David Baker Architects

DBA BLOG: APRIL 2022

Seven Years In: Learning from 2030 Reporting


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By Katie Ackerly, AIA, CPHC
Principal and Sustainable Design Lead

How the AIA 2030 Commitment metrics help us develop our own standards for building performance

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2118 Sacramento Street in Vallejo was electrified during construction, making it a very-near-ZNE permanent supportive housing project with 80% pEUI reduction. Image: Courtesy James E. Roberts-Obayashi Corp.

It’s now been seven years since DBA signed the AIA 2030 Commitment to evaluate the impact our design decisions have on an individual project's energy performance. We’ve written our goals, we’ve launched an Action Plan (including a new one this year!), and we’ve reported our project metrics.

In 2022, we reported data for 35 projects—almost 5 million gross square feet of DBA designs—with an average predicted EUI reduction of 63%.

And what have we learned?

We’ve come to see the 2030 metrics as an important gateway to a deeper, portfolio-wide understanding and perspective about our work. We don’t regard the 2030 metrics as a literal goal as much as a framework to develop our own set of standards when it comes to portfolio performance. In my view, EUI as a metric is a necessary nuisance. As I spelled out in 2015, both identifying a meaningful baseline and calculating EUI (energy use intensity) involves a lot of abstraction. I still believe that the quicker we can get beyond “percent reduction of EUI compared to a perhaps-questionably-meaningful baseline based on predictive energy modeling” as The Goal, the more we can start to form our firms’ own intrinsic motivators and standards for project performance.

But that doesn’t mean I’m against the exercise of gathering and reporting EUI across our portfolio. For example, 2030 has served as a powerful excuse to build a frame of reference for understanding EUI in the multifamily housing sector—what it's sensitive to and how much we think it matters in a broader context, especially given the value of housing to society. The exercise has also improved our literacy with energy metrics. They have enabled us to set the 2030 targets we think are the right ones for the multifamily sector: meet a maximum energy demand of 25 kbtu/sf-year (actual, not predicted), and utilize enough on-site PV to cut that demand at least in half. This is ambitious but achievable in the next 8 years (indeed several current projects already beat this goal). Most importantly, landing on this goal allows us to focus our priorities on the full spectrum of decisions that impact climate change mitigation and response in housing development.

A graph of this year’s reporting results shows a downward trend in our portfolio’s overall energy use: a 16% reduction over 12 years (30% among California projects). However, if solar PV is removed from this equation, the energy use intensity of our projects appears to trend slightly up. The upward trend is a little puzzling, given the stark transition from mixed fuel to all-electric buildings. The main difference is central heat pump water heaters, which are much more efficient than gas water heaters. The most likely explanation for the scatter and puzzling trend is that our modeling tools aren’t great and are slowly getting better (more realistic). In particular, energy code compliance modeling of mixed-fuel buildings appears to be optimistically low, based on utility data we’ve collected. Among active projects now, we are proud that one third now include more informative non-compliance energy modeling, a sharp increase in the last five years.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the 2030 reporting is how our working relationships and conversations around building performance have improved, including among both our staff and collaborators. We have been able to have more informed interactions with our energy and engineering consultants and to engage more directly with commissioning agents, other consultants, and stakeholders about our feedback loop. The metrics go a long way in encouraging clients and project managers to value non-compliance energy modeling and collecting actual utility data, which is a lot more informative than the metrics themselves.

While our portfolio has plateaued around 50-60% energy demand reduction and only modestly creeping further downward with the help of renewables, we can have a conversation about the baselines that are helpful, how our buildings are actually behaving, and the PV options available. This has spurred a rich and inclusive dialogue in the office about “why we're not winning,” the significance (or lack) of not meeting the goals, and what our criteria for success should be.

Falling short of the 2030 goal hasn’t undermined our ability to leverage it as a benchmark. We’re excited that the 2030 Commitment has now layered in the topic of off-site PV and embodied carbon, as these have become touchpoints of our firm’s self-education.

In the end, I want to caution against taking the 2030 Commitment at face-value as the accounting exercise that defines our progress as professionals in contributing to a decarbonized world. It seems that this is exactly what it means to many firms. Architects should be aware that there are many mitigating factors: the models are wrong; the baselines can be very confusing; and greenhouse gas emissions associated with buildings are complex. And it certainly serves no one to let the judgment calls fall in your favor just to feel better about your work or to gain a few more marketing points.

Still, it’s important not to abandon the effort. We’ve been able to glean successes and growth edges from it, and to use the 2030 Commitment as a platform for dialogue with peers, partners, clients, and stakeholders.

At DBA, we look forward to joining forces with architects and industry leaders to come together as a profession to increase our literacy and working knowledge about how to meaningfully contribute to a decarbonized built environment.

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Gross EUI: Predicted energy trends among modeled California multifamily and hospitality projects.

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Net EUI: Predicted energy trends among modeled California multifamily and hospitality projects.

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Katie Ackerly, AIA, CPHC, is a Principal and Sustainable Design Lead at David Baker Architects. You can contact her at katieackerly@dbarchitect.com.