Architects Must Lead Conversations about Climate Change to Prioritize People and Planet

The 26th session of the Conference of Parties (COP26) is underway in Glasgow, Scotland and this is the first year that the American Institute of Architects has sent an official delegation of observers to the Conference. The group includes HKS Principal and Director of Integration, Julie Hiromoto, FAIA. She is attending  along with AIA President Peter Exley, FAIA, of Architecture Is Fun; and Michael Davis, FAIA, of Bergmeyer Associates; and Dr. Mark Breeze, University of Cambridge and AIA UK Sustainability Chair; who together comprise the official AIA delegation of NGO observers. 

At COP26, we’ll talk about how architects can help reach international goals to address the climate emergency. We’ll do it by designing for energy efficiency and carbon neutrality by 2030 in accordance with standards set forth in the Paris Agreement on climate change and the AIA 2030 Commitment.

“I will be listening and engaging to learn how architects can take a leadership role to realize the plans that will be finalized in Glasgow,” says Hiromoto. “Where can design have the greatest impact? How can we inspire everyone—from our teams to our clients, collaborators and communities—to do more to realize a more just, net zero carbon future?”


How can we inspire everyone—from our teams to our clients, collaborators and communities—to do more to realize a more just, net zero carbon future?

But we can’t achieve our goals alone. We can only realize them with the support and involvement of our clients, our consultants, our contractors, our suppliers, our communities, our policy makers and government officials. It will take all of us to realize our goals.

What can we, as architects, do? We can lead the conversation. We can listen. We can build alliances built around values, such as Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, because architecture reflects our values as a society.

To attain our goals, we must determine what do we value now? What do we measure? How can we prioritize people and planet? It’s all about values, how we talk about them, how we measure them, and how we express them.

What is the value of clean air?

When we first designed our HKS Chicago office, we were thinking about what our employees wanted in an office. We were also thinking about how to embody our firm’s core values, or as our CEO Dan Noble put it, “to walk the talk.” We prioritized we spaces over me spaces, and we prioritized sustainable design that would improve human health and well-being. It was the right move to express our values.

And then, COVID-19 changed everything about how we value clean air.

Our initial investment in our values realized an unexpected return, as we can now say that our employees recognize a 56 percent indoor air quality improvement. The design of our new office has also realized a 60 percent reduction in energy cost per square foot to operate, improved the quality of air and water our team consumes, led to greater employee sleep satisfaction and increased employee presence in our office. Read more about the impact our design has in an Impact Report outlining the measurable outcomes of our energy, financial and well-being goals.

What is the value of water conservation?

Water is one of the world’s scarcest natural resources. And as the effects of climate change impact our global environment, more flood zones emerge, more ecosystems are endangered and water quality is compromised. We can adapt and improve upon these conditions with design and in the process, conserve water and reduce building emissions.

In designing the Virginia Military Institute’s Corps Physical Training Facility, we worked with civil engineers to reconfigure a creek that routinely flooded parts of the historic campus and local community. The building spans the creek, sitting atop a holding basin that collects water and limits the dangerous amounts of run-off that has damaged streets and the quality of local drinking water.

The building and its surrounding landscape also feature a cistern to retain rainwater absorbed through green roofs and permeable pavers. Recycled water collected through these means is cleaned through on-site filtration and used in plumbing systems with low-flow fixtures. The Corps Physical Training Facility’s building systems take advantage of water available in the atmosphere to cool internally circulating air, also cutting back on energy use and emissions.

Our work at VMI exemplifies how high-performance design really is a “team sport,” and how collaboration is crucial to sustainability.

What is the value of equitable communities?

In early 2021, HKS designers started working with a southern Dallas neighborhood to design a park on land that was once a dumping ground for roof shingles piled up higher than — and often adjacent to — the houses nearby. Residents worried about the health risks that the heaps of toxic waste posed for their families. Some constantly wore masks to mitigate the effects of what became known as “Shingle Mountain” on their lungs.

City officials have since cleared out the neighborhood eyesore and Citizen HKS, local activists, the Dallas Regional Chamber, and the Dallas Stars Foundation are partnering with residents to repurpose the land. The park project is called Floral Farms, as a symbol of hope and change for the community.

The park will include a community garden, soccer field, walking trail and a landscaped entrance featuring the phrase “together we can move mountains” to celebrate the residents’ resolve in removing Shingle Mountain. The project is an example of how architects can partner with their local communities to solve their most pressing challenges through impactful design.

These are just a few examples of our values at HKS. The time is now for us to flip the traditional script, to change the conversation. We must bring to light the long-term value of design — and what that means — to all the people who architecture impacts. What we learn at COP26 will help us on our journey.

“The world is watching all of us, from architects to elected leaders, as we determine how to build a more just, resilient, and healthy future,” says Hiromoto. “Our work is just getting started; post-COP26 the next challenge will be inspiring people to take action with us. We will tell the story of how we can better realize our shared societal values through architecture and design.”