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Sustainable design key to cutting carbon footprints

The process for incorporating sustainability into design is rigorous and the stakes can be high, but this is where the rubber meets the road for high-performance, cost-effective outcomes.

I try to not think about the number of billable hours in the room as I grab my project folder and head into today’s workshop to discuss design efficiencies for energy and water. The whole project team – everyone from the owner, (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) engineers, civil engineers, architects and landscape architects, even the acoustics consultant – is here to make design decisions that will impact the health of the building, the people who use it and the community at large.

This workshop is an opportunity to make a real difference in our community’s resilience. The built environment is responsible for roughly 40% of global CO2 emissions, and it’s projected that 2.5 trillion square feet will be constructed or renovated in cities worldwide by 2060. Picture another New York City every month until today’s millennials are in their 70s.

The good news is that design decisions made early on in a project can reduce our contribution to detrimental emissions by as much as 70%.

New Mexico has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050 and the city of Albuquerque is developing a framework for managing the performance of our built environment. Here at D/P/S, we’re in our third year of reporting for the AIA2030 commitment to carbon neutral architecture.

But it’s not enough to simply offset energy consumption demands. We know that new forms of cooperative action are needed.

We want to do better, and workshops like these are where the rubber meets the road. The whole intent is to support high-performance, cost-effective project outcomes in full consideration of the synergies and trade-offs among systems. Sustainable design is not one-solution-fits-all, and strategies should solve multiple challenges at once.

At this particular workshop, we’re discussing design solutions for an elementary school, and the stakes feel especially high. We want to pay attention to air quality and lighting levels because they support learning. Water and energy savings will allow budgets to go further.

However, there are practical concerns to consider. The mechanical system was selected for familiarity and ease of maintenance, but it’s not nearly the most efficient system, so we need to incorporate additional efficiencies. I take a leap and suggest we add roof top photovoltaics (PV). Incorporating a PV system means the school self-supplies part of their energy needs through solar-power, reducing its energy bills while celebrating environmental values.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how readily this idea is received because it was well researched in preparation for today. But sometimes preconceptions can be difficult to overcome. It’s a good sign when we begin to talk about the right size of the PV array, rather than if it will be included. We also realize the school might be able to access alternative funding for the system. I am reminded once again how much more approachable this strategy is now that costs have come down and efficiency has gone up. As an investment, it just makes sense.

Before I know it, the workshop is over and we understand what our priorities are for each facet of sustainability as we target LEED Silver Certification. The design team is enthusiastic to bring this aspect into the design with full support of the building owners, and a series of warm handshakes shows me the school is excited, too. Not only can any project do this, every project should.

D/P/S has achieved 60 LEED Certified projects in our 60th year, and there are more than a dozen in the works, including this elementary school. It’s an honor to work for a firm that engages our partners in the process of incorporating sustainable design at exactly the point at which it has maximum positive impact.

Editor’s note: Monday, Oct. 7, is World Architecture Day


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