Committee on the Environment


Quick Links

Who we are

The Committee on the Environment (COTE®) is an AIA Knowledge Community working for architects, allied professionals, and the public to achieve climate action and climate justice through design. We believe that design excellence is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future. Our work promotes design strategies that empower all AIA members to realize the best social and environmental outcomes with the clients and the communities they serve.

Expand your positive impact:
Engage in our advocacy efforts. Enjoy our latest on COTE news (and follow us on Twitter).

To learn about the Framework for Design Excellence (formerly the COTE Top Ten Measures), click here.

If you missed the 2020 Top Ten Toast, download a recording here

A big thank you to our partners: 
Founding partner: Building Green
Premier partners: Kingspan, Sherwin-Williams
Sustaining partners: GAF Roofing, KawneerLucifer Lighting Company, ROCKWOOL
Green partners: AutodeskEPIC MetalsHKSThornton Tomasetti
Allied partners:TLC Engineering

GAF x COTE: Looking at the Future

This 2019 video was compiled by GAF, a COTE sponsor. 

Build less. For more people. Design circular.

By Clare J. Miflin AIA posted 10-15-2019 03:24 PM


The seven-word maxim in my title (inspired by Michael Pollan’s maxim for healthier eating) could be a way for our community to take a big leap in climate action. The COTE Top Ten measure “Design for Economy” states that “Space should be seen as a resource to conserve, just like water or energy.” This sounds like common sense, but is unrewarded by our green building rating systems -- and, indeed, by our entire real estate economy.

Designing a building to be used more – by more people, more of the time – makes it harder to achieve LEED, Living Building Challenge, or Net Zero standards. I know of a net zero certified school that couldn’t let the local community use its auditorium in the evenings, or it wouldn’t make its energy balance. This makes no sense, but as an architect who has designed net zero buildings, I understand. In the assumptions I put together when designing a net zero environmental center, I had to determine how many coffees could be served and whether food would have to be premade and served off disposable dishware. We had to fit the café’s energy use within the energy budget provided by the solar roof. Getting to net zero energy would have been easier if we increased our footprint and roof area, limited the occupancy of the building, and outsourced as many impacts as we could. But would that really have made the project more sustainable?  

It is often stated that the built area of the world will double by 2060, and to reduce the impact on the environment, the industry is aiming to lower embodied carbon, and increase energy efficiency. These are both incredibly important, but shouldn’t we first aim to build less? I had the opportunity to ask Mahesh Ramanujam, CEO of USGBC, what he thought. (See minute 44:40 of event video.) He questioned the need for the 70,000 SF lobbies he saw in some buildings he visited. He thought LEED was good at promoting efficiency but not at reducing consumption through downsizing and optimizing. I think this is a problem with metrics. 

Green building rating systems measure energy use per area. If they measured energy per occupant-hour, a building with a 70,000 SF lobby wouldn’t be able to achieve LEED. (In contrast, GBCI’s Arc performance score factors in occupancy and hours to calculate its energy score.) Similarly, barely occupied luxury apartment buildings in New York City wouldn’t be able to achieve the city’s newly mandated energy targets. NYC is in a building boom to try and keep up with the rising demand for housing, yet the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan noted that we could create a quarter of a million new homes without building anything! Even when measuring embodied carbon, there is typically no credit for making better use of space and reducing the size of a building. (As a low carbon design is compared with a reference building of the same size.) One report that does call for building less is the UK’s 2013 HM Treasury Infrastructure Carbon Review. Their graph (below) shows how opportunities to reduce carbon are greater the earlier in the design process you start.

We need to start advancing concepts from the Circular Economy in our practices (and start rewarding them in our green building standards). One of the core principles of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ReSOLVE framework (The Circular Economy in the Built Environment, Arup, 2016) is sharing. The Zero Waste Design Guidelines, developed through the AIA New York COTE, detail how sharing can be applied to architectural design. One strategy is to “maximize asset utilization through programming”. Providing flexible spaces that can perform multiple functions, or be used by others in the neighborhood is one option. According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the average office is used only 35-40% of working hours. In contrast, co-working spaces report utilization rates 2.5 times higher. I work out of restaurants that are closed during the day, and part of a citywide network of shared workspaces.

Recently an engineer told me that he was consulting for a prestigious university that was planning a new highly sustainable building. He pointed out that they wouldn’t need a new building if they just held lectures on Fridays and before 11am in the mornings. But they had a donor and he designed the building. 

As design professionals our compensation is based on building more. It would be different if instead, we were paid for the value added by our design. Then we could design buildings which were smaller, but were used more, reducing the resource use of the larger system. We don’t add value if we skimp on the dishwasher and then truck disposable plates to landfills 350 miles away. We do if we realize the building doesn’t need its own auditorium because there is one next door that the client could share. It’s not a secure, self-sufficient solution; it requires collaboration. But as we can learn from ecosystems: resilient circular resource loops come from mutual collaboration, not from self-sufficiency.


