A climate positive architectural practice holistically improves the human ecological condition through design, practice, and advocacy.

The national Zero-Emissions Policy will require buildings to be energy efficient, produce no on-site emissions and use 100 percent renewable energy.

Alyssa is currently serving as the New Hampshire representative to the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Strategic Council.  This article developed out of the work that she did with a Council study group in 2023.  The twelve person team, co-chaired by Tim Lock of Opal Architecture (Maine) and Jean Caroon of Goody Clancy (Massachusetts), looked at the question: What does a “climate-positive” architectural practice look like?

One of the reasons Alyssa volunteers with the AIA, similar to our firm’s engagement with the B Corp movement, is the opportunity to change the world. Literally. We may have a limited impact as a small firm, but acting collectively we have an opportunity to be part of the necessary shift in the way we design and build.

The goal of the AIA Strategic Council is to look toward the future of the profession and provide guidance to our professional organization.  The study group that Alyssa contributed to this year found that with regard to climate-positive practice, there are many barriers to change – the risk of failure, losing current clients and/or revenue, not having the time to dedicate to research and development of new methodologies.  Despite these challenges, climate-positive practices across the country are creating pathways for change.

They see climate-positive practice as having three operational “buckets.” Project Implementation; Practice, Governance and Accountability; Research, Education & Advocacy.  The research encompassed examining twelve practices across the country of various scales, and connecting with peer organizations in the engineering disciplines as well as think tanks, policy and advocacy organizations such as  RMI, Shift Zero and the White House Climate Policy Office.

Learning from the Leaders

The vanguard leads the way for cultural change. Leading climate-positive firms have established new paradigms for their work, developing internal standards that go beyond code requirements and certification standards.  Although many participate in certification programs (such as LEED, Living Building Challenge, etc.) their work often exceeds or crosses the boundaries of these standards.  Climate-positive work focuses on what is most beneficial in the context of the project, rather than just “checking boxes” within an abstract framework.

Another key element of climate-positive practice is peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. Traditionally,  the idea of keeping a competitive edge has driven firms to secrecy about their tools and processes. Practices that are focused on solving our collective challenges move beyond that mindset. As firms recognize that we are all part of the solution to a global problem, we’ve realized that building on each other’s work is the way to move forward, faster.

As firms develop climate-positive practice, opportunities also open for research and development, integration with manufacturers and buildings, and sustainability consulting.  Alyssa noted that an  interesting fact the research uncovered is that while large firms have the greatest opportunity for positive impact due to their market share, they are often hampered by institutional entropy.  Smaller firms, while they can struggle to keep up with current research and technologies, are also more nimble and able to take risks.

One of the most important takeaways of the study is that regional differences are key. While we all seek to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, there are various paths to do so that vary by climate, cultural and political alignment, and material resource economies. The level of attention and education is also not consistent across all regions; there is great opportunity for mentorship within the profession and further development of robust circular resources at a local and regional level.

Taking it to the White House

An exciting off-shoot of the study was some direct engagement with the White House on a new zero-emissions building policy. Chair Tim Lock interviewed Heather Clark, Director of Building Emissions with the White House Climate Policy Office, in the course of the study. That relationship led to Ms. Clark presenting her work to the AIA Knowledge Communities in July, and to a delegation of AIA members meeting at the White House to provide input on the zero emissions building policy.

A draft of the standard was announced in October and the final policy is expected to be released next year.  It will require buildings to be energy efficient, produce no on-site emissions and use 100 percent renewable energy.  Having a clear standard will provide a basis for incentives and federal funding to accelerate change in the industry.

Climate Positive Practice at Placework

Placework was one of the firms that contributed our practices to this study.  Improving the ecological condition through design, practice, and advocacy, has been and will continue to be at the core of our practice. We’re already implementing process improvements based on the insights we’ve gained from our colleagues across the country.

We relish the opportunity to meet the goals of our clients while simultaneously raising the standard of the profession.  Working to refine and share how we might all better serve our communities and preserve the habitability of our planet?  That is why we do what we do!