A conversation with the EPA

By Jonathan D. Penndorf FAIA posted 05-22-2017 16:36


A few months ago the newly formed COTE Advocacy committee drafted a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and requested signatures of support from architecture and design firms. The letter framed the importance of programsEnergy Star and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in particularnot just in their work preserving the environment and resources but also citing them as critical for the practice of sustainable design and construction. The letter, addressed to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and coordinated through the advocacy team at the American Institute of Architects (AIA), received a wonderful amount of support—775 firms signed it.

Early in May, the AIA received a response from the EPA to the letter. But rather than getting a form letter response, the AIA was invited to meet personally with Administrator Pruitt at EPA headquarters to discuss the contents of the letter. This invitation represented a huge opportunitya recognition of the impact that architects have on the design and construction economy and a chance to speak in further detail on why we as an organization valued specific EPA programs. And so, on May 16, I found myself in the receiving room of the EPA, waiting to meet with Scott Pruitt.

I admit to being skeptical about the meeting. We weren’t sure if we’d be talking with the Administrator, or just his staff, or have the meeting canceled. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to get our point across, or even if we’d be heard.

Our small group was ushered down a long wood-paneled corridor lined with paintings of former EPA Administrators. In the center of one long wall was a lone door. A staff member opened the door for us, and we were greeted warmly by Administrator Pruitt and his Chief of Staff.

After a brief introduction to the AIA, we spoke in depth about why Energy Star and its suite of programsPortfolio Manager, Target Finder, Energy Star product certification, Energy Star building certificationare important to the practice of architecture and the integration of sustainability goals into design. We explained how we use these programs, that many clients come to rely on them for impartial certification, and how our practices would be impacted should the programs be eliminated. We also spoke about Architecture 2030 in depth and how the AIA has partnered with federal agencies like EPA and DOE to aggregate voluntary benchmarking of CO2 emissions and energy reductions, with a target of carbon neutrality by 2030. Administrator Pruitt indicated interest in Architecture 2030, making notes as we spoke and indicating that we should be promoting the work of American architects in carbon reduction worldwide.

Administrator Pruitt appreciated the perspective of the individual architect practitioner and seemed to grasp the need for keeping American architects competitive in the global marketplace. He indicated he understood how important the EnergyStar program was to architects and the American public, and how indispensable it is conserving energy in the built environment. He gave no indication the programs would be eliminated, but we did discuss the relationship of EnergyStar to EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE), and how that relationship may evolve in the future.

We also discussed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and how the standards created impact material health and indoor air quality. Pruitt noted that he inherited a backlog of substances to be evaluated under TSCA and has worked over the past several months to clear the backlog. Over 500 substances have been added to the database.

Our overarching message during the 45-minute meeting was twofold. First, the federal programs used by architects and other designers that are administered by EPA are important to advancing sustainability in the global marketplace and needed for American architect firms to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Second, keeping these programs within the federal government adds a level of legitimacy and impartiality that is needed in the industry. As one of the largest landowners in the country, the federal government can be a leader in sustainability and construction. Privatizing programs like Energy Star may compromise their influence, and risks years of historical data. We left the meeting emphasizing the desire for architects to continue to be leaders in conservation, emissions reduction, and energy conservation through our design, and that good design matters.

Administrator Pruitt noted he appreciated our time, and hoped we would speak again. He seemed to appreciate the connection we made between good design and good business, and that architects are at the “tip of the spear” of a $3 trillion design and construction industry. The meeting was a unique opportunity and an indication that our profession may have more of a voice that I previously thought.

Jon Penndorf, FAIA, is a Senior Associate at the DC office of Perkins+Will. He serves on the AIA Strategic Council representing the Middle Atlantic Region and is a member of the Committee on the Environment (COTE) Advisory Group.