I love the seven word maxim Michael Pollan came up with for a healthier diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Following this is healthy for people and healthy for the planet. I came up with the following maxim for architecture: Build less. For more people. Design Circular. Build less: reuse and repurpose existing buildings; right-size the building; consider sharing spaces within a district. For more people: design and program a building so that most spaces are fully occupied most of the time; design for the local community; consider the people affected by the upstream and downstream consequences of resources used within the building. Design Circular: make best use of the natural cycles of energy and water; design for circular material use; and consider how urban systems can be woven into the cycles of the local ecosystem.

Clare Miflin AIA, LEED BD+C, Certified Passive House Designer, Certified Biomimicry Professional Weaving together sustainable strategies into architecture throughout her career, Clare has designed buildings to Living Building Challenge, Passive House, LEED Platinum and AIA COTE Top Ten standards. Clare led the development of the Zero Waste Design Guidelines, to address the crucial role that the design of buildings and cities play in achieving circular material loops. She is the founder of ThinkWoven, which develops design strategies to weave urban systems into ecosystems, and is setting up a non-profit Center for Zero Waste Design. Clare is also co-chair of the AIANY’s Committee on the Environment; a member of NYC’s Living Building Collaborative and Sustainability Coordinator for her local food cooperative.



11-08-2019 11:52 AM

I applaud your courage to speak up. Your various points ring true. This is important and encourage you to keep up the conversation. 

Kirk Gastinger, FAIA

11-01-2019 10:23 PM

Thanks both for your insightful comments!

John Corkill, yes its very true that what I’m suggesting requires major changes in how communities and systems work. Liked your imagery, and glad you’re working towards that too. I loved the solar decathlon, on the Mall...

Larry Strain, I like your maxim too. Made me think harder about mine.  I totally agree we have to make our existing building stock more energy efficient, and was thinking that was captured in Design Circular, in “make best use of the natural cycles of energy and water” But it isn't really, as that is more about taking advantage of solar radiation for electricity and heat and of diurnal temperature changes. So maybe instead: Build Less. Consider System Impacts. Design Circular. Consider System Impacts: We need to consider positive and negative system impacts - of resource, land and fossil fuel use, and human and ecosystem impacts - its better than “for more people”. I’ve been thinking of a few examples of where system impacts are more important than individual building impacts:

  • The new highly efficient building that is built outside the city - takes more transportation energy to get there than is saved in operations, before we event count all the embodied energy of the building and the land it takes up. See Building Green article
  • The rooftop greenhouse on a public school. I worked on a few of these in NYC and tried to make them as energy efficient as possible, but it was really tough to do within the constraints of greenhouse form and technologies. Did that mean these shouldn’t be built? But when you walked into these you felt inspired and felt the buzz from the kids, and when you heard about how they had changed their relationships to healthy eating, how they learnt about ecology and systems (composting their lunches, worms were fed to fish, fish poop fertilized floating arugula in the aquaponics system) and their delight in explaining it - made me think that the greenhouse almost certainly had a net positive environmental effect. Many more examples could be told about buildings that are programmed for major positive social impacts. 
  • The building made of materials that caused huge negative environmental impacts in extraction, negative labor issues during construction, social inequities through use etc. etc. vs the building that gives back to the local community that made it, like Michael Murphy of MASS talks about.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

10-31-2019 01:08 PM

This is such a thoughtful and timely article.  One point I would add is that using what we have more efficiently needs to extend to energy not just people. Emissions from building operations account for 28% of global emissions - all from existing buildings. Using buildings more efficiently lowers per capita energy use, and is a much better way to measure efficiency than on a sq. ft. basis, but we also need to reduce actual current emissions, no matter how many people are using a building. Maybe something like -   Reuse more. Improve what we have. It's where we live.

Thanks for the great article.
Larry Strain, FAIA, Siegel & Strain Architects
Carbon Leadership Forum
AIA Materials Working Group
Embodied Carbon Network - Reuse Focus Group

10-31-2019 11:48 AM

Clare J. Miflin, AIA makes a powerful point about the building stock we architects provide society. Redundant, Redundant, Redundant, are the spaces in buildings cheek by jowl in our urban communities. Indeed, why have an auditorium dark for most weekly hours and then build another one next door ? But does the American DNA permit individuals to surrender dominion over their spaces and invite the neighbors in ? Who cleans the auditorium after a non-owner group commits wear and tear ? Who kicks the first group out when they run over and the next group is piling up in the lobby ? In other words, it isn't just architects greedy for bigger commissions who need to adjust their attitudes, but the whole community. Only when the seas are lapping at our Gucci boots will most of us hear the calls of today's seers. Nevertheless, Ms. Miflin and others of us (some of us picketed the White House - getting on a Secret Service data base of known agitators - trying to preserve the Solar Decathlon ) must continue to press on .

John F. Corkill,Jr., AIA.