Viewpoint (January 01, 2011)

January is traditionally the time of year when many of us make new year’s resolutions to lose a few pounds, or perhaps reduce our carbon footprint. Some of us may even resolve to become LEED-accredited professionals. As we look ahead into 2011, perhaps we can make it a point to reach beyond the design sphere and develop partnerships with businesses and entrepreneurs in the green technology and service sectors.

For opportunities that link approaches to sustainability with value-added design, the Canadian Green Building Council’s (CaGBC) Green Up program is a useful primer. This next-generation building performance program not only assists clients in understanding the costs and benefits associated with reducing energy and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings but can also provide architects with quantitative tools that justify qualitative design initiatives. The CaGBC recognizes that convincing benchmark data and energy assessments must be readily available to architects committed to creating a “receptive market for new green technology, products and services.”

To bring marketable skill sets to a broader business market, we can take inspiration from the growing number of architecture and engineering consultants specializing in sustainable design that are able to map, model, visualize and manage more efficient uses of energy in building design. These consultancies may analyze everything from energy and daylighting to sustainable design technologies to LEED designation and construction services. Some of the larger North American design firms associated with this trend include Gensler, NBBJ and Perkins+Will. Other firms which are more engineering-based include US powerhouses such as NORESCO or the Architectural Energy Corporation. Stantec, Hatch, and Enermodal Engineering are three examples of firms heavily positioned in the Canadian market. Evolving areas of niche specialization are bound to capture new opportunities in the evolving green technology market.

Sometimes we look for new opportunities in the wrong places. In April 2009, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design held a conference entitled “Ecological Urbanism: Alternative and Sustainable Cities of the Future.” A follow-up book–Ecological Urbanism–includes over 140 contributions from academics, cultural critics and practitioners who discuss their own interpretations of what it means to be sustainable. Only a handful of essays described specific methods in which architects, landscape architects and planners can establish entrepreneurial relationships with those controlling the vast amounts of capital being invested in sustainability-related businesses every year. Little to no discussion was dedicated to design professionals partnering with the renewable energy sector, or with industries providing concrete tools required to foster more ecologically sensitive processes of urbanization. The design profession could benefit from disengaging itself from the temptations of self-alienating discourse and partner with real-life agents of change in business and government.

In all likelihood, 2011 will mark a period in which the green technology industry will become a significant aspect of global competitiveness as nations move toward establishing greater energy security and patterns of sustainable urbanization. British prime minister David Cameron has pledged to make his coalition government the greenest in his country’s history with efforts to reform the energy industry and to encourage low-carbon technologies to flourish. With the US government filing a suit with the World Trade Organization against China’s advances in developing its green technology sector, future trade wars may be fought over the competitiveness of one country’s green technology sector over another. In 2009, China added more wind power than any other nation and it already possesses the largest solar thermal capacity in the world.

Every year, billions of dollars are being invested in renewable energy solutions such as thin-film solar panel technologies, wind turbines, and bioenergy solutions. Meanwhile, the design profession appears to have had minimal impact on the evolution of these businesses. Legislation such as the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, 2009, which helped support the Government of Ontario’s feed-in tariff program–North America’s first comprehensive pricing structure for renewable electricity production–has captured the imagination of the general business community, but little attention from the design professions. If architects fail to partner and engage more directly with evolving green technology and service sectors today, we will have forfeited our seat at the table forever.

Ian Chodikoff