Michael Kirkham

It’s hard to measure weight loss when you don’t own a scale. Likewise, without accurate metrics, trimming the fat out of buildings to make them truly green can be an elaborate game of guesswork for architects. With this in mind, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) debuted its new COTE Top Ten Plus award this year to recognize outstanding achievement in design and efficiency based on performance data after a building has been occupied.

“For many years, COTE has been advocating better building design through its Top Ten awards, but green design has historically focused on predicted performance metrics,” explains William Leddy, FAIA, of San Francisco–based Leddy, Maytum, Stacy, and the 2013 chair of the AIA COTE Advisory Group. “The next step is to be able to prove that buildings are performing as well as predicted. As the industry and the market shift to encourage outcome-based design approaches, this new award will highlight that buildings can indeed perform as predicted and even better—and that beautiful design and excellent performance can go together.”

While some buildings do perform as predicted in terms of drastically reducing resource consumption, many—despite everyone’s best intentions—fall short because of factors that include inaccurate energy-modeling software, unrealistic use projections in the design phase, overly complicated building systems, or low user engagement in post-occupancy.

These shortfalls will become more evident in light of a growing demand for performance-data transparency; a number of cities are starting to require that commercial-building owners report their energy data.

To get a jump on the learning curve, savvy architecture firms are already tracking performance data against predictions. By focusing on excellent architecture that also meets advanced resource reduction goals over time, the industry can expect to gain valuable information about the interconnection between successful design strategies, improved occupant experience, and the wider community and global benefits that they may provide.

“And at a more visceral level, if we are to meet the AIA’s 2030 Commitment goals—all new buildings to have zero carbon emissions in only 17 years—the profession needs inspiring case studies now,” Leddy . “Key to this inspiration, and another impetus behind this award, is the realization that we can no longer afford to think of deep resource efficiency and resiliency as an ‘extra’ design feature.”

In applying for consideration, several previous COTE Top Ten award recipients submitted energy, water use, and transportation data for a full year of their building’s occupied usage, as well as a client statement about perceived benefits over time.

Lance Hosey, AIA, chief sustainability officer for RTKL, was a member of the 2013 COTE Top Ten Green Projects Awards jury. “The ‘Plus’ category is a smart and much-needed way to encourage providing more information on performance,” he says. “Without verifying the outcome of projects, we remain trapped in the realm of hope and speculation. The Top Ten Plus award is an opportunity to put ourselves to the test by showing the ties between great design and green design.”

The new award is also a reminder that the industry continues to evolve rapidly. “Architecture is indeed about form and materials and the crafting of well-designed spatial experiences,” Leddy . “But it should also connect us more closely to the natural world that sustains us all. An important part of that connection is the ability to make buildings that deliver on their promises of high performance and reduced carbon emissions.”—Ben Ikenson

To see the 2013 AIA COTE Top Ten Plus award recipients, visit aiatopten.org