  

  • Can the immediate community socially and environmentally afford what is being proposed?  

  • If everyone followed the same approach, will it break the planet or restore it?  

This is a lot to consider. Research can help with getting a good start.  

Enter the AIA Framework for Design Excellence.   

AIA Framework for Design Excellence 

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and its Committee on the Environment (COTE) founded the Top Ten Awards 28 years ago, based on the premise that sustainability is essential to design excellence and vice versa.

The original motivation was that recognizing 10 projects a year would soon cause a shift in the overall design culture and the program can be dissolved once that goal was achieved.  

Additionally, there was concern that sustainable design was being viewed as an isolated concept from the primary design awards (primarily awarded for aesthetic and complexity) and that to be truly sustainable, our awards should only honor holistic excellence in design. 

In response, a few years ago, the criteria for the award were made available freely as the Framework for Design Excellence.

The above infographic from AIA should give you a good idea of the measures involved and the questions they raise.   

Design for Ecosystems

Design for Ecosystems Measure

Think of your ongoing or recently completed favorite project. Do you know which ecoregion your site is in? What are some human and nonhuman life forms impacted by the proposed development?  

If you did not investigate these aspects before beginning design, your project is likely not supporting ‘regional habitat restoration,’ highlighting the need for better integration of landscape architecture into your design process.  

Level IV Ecoregions of the Continental United States

If you input the zip code 30303 (Atlanta, Georgia) into this ArcGIS Hub map resource, you should get the following hierarchy of ecoregions:  

  • Level 1:  8 Eastern Temperate Forests  

  • Level 2:  8.3 Southeastern USA Plains  

  • Level 3:  45 Piedmont  

  • Level 4:  45b Southern Outer Piedmont   

  • EPA Region:  4   

Your landscape architect should be able to tie this information to your design approach.  

 Design for Change

Design for Change Measure

Let’s consider the following statement: 

How does the project address future risks and vulnerabilities from social, economic, and environmental change?   

What are some current and future environmental risks your project is exposed to? You can use a resource like to investigate further. Here are some results for the zip code 30303:  

  • Flood Factor: Moderate  

  • Fire Factor: Minimal  

  • Wind Factor: Major  

  • Air Factor: Moderate  

  • Heat Factor: Major  

If your site is at a high risk for one or more of these hazards, you might want to aim for a deeper integration with an internal or external resilience specialist.   

Hopefully, this gives you an insight into how the Framework for Design Excellence can enrich your process and product.  

For further reading on the Framework, see Paula Melton’s and BuildingGreen’s insight into how some architecture firms are using it both overtly and covertly to make inroads into sustainability and design excellence.    

Can you imagine your client being impressed if you framed your ‘Owner’s Project Requirements’ (OPR) document based on questions from the Framework?   

As you conclude your research at concept stage, you should be walking away with a few things:  

  • A tight integration of all design disciplines  

  • Sustainability goals for most of the Framework measures  

  • A plan for tracking progress against the goals throughout the design and construction process.   

Design for Resources

Design for Resource Measure

To explore the idea of design as a quantifiable response further, let us consider this question by the ‘Design for Resources’ measure of the Framework:  

How are materials and products selected and designed to reduce embodied carbon and environmental impacts while enhancing building performance?   

At this point, from the concept stage kickoff, let us say you have a target for reducing embodied carbon on your project by x%.  

Optimizing the structural system in concert with your structural engineer should be high on the priority list because structure can constitute 80% of a building’s embodied carbon.

The first steps of optimization can reduce material volumes and incorporate reclaimed materials for non-structural end uses.  

Next, ideally, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) focused on the building’s embodied carbon is guiding the product selections and decision-making pertaining to structure, enclosure, and interiors at this point.  

Whether or not an LCA is involved, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), the disclosures manufacturers use to communicate the environmental impacts of their products, are a great resource for design teams.   


Construction Works Assessment Information

If the General Contractor (GC) is available during design phases, there are at least two opportunities for integrating them into the design process. One is to assess the first cost impacts of low embodied carbon alternatives under consideration. The other is to set them up for tracking construction-related electricity and fuel use on the site throughout the construction duration.   

Construction stage emissions, falling under stages A4 and A5 of the LCA scope, that tend to be in the 7-20% range of total embodied carbon, can balloon to 30% on the worst projects.

