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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.

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GAF x COTE: Looking at the Future

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

Defining Design Excellence | Measure 8: Design for Resources | Toward an Architecture of Vitality and Productivity

By Dennis T. Rijkhoff AIA posted 07-10-2020 06:06 PM

“Memento Mori” Roman mosaic from Pompeii, Italy, 30 BCE | Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Crafted 2050 years ago, this intricate artwork depicts a bricklayer's plumb line balancing symbols of prosperity over a skull, a butterfly, and wheel: allegorically symbolizing the fleeting nature of life and imploring us to seize our present opportunities.

In 2019, the AIA adopted the COTE measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. We’ve been exploring the measures in a series of
posts. We asked Dennis to share his thoughts about Measure 8: Design for Resources which reads:

Sustainable design includes the informed selection of materials and products to reduce product-cycle environmental impacts while enhancing building performance. Describe efforts to optimize the amount of material used on the project. Outline materials selection criteria and considerations, such as enhancing durability and maintenance and reducing the environmental impacts of extraction, manufacturing, and transportation. Identify any special steps taken during design to make disassembly or reuse easier at the building’s end of life. What other factors helped drive decision-making around material selection on this project?

“…[T]he building’s end of life.” 

In this statement, Measure 8 asks us to contemplate an arresting thought at a building’s inception. But I believe that doing so is a powerful act. Like the ancient practice of ‘Memento Mori’ it is a prompt for us to let go of our ego while asking us to harness the agency embedded in our work, an agency that can make the world a better place. With this thought in mind, I propose we use two words to outline an approach for resource use going forward: vitality and productivity.


By vitality, I’m referring to architecture that supports life by changing over time: usually adaptive reuse.  Most of the materials used in a building go into its structure; so any attempt at reducing the impact of resource extraction and embodied carbon emissions must consider the adaptive reuse of whole buildings. These can be existing buildings, or new buildings designed to set the stage for adaptive reuse in the future. Both are valid and crucial to our success in these issues.

Adaptive Reuse

There is a building in Veere, the Netherlands, that illustrates the amazing potential of adaptive reuse and has a fascinating history as a result.  It’s called The Big Church and it's been in continuous use since the year 1342. After its life as a place of worship, it was used by an invading French army as a hospital and a stable, with several floors added in its tall nave to house soldiers. Later, it survived a fire and was used as a factory for the employment of so-called ”vagrants”. After that, it was a wood storage facility, then a sports training facility. Finally, in 2004 it was transformed into a performing arts center.1 It is incredible to think that one building could see such a broad array of occupants. And while the scale and construction of this building are unique, the drastic programmatic changes seen by this church are not. 

But most buildings just don’t last very long. As both The Big Church and our current health crisis make clear, a building only lasts if it remains useful; and to do that it needs qualities that allow it to adapt to changing demands in both certain and uncertain times.2 It needs to support a wide range of activities through spatial flexibility or generous proportions.  Its components must be durable and maintainable, or replaceable with minimal friction as is so clearly described by Stuart Brand in his influential book, How Buildings Learn.3 These things can make a building's “end-of-life” a blurred change-of-state rather than an abrupt demolition. They retain their cultural meaning as well as material resources, and they have a vitality that allows them to create good places for people no matter what the circumstances. 


These views of usefulness and versatility also extend to the word productivity, but with a different focus. I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ontario, so for me any discussion of materials and resources is related to productivity. Food is our most important material, is it not? And the historical link between agriculture and architecture is as old as civilization itself, so it’s no surprise that our profession could borrow useful conceptual, spatial, ecological and infrastructural strategies from this industry. This potential is explored in detail in the book Bracket [on farming],4 but in the context of this discussion, I want our profession to adopt a strategy of productivity by mimicking agriculture’s pragmatically optimistic mindset.


At its core, a productivity mindset involves re-framing what we call sustainability. To paraphrase ecosystem ecologist Elena Bennet: our traditional attitude has been that people are in the way; that we’re causing problems. We somehow think that the solution is to scale back our activities and leave Nature alone. But the problem is that there are too many of us. Given the projections of population growth and subsequent construction in the coming decades, “leaving Nature alone” is not realistic.5 Instead, we need a strategy that acknowledges the importance of natural ecology as well as social, economic, political ecologies. We need to learn how our material choices can benefit the habitats of flora and fauna as well as the living and working conditions of miners, ship crews, assembly line workers, and craftspeople around the world. This concept should resonate strongly given our present focus on the injustice and inequity in our society today. We have the chance to enact change, the chance to reimagine our typically exploitative and short-sighted global supply chains in a positive way. We can decide to keep them global and then develop a data-management infrastructure on par with Buckminster Fuller’s “World Game”.6 Or we can find a balance between global and regional and local systems that allow us to intervene in ways that we more easily understand. 

These ideas are being put to the test around the world through the concept of a circular economy; an inherently local activity where waste becomes an input for new processes.  It’s about ‘closing the loop’, so to speak. Viewed through the lens of productivity, a circular economy is not about reuse for simply for the sake of efficiency. It’s also about creating beneficial material flows - those that create equitable economic opportunities, that encourage the development of skills, and that preserve our built heritage. It is a system that inextricably links a work of architecture to its larger context in a way that all of us can benefit: including Mother Nature.


It’s through this pair of words – vitality and productivity – that I see a way forward, one where architecture can find the agency that Measure 8 asks of us. Our profession has many challenges to face in the coming decades, but I’m hopeful that the notions discussed here will lead us toward an architecture that is engaging, beautiful, and fundamentally good in ways that we can’t yet anticipate.

Dennis Rijkhoff
, AIA, is a Dutch-Canadian architect with a background in engineering and agriculture.  His design work focuses on the design of engaging and inclusive places for people.  As an architect at Snøhetta, he played a major role in many projects, including Calgary’s Central Library, which received a 2020 AIA National Award for Architecture and a 2020 AIANY Design Honor Award.

You can find more stories in this series here: Measure 1: Design for Integration (by Kira Gould, Allied AIA); Measure 2: Design for Equitable Community (by Gould); Measure 3: Design for Ecology (by Gould); Measure 4: Design for Water (by Julie Hiromoto, AIA; Measure 5: Design for Economy (by Billie Tsien, AIA); Measure 6: Design for Energy (by Kjell Anderson, AIA); Measure 7: Design for Wellness (by Liz York, FAIA). Stories about Measures 9 and 10 will appear in forthcoming posts in August and September.


1   Roorda, R., & Kegge, B. (2016). Vitale Architectuur: Gereedschap voor Levensduur. Rotterdam: Nai010. pp 59-61.
2   Brand, S. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. New York: Viking.
3   Ibid pp. 32.
4   White, M., & Przybylski, M. (Eds.). (2010). Bracket [on farming]. Barcelona: Actar.
5   Bennett, E. (2017, November 20). Seeds of a Good Anthropocene. Retrieved from
6   Games for Cities - World Game (1961). (n.d.). Retrieved from