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June 21, 2012

Thornton Tomasetti Works Toward Climate Neutral Buildings by 2030

In 2011, Thornton Tomasetti was the first structural engineering firm to join the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) 2030 Commitment. This initiative helps to guide architectural firms and other building industry businesses in evaluating the impact design decisions have on an individual project’s energy performance and to progress towards the goal of carbon neutral buildings by 2030.
Firms that sign up are obliged to meet certain requirements. These include, 1) establishing leadership for meeting the commitment; 2) the implementation of several operational action items; 3) developing and posting a Sustainability Action Plan, and 4) reporting annual progress on reducing the energy intensity of building projects. Committed firms must report annually on the predicted energy intensity of their building projects. The AIA’s web site lists the committed firms with a brief note describing where each stands in meeting the requirements.
Because we’re explorers in new territory meant for architecture firms, the AIA reporting system that requires data on reductions in operational energy is not appropriate to a primarily structural engineering firm like Thornton Tomasetti. Our greatest impact as a firm is not on operational energy, as it is for architectural firms. We’re working with the AIA to develop a mechanism that will allow us to report on our embodied energy instead. Embodied energy is the amount of energy it takes to make and transport the materials that comprise a building’s structure. This summer, an intern is gathering data from our projects to help us to start to build a complete picture of the embodied energy of our buildings that we work on.
Participating in the AIA 2030 Commitment was a good way to kick-start our corporate sustainability efforts. We developed a Sustainability Action Plan, a requirement of the Commitment, and guidelines for greening our office operations. We had to show the AIA that we’ve taken actions towards reducing energy use in our 26 offices, and these actions are posted on-line. They include purchasing Energy Star equipment, installing occupancy sensors in common spaces, and replacement of older inefficient monitors with LCD monitors.
Since even the best laid plans are no good without a team or coordinator to bring them to fruition, AIA also asks firms to establish a leadership team on sustainability. Thornton Tomasetti established a green team several years ago, before we had joined the Commitment. Members of the team have changed over time, and now we have several teams working on different projects in several locations. Perhaps uniquely among structural engineering firms, Thornton Tomasetti also has a person whose role it is to ensure that we meet the Commitment – our Corporate Sustainability Officer.
How is your firm approaching the AIA 2030 Commitment?  We’d love to hear your ideas, and get your feedback on our plan.