Design for Economy

Design for Economy

As a second example in examining design as a quantifiable response, let’s consider this statement from the ‘Design for Economy’ measure of the Framework: 

Good design adds value for owners, occupants, community, and planet, regardless of project size and budget.   

Return on investment calculations typically look at the direct financial benefit (or lack thereof) to the owner. However, when good design decisions reduce pollution, emissions, and improve air quality, the surrounding community also reaps the benefits. Triple Bottom Line (TBL) and Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) have the potential to capture such often ignored benefits.   

For a specified period of study, BCA goes beyond the literal financial payback and attaches a dollar figure in terms of ‘Net Present Value’ (NPV) to social and environmental benefits for the cost of a given strategy.

Of course, such a comparative analysis requires a reasonable baseline. Sometimes frameworks for a clear baseline definition exist, and sometimes suitable assumptions must be made.  LEED’s pilot credit ‘Informing Design Using Triple Bottom Line Analysis’ allows for BCA on at least six LEED credits that must include the following three:  

  • Indoor Water Use Reduction  

  • Outdoor Water Use Reduction  

  • Optimized Energy Performance  

LEED’s recommended social or environmental costs or benefits to be studied under the BCA include ‘improved health outcomes,’ ‘reduced carbon emissions,’ ‘social value of water saving,’ ‘increased recreational value,’ etc.   

Additionally, BCA is not limited to building scale. In 2018, City of Phoenix, in partnership with others, conducted a BCA of their Low Impact Development/Green Infrastructure measures listed below.

  • Rain garden/Bioretention basin: shallow earthen depressions that collect stormwater runoff into native soils to support planted vegetation.   

  • Swale: rock or vegetated swales are open, shallow channels that are designed to slowly convey runoff flow to downstream discharge points.   

  • Infiltration trench: a channel-like subsurface excavation that has been filled with gravel to provide large pore spaces for stormwater to infiltrate.   

  • Pervious pavers: Also called interlocking porous concrete pavers, these permeable surfaces use the spaces between the pavers to infiltrate water and can be designed to reduce peak runoff.   

  • Porous concrete: a specific type of concrete with a high porosity used for flat work applications that allows rainfall to pass directly through and infiltrate the soil below.   

  • Porous asphalt: allows rainfall to drain through the surface into a stone recharge bed and infiltrate the soil below.   

From a TBL NPV standpoint, swale and bioretention basins fared the best whereas concrete, pervious pavers, and porous asphalt fared the worst.   

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) sweetens the deal further by providing immediate tax credits for qualifying investments in higher efficiency.   

In Georgia’s case, the environmental think-tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) estimates that about $16 Billion could flow its way by the year 2050 through the federal investments outlined within the IRA.

Clean Energy Economy Opportunity

If you notice one of the metrics depicted in the graphic above, $9 Billion are projected to be saved per year in avoided deaths. This outcome by itself could justify the overall $16 Billion investment and it is a great example of how TBL BCA can help push strategies that might at first seem cost prohibitive.   

For further details on the IRA, see this factsheet by cove.tool.  

Design for Construction and Operation 

True integrative approaches stretch the definition of industry standard phases such as Schematic Design (SD), Design Development (DD), Construction Documents (CD), and Construction Administration (CA). The GC may be helping the design team with pricing and product availability research during design phases and the sustainability specialist may be helping the GC meet specification requirements and find suitable alternatives during construction. Where such a give and take becomes seamless, checking progress against goals that are set early in the design remains consistent and the process becomes more fulfilling for everyone involved.   

By extension, if the design intent cannot be realized during operations, sustainability claims can fall flat or even credibility concerns can arise. Setting up appropriate metering and submetering, ongoing commissioning of systems, permitting of specialized systems, and achieving net-zero certifications could mean that the design team is involved in the first 1-2 years of the operation of a building.   

As portions of the U.S. have become unlivable or uninsurable because of sea levels rising and forest fires, many of the aspects of design that are outlined above are becoming more and more critical.  

The proliferation of data centers as a project typology is also showing us the limitations of our traditional efficiency approaches and the impact that unbridled operations can have on limited resources.  

Pandemic-induced disruptions to supply chains and pricing uncertainty are not going away anytime soon and continue to challenge business as usual methodologies in project delivery and construction.  

Do you agree that our only hope lies in a framework of design excellence that remains deeply rooted in sustainability?  

About The Author Ramana Koti


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