Why Architects Must Lead on Sustainability:
An Open Letter to the NAAB

The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) sets the criteria for accreditation of Architecture schools throughout the US. The 2014 Conditions for Accreditation list sustainable design as a “Perspective” that, unlike Performance Criteria, requires no evidence of student work. For those who believe that architects must take bold leadership on sustainability, this proposal is simply unacceptable. (Update, August 2014: The 2014 Conditions were approved without strengthening sustainable design requirements. This is a grave disappointment to anyone who cares about the future of architecture or the livability of our planet.)

To the National Architectural Accrediting Board,

I believe that the NAAB's proposed 2014 Conditions for Accreditation are seriously lacking in the area of sustainable design. Sustainable design should be a Student Performance Criteria, and as such contain specific requirements that must be evidenced with student work.

There are two reasons why sustainable design is central to the architect's education: an ethical and a practical reason.

The ethical reason, as you are likely aware, is that buildings in the US are responsible for 45% of the nation's carbon emissions (1). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that global carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and then fall off rapidly in order to avoid catastrophic, runaway climate change. The architect therefore has a moral and ethical obligation to design buildings that do no harm to the climate or to future generations.

The practical reason is that the market is increasingly demanding — and building codes are increasingly requiring — high-performance, energy efficient design. Consider the following:

  • In the UK, all new homes must be carbon-neutral by 2016 (2).
  • In California, all new residential buildings must be Net Zero Energy by 2020, and all commercial buildings by 2030 (3).
  • All but seven US states have adopted building energy codes; these codes are rapidly getting stricter as newer versions of ASHRAE Std. 90.1 and the IECC take effect (4).
  • The demand for green buildings has increased 8-fold since 2005 and is expected to make up 55% of the total market by 2016, according to McGraw Hill Construction (5).
  • Of Architect Magazine’s top 50 firms, 80% have signed onto the 2030 Commitment, and they collectively use energy modeling on 83% of their projects (6).

If architects are not equipped to take leadership around energy and environmental performance, they risk marginalizing the profession. And if architecture students graduate without specific knowledge of sustainable design, they will be unprepared for the workplace.

Sustainable design must be more than a "perspective": carbon neutral and Net Zero Energy require specific, measurable skills and abilities. These skills are much more than knowledge of codes or mechanical systems. Architects need a deep understanding of bioclimatic design, thermal comfort, and the physical phenomena that drive heating and cooling loads in buildings, which are significantly impacted by design decisions.

I strongly encourage the NAAB to add sustainable design as a Student Performance Criteria. The Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) has previously submitted recommendations for specific requirements around carbon neutral and Zero Net Energy design; as the thought leaders in this area, their recommendations should be taken seriously.


Carl S. Sterner, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP


(1) http://architecture2030.org/the_problem/problem_climate_change

(2) http://www.zerocarbonhub.org/zero-carbon-policy/zero-carbon-policy

(3) http://www.energy.ca.gov/title24/2013standards/rulemaking/documents/2013_Building_Energy_Efficiency_Standards_FAQ.pdf

(4) http://sefaira.com/resources/us-energy-codes-could-surpass-leed/

(5) http://www.construction.com/about-us/press/green-building-outlook-strong-for-both-non-residential-and-residential.asp

(6) http://www.architectmagazine.com/architects/architect-50--by-the-numbers.aspx?dfpzone=business.architect_50