Committee on the Environment


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The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE®) works to advance, disseminate, and advocate design practices that integrate built and natural systems and enhance both the design quality and environmental performance of the built environment. Expand your positive impact: Engage in our advocacy efforts. Enjoy our last newsletter (and follow us on Twitter). To learn about the Framework for Design Excellence (formerly the COTE Top Ten Measures), click here >

A big thank you to our sponsors: 
Founding sponsor: Building Green
Presenting sponsor: GAF Roofing 

Sustaining sponsor: Lucifer Lighting Company, Kingspan
Green sponsors: AutodeskEPIC MetalsHKS, BPKC, ROCKWOOL, WRNSSkanska,
Allied sponsors: BNIM, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, LMN David Baker Architects   

Supporting sponsors: Humanscale, Mahlum 

GAF x COTE: Looking at the Future

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

Defining Design Excellence | Measure 3: Design for Ecology

By Kira L. Gould posted 01-21-2020 10:32


In September 2019, the AIA formally adopted the COTE measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. In past posts, we have explored Measure 1: Design for Integration and Measure 2: Design for Equitable Community.  


The AIA Framework for Design Excellence is written as a set of 10 measures. These are very different from design guidelines (such as those that track to sustainability rating systems); they are a construct for open dialogue that leads to a deeply integrated design solution. Each measure includes questions to inspire inquiry and encourage teams to address concepts of culture and place. The language is accessible; the measures are an ideal framework for conversations between architects, clients, consultants, and stakeholders. Measure 3, Design for Ecology reads: 


Sustainable design protects and benefits natural ecosystems and habitat in the presence of human development. Describe the larger or regional ecosystem (climate, soils, plant and animal systems) in which the project is sited. In what ways does the design respond to the ecology of this place? How does the design help users become more aware or connected with this place and their regional ecosystems? How does the design minimize negative impacts on birds or other animals (e.g., design to prevent bird collisions, dark-sky compliant lighting)? How does the project contribute to biodiversity and the preservation or restoration of habitats and ecosystem services? 


I asked a few architects (from three firms that were honored with Top Ten Awards last year) for their takes on why this measure is important and how it plays out in the work.  


Patricia Culley, AIA, LEED BD+C, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) was the Project Architect for the Frick Environmental Center, which earned an AIA COTE Top Ten Award in 2019.  


“Measure 3 is focused on the building’s connection with its place, both specifically and broadly,” she says. “This resonates closely with BCJ’s design ethos of the nature of circumstance, through which we explore the unique people, place, and materiality of each project. The exploration of place creates a deep connection for each project, which becomes an important foundation for the design that emerges.” Culley says that designs that are in concert with the natural environment “result in a richer, more humane architecture.”  


At the Frick Environmental Center, this process influenced the design in a number of ways, Culley says. “We thought a lot about how the project impacted the larger parkland. We created a stormwater design system that reinvigorated and replenished the health of the surrounding streams, ultimately creating a positive impact to the overall park ecosystem.” 


Chris Wingate, LEED AP, is an associate with MSR Design in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and served as project designer on the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center project, which won a COTE Top Ten award last year. Wingate says that for him, Measure 3 “ advances the definition of architecture as the discipline that creates a framework for how humans engage with the environment and with one another.” 


Wingate suggests that “architecture should engender a connection to and love for the environment so that we can all become passionate and engaged stewards.” He explains that  “MSR design teams talk about moving the head and the heart. Architecture has the power to do that by creating authentic connections to the environment.” 


Wingate says that architecture can support a facility’s didactic mission through experiential learning, which can deepen messages being conveyed. The Bee Center’s mission is to provide learning opportunities to the public about the importance of bees and pollinators and the essential ways our human lives intersect with theirs. “The architecture creates an interior experience that places visitors and exhibits within a curated and immersive view of the surrounding native prairie, bathing them in natural light and inviting them to feel the sun’s warmth. This experiential moment for the visitor supports the didactic learning.” 


The site design also connects the project’s mission with its environmental context. Wingate explains that “demonstration pollinator gardens surround the project, educating and inspiring visitors to take what they learn home with them to create their own backyard habitats to broaden, diversify, and make our regional ecosystem more resilient.” 


Brian Gerich, AIA, LEED BD+C, is a project architect with Mahlum in Seattle.”Our firm’s approach is holistic,” he says. “Throughout the decision process for our projects, we are continually thinking about how things will preserve or enhance ecological habitats and ecosystem services on the site and in the surrounding community.”  


Gerich refers the Limits to Growth Imperative (from the Living Building Challenge’s Place Petal) as the optimal standard. That imperative notes projects may only be built on previously developed sites not classified as (or adjacent to) sensitive ecological habitats. “This is an obvious baseline, but not all of those conditions are always applicable to our projects, of course.” Even so, Mahlum teams are mindful of the past, present, and future uses of the site and surroundings, especially with respect to wetlands and greenfield sites which tend to be the most common habitats that they encounter. 


“We work closely with engineers and landscape architects to gather a better understanding of the existing site and what it can be in the future,” he says. The lens of time is important, too. “We take climate change at face value. We understand that things won’t be the same as a pre-development or reference habitat conditions and this can influence how we site the building and integrate it within its ecological context.” 


Gerich, who works primarily on educational spaces, says that biophilic principles are important drivers for Mahlum teams. “For schools, especially, we spend a lot of time on daylight and natural ventilation.” And in the Pacific Northwest, water capture is important. “We often integrate rainwater catchment and storage into projects and then express that on site--that’s an opportunity to tell a story about maintaining and enhancing ecological flows on site in connection with broader natural systems.”