Advocacy: Architects Fight for U.S. Energy Law

by Andrew Heaton
April 30, 2012

The profession must not only advocate for change with regard to what it sees as policies that do not support effective and sustainable architecture, it must also, as seen in this case, actively support existing policies which many in the profession do believe promotes and encourages optimum architectural practice.

While there may be legitimate arguments both for and against the amendment outlined below, this issue highlights the broader role of the architectural profession in advocacy and policy debate.

From before the days of the Roman architect Vitruvius, author of the earliest surviving written work about architecture dated back to the early first century, architects have served society by ensuring that buildings are designed to be robust, safe and, where appropriate and possible, aesthetically pleasing.

In addition, however, the architectural profession has a role in contributing to public education and informed public policy relating to buildings. This includes promoting and supporting policies which aid in good building design while advocating for change with regard to those which do not.

It the United States, one key issue at the moment relates to an amendment to an energy and water spending bill which was adopted by the House of Commons Committee on Wednesday. The amendment would prohibit the Department of Energy in the US from using federal funds to enforce a rule based on Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act which requires both new federal buildings and others which undergo certain types of renovations to decrease their use of fossil fuels and eliminate the use of fossil fuel energy altogether by 2030.

The change was proposed for several reasons, say the amendment’s supporters. For one thing, they say, the current Sec. 433 based rule is actually counter-productive in reducing building energy consumption in that its onerous requirements discourage federal agencies from carrying out the kind of ‘deep retrofits’ that would enhance building energy efficiency.

In addition, says amendment sponsor Representative Rodney Alexander, many federal agencies are not in a position to meet the law’s requirements. Furthermore, he says that natural gas, which could serve as a viable energy source in building upgrades, would not be allowed under the Act.
That thinking is wrong, says the American Institute of Architects (AIA). AIA Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy argues that the section 433 based rule is helping to spur the development of new materials, construction techniques and technologies which make buildings more efficient.

As for Alexander’s argument about federal agencies not being able to meet the requirements, Ivy says the rule shows that significant energy reductions are both practical and cost effective. Furthermore, he says that architects and their allied professionals are already succeeding in making federal facilities deliver on the Sec. 433 requirements, with the NREL’s new Research and Support Facilities in Colorado, which opened in 2010, serving as a key example.

Moreover, Ivy says, with an increasing private sector take-up of some of the technologies and strategies developed on public sector buildings, the impact of Sec 433 as it stands spreads well beyond the cost and energy savings directly attributable to the federal buildings to which the rules apply.

“Requiring significant energy reduction targets in new and renovated federal buildings demonstrates to the private sector that the federal government is leading by example,” Ivy says. “Weakening or repealing Sec. 433 with no deliberation or discussion will dramatically harm the federal government’s ability to design and build facilities that use less energy and protect the environment.”