Climate Change: What Can We Do

Valeria Macias

Posted by Valeria Macias

Climate change is a battle we’re all fighting and for this year’s Earth Week we wanted to remind ourselves what our goals are for the building community and share a few tips to help us all achieve them. The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global GHG emissions and in the United States, the residential and commercial sectors account for approximately 40% of total U.S. energy consumption. So changes we make have a more far-reaching impact. 

The Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction have noted that the energy efficiency of buildings must be improved by 3 percent each year, a standard that will require significant and widespread effort to reach by 2030.The good news is that conversations have started amongst construction, design and engineering and have been going on for some time now on how to combat climate change. 

louis-reed-hzp_aT02R48-unsplashSetting Goals that have the Biggest Effect

Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 challenge in 2006 asking the global architecture and building community to adopt the following targets:

Immediate Goals

  • All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 70% below the regional (or country) average/median for that building type.
  • At a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area shall be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 70% of the regional (or country) average/median for that building type.

Future Goals

  • The fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings and major renovations shall be increased to:
    • 80% in 2020
    • 90% in 2025
    • Carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).

Impact and Support

The 2030 Challenge has been adopted and is being implemented by 80% of the top 10 and 65% of the top 20 design and engineering firms in the U.S. Additionally, the AIA, ASHRAE, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the federal government, and many state and local governments have adopted the Challenge - as well as counterparts in Canada!

AIA is contributing by creating their own 2030 commitment by prioritizing energy performance, participating firms can more easily work toward carbon neutral buildings, developments and major renovations by 2030. 

Burnham practices what we preach. We have moved nearly all of our operations to the cloud, reducing our energy footprint nearly 40%, and are currently phasing out paper plans (where allowable) for digital plans by way of our partner, Fieldwire. Additionally, our new office space we moved into this March features an efficient HVAC system, motion sensor lights and ceased using disposable kitchen items in favor of real cups, plates, and cutlery with a good old-fashioned dishwasher.

Illinois' Approach for Change

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has partnered with Illinois Green Alliance to advocate and establish sustainability through the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). They're taking decisive action on the climate crisis by putting Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy. CEJA formed in 2017 when a group of individuals found energy sustainability gaps that needed to be filled. If passed, the act will allow efficiency programs to fix health and safety problems. To learn more, click here.

New York's Approach for Change

In May 2020, New York City’s Energy Conservation Code went into effect to coincide with the New York State’s Energy Code. The environmental goal is to continuously improve buildings’ energy efficiency with the intention to meet the 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050. These new requirements are in keeping with the City’s commitment to combat climate change. The energy code is ever-evolving as we heed the call to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Challenges and Solutions

A significant setback in meeting the 2030 challenge is that it’s not a requirement for design professionals to accept, leaving it up to individual firms to push for these actions. Another setback is bringing existing and older buildings up to energy efficiency standards. 

Pushing for updated building and energy codes through municipalities is a way to enable efficiency across all boards, which includes designing for resilience— creating and protecting built environments that will withstand rising seas, more frequent and severe storms, and other effects of climate change. States have started by implementing updated energy codes which you can read into here, here and here

Some firms are only working with clients who want to build or retrofit buildings that aim for net-zero energy use while others work to educate their clients in the hopes to convince the majority. 

Solutions may not be obvious on how you reduce energy consumption. Creating and experimenting with innovative technologies can be the answer to energy efficiency in pre-existing buildings. Something as simple as updating heating and cooling will significantly reduce energy usage and will save a building millions. 

An efficiency review with our Building Code Team, and even a walk around your building with an infrared meter to see where your energy loss occurs is a first step we can all easily take. Reflective materials and natural (trees) or man made shades are economical changes that you will quickly realize savings with. Finally, make sure your building’s landscaping is appropriate for the climate and features native plants so local wildlife can maintain a familiar habit that all of us, and future generations, can enjoy together for years to come.


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