Sustainable Design is Key to Cutting Carbon Footprints

October 7, 2019 | Written by Aimee Smith, Intern Architect and Sustainability Manager

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 collaborative meeting 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.

I’ve been working as the sustainability manager at D/P/S for a few years now and have facilitated Integrated Design Workshops before but I still get nervous. Or, maybe it’s excitement I feel because finding creative and sustainable solutions is what actually attracted me to architecture in the first place.

Designing for Maximum Positive Impact

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.  What does that even look like? Picture another New York City every month until today’s millennials are in their 70’s. 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%.

Cities and states in the Southwest are making encouraging progress toward advancing a sustainable way of life. Arizona’s Water Initiative has reduced the state’s water consumption levels to those recorded in the 50’s and the City of Phoenix is on track to reduce carbon pollution from buildings by 80% by the year 2050. New Mexico has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050, Las Cruces aims to decrease energy use in City operations by 20% and incorporate renewable energy to meet 10% of the City’s electricity needs, 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 when it comes to incorporating sustainable strategies into design and construction.

High-Performance, Cost-Effective Outcomes

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 tradeoffs among systems. Sustainable design is not a one solution fits all approach and the 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. Nothing is more important than the education and health of our kids so optimizing building performance is imperative. We want to pay attention to air quality and lighting levels because they support learning. Water and energy savings will save the district money allowing budgets to go further.

The decision makers at this workshop share this passion for student wellbeing and have a deep respect for natural resources. But, there are practical concerns to consider. For example, the mechanical system was chosen because staff are familiar with its function and are ultimately charged with maintaining it. It’s not nearly the most efficient system, so we need to incorporate additional design efficiencies. I take a leap and suggest we add roof top photovoltaics (PV). Incorporating a PV system would mean that the school self-supplies part of their energy needs through solar-power, reducing their energy bills while celebrating their environmental values.

I’m surprised at how readily this idea is received. Maybe I shouldn’t be since this option was well researched in preparation for today but sometimes there are preconceptions that 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.

60 LEED Projects in our 60th Year

Before I know it, the workshop is over and we have a clear plan on 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 show me the school is excited too. Not only can any project do this; every project should.

I’m proud that in our 60th year, D/P/S has achieved 60 LEED Certified projects (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 clients and partners in a collaborative process for incorporating sustainable design at exactly the point at which it can have maximum positive impact.

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