Congress Invites AIA to Testify on How the Built Environment Contributes to Climate Change – and What to Do About it

On February 12, 2020, the American Institute of Architects appeared before the U.S. Congress to explain why government leaders should consider the role that the built environment plays in climate change. The AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) has taken the lead in this area. COTE works to advance, disseminate and advocate design practices that integrate built and natural systems while enhancing the design quality and environmental performance of the built environment.

COTE Chair Julie Hiromoto, who is an HKS Principal and Director of Integration, testified before the U. S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Energy of the Committee on Energy and Commerce about proposed legislation on building energy efficiency and the importance of renewable energy. 

Q: What did the AIA hope to accomplish with your testimony on the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2019, H.R. 3692?

A: Since 1857, the AIA has fought to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare. The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) which I chair has been pushing for sustainable policy in the built environment for 30 years. In 2009, the AIA established the 2030 Commitment to help architecture firms utilize data-driven, project specific tools to improve building performance and achieve carbon neutral buildings by 2030. 

There were many bills included in the congressional hearing. The AIA was specifically focused on House Resolution 3962 (Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act), which includes some excellent and much needed programs to advance energy efficiency research, resource and tool development, technological advancement and education. It also includes an amendment to Section 304 of the Energy Conservation and Production Act (ECPA) to require the Secretary of Energy to encourage and support the adoption of more stringent building codes by states and municipalities, or codes where they don’t already exist. All good things. 

However, it also includes a provision to repeal Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act, which set targets for federal buildings to decrease overall energy use and phase out the use of fossil fuels. The AIA was a strong supporter of that bipartisan policy when signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007. AIA has repeatedly opposed the repeal of Section 433, and we cannot separate the energy efficiency conversation from energy sourcing. Both are critically important to meeting the Committee’s stated goal of a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

As I outlined in my written testimony, energy use reduction and where it comes from are two parts of the same conversation. We must do better on both fronts, not pick one or the other. Although the AIA supports many of the provisions included in H.R. 3962, the repeal of Section 433 would be a big mistake.  The AIA cannot and does not support undoing one of the most important pieces of climate policy related to buildings in the last 20 years.

Q: The bill highlights greater energy efficiency and updated building codes, cost-effective codes implementation for efficiency and resilience, coordination of energy retrofitting assistance for schools and much more. Yet many states and counties already have their own energy efficiency building code standards – some mandatory, some voluntary. What changes would H.R. 3692 have on existing state and local laws?

A: The language in the bill states that the Secretary shall… but each local jurisdiction is responsible for making their own choices. The AIA supports the consensus-based process of the ICC and the Department of Energy should provide support to any local jurisdiction that choses to upgrade and align their model energy codes and provide training and technical assistance for the development for state and local code adoption. Thus the bill would require the Secretary of Energy to support state and local code adoption, but it in no way requires states and localities to adopt the codes.

Q: You’re the current Chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE). In addition to the committee’s national energy policy advocacy efforts, what are the most urgent priorities COTE is focusing on to address climate change?

A: COTE has been busy. In 2019, we launched a best-practices design resource guide (the Toolkit) to make it easy for teams to deliver environmentally responsible projects. We also proposed a floor resolution (19-11) to the member delegates at the June conference for urgent and sustained climate action that was overwhelmingly passed.  In September, the AIA Board adopted the COTE Top Ten Measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, meaning that these principles are now the definition of design excellence for our profession. Sustainability is no longer optional or this “other thing” on the side. Environmental and socially responsible design is core to the value we bring as design professionals. The AIA responded quickly to assemble a Climate Action Plan taskforce. Next week at the Grassroots meeting for local component leaders and executives, this plan will be shared. It’s a very exciting time to be an AIA member and I am so proud of the work was have accomplished together. In 2020, COTE will be assessing what our unique role will be in implementing the Climate Action Plan — stay tuned for more on that.

Q: For you personally, what was it like testifying before congress? Do you think the hearing will have an impact on how the legislation is written and revised, and hopefully down the road, made into law?

A: What an incredible honor to be invited to participate in our legislative process. For those who know me, I’m not a policy expert like some others on the COTE Advocacy team. Sometimes I ask people to repeat what they said because it was too opaque, intricate and complicated the first time, and I didn’t get it. I think that’s a big barrier that prevents more people from actively participating in our governmental processes. Most often, you have to be an expert to engage. We worked together as a diverse team to prepare this testimony: AIA staff and policy experts, COTE Advisory Group members who have done this before, friends and trusted advisors. I’m so fortunate to have this support and each of us contributed from our own area of expertise, life experiences, project-based knowledge, client relationships and personal passions. 

It’s important to take a stand for what you believe in, especially when the issues at stake are critical ones. I’m proud of the leadership that the AIA has demonstrated by planting this bold stake in the ground and remaining true and committed to our values and purpose, even when the choices are not easy.

Literally, how did I feel? Since the testimony was filmed, there were some very bright TV studio lights that were quite intimidating. It really felt like sitting in the hotseat with the world watching. What do you do when you wonder if you can live up to expectations and the responsibility that others have gifted you? Trust in the preparation you’ve done and that the collaborative effort has covered all the bases, then put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

See below to watch the hearing. Julie’s testimony appears at 2:06:33. Click here to read Julie’s full written testimony.

See Julie’s interview with Architectural Record.