Worldwide, the built environment is responsible for more than 30 per cent of carbon emissions. In response, architecture is morphing from the profession that designs beautiful and compelling structures to one that designs energy-efficient structures with a low carbon footprint. However, according to one metric, progress so far has been middling.

The American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment is the group’s “signature program to quantify and report the progress AIA members are making as vanguards in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment, and ultimately help turn the tide against climate change.”

Participants in the 2030 Challenge pledge to design projects that cut on-site energy use by 60 per cent compared to baseline projects in 2014. Projects for 2015 aim to cut energy use by 70 per cent, with reductions growing through 2030, when all buildings are to be carbon neutral.

The 2014 Progress Report on the program lists a notable increase in the number of firms participating, growing 40 per cent over the previous year. The number of projects jumped 78 per cent, totaling 50 per cent more gross square footage. Projects in 51 countries were tallied. In addition, 25 per cent of projects in the report project energy-use reductions of more than 50 per cent from the baseline.

Unfortunately, those gains are tempered by tepid gains in the total gross square footage meeting the 60 per cent target. The 2014 total, at 11.4 per cent, is an improvement over 2013’s 7.1 per cent. However, that figure was half the 2012 total.

In addition, the mean energy reduction has been nearly stagnant since the program began. According to the AIA report, these results point to “the lack of energy simulation when making design decisions.”

Two issues drive the underuse of energy modeling: performing compliance models after making design decisions, and designing to code minimum.

“In both scenarios, passive design strategies that make the biggest impact to curb energy use aren’t evaluated and incorporated to their greatest potential,” the report’s authors state. “Projects that don’t model are relegated to reduction equivalents based on code stringency and don’t have a full view of energy use in building systems.”

Of the projects that were modeled, 26 per cent met the energy goal, while another 25 per cent came close. Performing modeling early in the design process is seen as crucial.

Modeling early and as part of a structured process makes for more informative models, which in turn can lead to projects that more successfully balance aesthetic and programmatic choices with energy reduction goals,” the report’s authors stated.

Early-stage energy modeling supports the balancing of both aesthetic and efficiency considerations. Delaying the energy modeling process can result in complicated redesigns to improve results, or simply opting out of those options if the project is too far advanced.

Though the overall number of participants is low compared to the number of buildings constructed each year, the number is growing. The 2014 report cites projects from architects in 51 countries, including Indonesia, India, China, three countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and four Arab countries.

Projects of all sizes are represented in the program, including 32 projects of more than one million square feet, and 173 projects from 100,000 to 500,000 square feet. To date, 4,345 whole building projects and another 3,837 interiors-only projects representing 2.4 billion gross square feet have been reported to the program.