A Chicago-based Network Effort Gathers Firms Around Climate Change
by Kira Gould
Last summer, a couple of architects in Chicago got talking about “supporting candidates who are committed to climate change.” In September, Architects Advocate was launched. According to its founders, Tom Jacobs, AIA, of Krueck Sexton, and Peter Exley, FAIA, of Architecture is Fun, the goal was to gather a list of firms who wanted to speak out—somehow—about the pressing need for action on climate change. “We felt that firms voices were missing in the dialogue,” Jacobs says. Most recently, the group has sent a letter to President-Elect Trump (it went out on Monday, January 15, signed by some more than 200 firms).
This initiative was shaped outside of the AIA, but both founders are members of AIA. There was some communication amongst the list after the AIA’s response to the election went out, causing much discussion and concern amongst members. But in a recent chat about the purpose of Architects Advocate, Jacobs points out that “we need the Institute more than ever right now.” Even so, Architects Advocate started outside of it, become another “sign on” initiative for firms to consider. For some larger firms, the climate change focus has loomed a bit too political for them to sign.
But some 230 firms jumped in to sign, including some firms who are recognized design and sustainability leaders. I asked Lake|Flato, why they signed. Bob Harris, FAIA, and Healther Holdridge, Assoc. AIA, told me that signing on to AIA’s 2030 Commitment, which has reporting commitments and more, had been a longer process, but having gone through that, the consideration of signing on other efforts, such as Architects Advocate, has been smooth and quick. “We are eager to make a statement wherever we can,” Harris says. “We think that things like this align with the 2030 Commitment.” Holdridge adds: “Signing 2030 prompted us to create a statement of commitment, which guides us on other advocacy matters.”
Isn’t AIA national pursuing advocacy around this very issue already, via the 2030 Commitment and dedicated advocacy activities? Jacobs says that he and Exley “see the 2030 Commitment as a signature achievement. We hope that what we have started strengthens their case by shining a light from a different perspective. I see us in support of what they do.” Jacobs said that he’s reached out to AIA national leaders and staff and has yet to hear back.
Why climate change and not something more directly tied to architecture, like sustainable design or resilience? “This is easier than sustainability or resilience,” Jacobs says. “I cannot think of an issue that is more black and white with respect to the agreement in the science and the need to address it.”
Why a letter to Trump? Other groups are writing letters, but directing them to senators directly involved in confirmation hearings (especially of the EPA and Energy appointments). “We knew that neither he nor his people would read it,” Jacobs says. “It’s really about mobilizing us. We are using this as part of getting organized locally, in states, and beyond. We need to be vocal and present. I think we need to emulate the Tea Party approach: focus energy at the local and state level. We hope the letter will grow Architects Advocate… so that the next open letter—such as when pulling out of the Paris Agreement begins to happen—will have more signatories.”
Some people wish that Architects Advocate had coordinated with existing AIA efforts. Jose B. Rodriguez, AIA Int. Assoc., LEED AP, of Willoughby Engineering, is a past chair of AIA Chicago COTE. He is disappointed that Architects Advocate is, as he sees it, missing the opportunity to recognize or engage the 2030 Commitment. “AIA and COTE have developed a wealth of information and resources that can be leveraged to move the balance towards true energy and carbon reduction,” he says. “I feel Architects Advocate, while well intentioned, is diluting those efforts and may cause some movement fatigue.”
AIA Chicago Executive Director Zurich Esposito says that the chapter supports the effort. “We frequently support the activities and initiatives of architecture- and design-related groups that are not formally part of AIA Chicago. As we’ve done with other initiatives and groups, we’ve made our members aware of the Architects Advocate initiative.”
Jacob keeps coming back to a plain fact: “Climate change is not a partisan issue.” It’s hard to argue with that. While developing nations and the poor everywhere will suffer soonest and most, ultimately, climate change will negatively impact the economic viability of all people and communities—and then their very survival.