AIA COTE®: A history within a movement


By Kira Gould, Allied AIA

AIA COTE® took shape in 1989, and became, officially, the AIA Committee on the Environment in 1990, but it grew from events and conversations that began nearly 20 years earlier. Today COTE® celebrates a robust definition of sustainability that frames the process of sustainable design as one that includes the full range of human settlement and ecological issues. In the 1970s it started with energy.

The AIA Energy Committee was founded in 1973 by a group that included Herb Epstein, FAIA; Richard Stein, FAIA; Ezra Ehrankrantz, FAIA; and Leo Daly, FAIA, all known for their work in energy, architecture, and building research. The Energy Committee prepared several papers, including A Nation of Energy Efficient Buildings; these became effective AIA tools for lobbying Capitol Hill. The AIA’s Dave Bullen helped gain the interest of Jimmy Carter’s campaign, which adopted language from the AIA energy position papers into the Democratic platform of 1976. Carter’s administration founded what became the US Department of Energy, which funded building research focused on energy. Energy Committee members Donald Watson, FAIA, and Greg Franta, FAIA, were two of many active members with the group in the late 1970s, when AIA, too, was advocating building energy research. The committee collaborated with the government and with many organizations for more than a decade.

Donald Watson, FAIA: “Energy is a design topic, not a technology topic, and there are a few of us who have always believed this.”

The AIA Research Corporation was set up in 1973 (a research committee within AIA had existed since the 1950s). President and organizer John Eberhard, FAIA, secured contracts with federal agencies; one for $10 million provided subcontracts to more than 300 firms and universities and support for key AIA Research Corporation staff (which included Vivian Loftness, FAIA). They engaged in an array of building and energy studies, including regional guidelines for passive solar design and Building Energy Performance Standards work intended to become energy codes. According to Watson, “The AIA Research Corporation can be credited with arguing effectively for the architectural focus of building science research—and for critical federal funding support of building science related to energy.”

In the 1980s, the Energy Committee was fading and lower energy prices were lessening attention to energy-related issues, even as some sought to keep them on the AIA agenda. In the early 1980s, architect Bob Berkebile, FAIA, had a career-changing moment when a structural failure at a hotel his firm designed caused the deaths of 114 people. “I began to think in a new way about the real impact of our designs,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘Are our designs improving quality of life, health, and well-being, and the quality of the neighborhood, community, and planet?’ ” The Smithsonian magazine published an issue highlighting people its editors believed might change the outcome of human life on the planet; these included Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute, and others. “I sought them out,” Berkebile says. “They opened my eyes to the need for expertise and diversity outside AIA membership. I realized that architects and the AIA were barriers to making the degree of change that was necessary.”

At the AIA Grassroots Convention in the spring of 1989, Senator Jack Danforth (R-MO) challenged Berkebile and other Missouri architects who visited his office to document that environmental concerns they were expressing were shared by architects nationally. At the 1989 AIA Convention in St. Louis, AIA Kansas City Chapter president Kirk Gastinger, FAIA, and president-elect Berkebile presented Critical Planet Rescue (CPR), a measure calling for the Institute to sponsor research and to develop a resource guide to help architects and their clients to act responsibly. (This had earlier gotten a cool response from the AIA board, which suggested that it was an environmental problem, not a professional one.) At the convention, the effort had broad support, prompting the board to assign CPR to the dwindling Energy Committee. In 1990, a first meeting was in Kansas City, and a second, at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, brought together a large group of people to chart a path for what would become the Committee on the Environment.

About that time, a Kansas City Business Journal story about Critical Planet Rescue found its way to the desk of Bill Reilly, the new director of the Environmental Protection Agency, which eventually provided significant funding—more than $1 million—toward research. The AIA board endorsed the creation of the Committee, announced at the 1990 convention in Houston, to address a broad array of environmental concerns. Suddenly, the little committee had legs and a founding Steering Committee, chaired by Berkebile, of 10 (including some non-AIA members). According to a 1994 document, the members included Bob Berkebile, FAIA; Paul Bierman-Lytle; Greg Franta, FAIA; Kirk Gastinger, FAIA; Harry Gordon, FAIA; Hal Levin; Frederick P. Lyman, FAIA; William McDonough, FAIA; Christopher Stafford, AIA; and Kelly French Vresilovic, AIA.

Bob Berkebile, FAIA: “We knew we couldn’t do this alone. We saw that this would have to be interdisciplinary and integrated.”

James Lawler, AIA, the 1991 AIA president, had asked AIA board member Randoph Croxton, FAIA (who served as the board liaison to AIA/COTE for its first few years) and others, including Franta, Watson, and Sim van der Ryn, FAIA, to draft a position. The board passed a resolution that members should not specify materials with CFCs or HCFCs, which were rapidly being understood as contributors to ozone depletion.

In the spring of 1990, Berkebile and AIA staff member Greg Ward visited New York to see projects that were beginning to illustrate what would come to be understood as an important shift in design practices. William McDonough + Partners’ headquarters for the Environmental Defense Fund addressed issues of daylight, energy, and materials and opened in 1987. Croxton and interior designer Kirsten Childs’ design for the Natural Resources Defense Council headquarters, also in New York, opened in 1989. They linked issues of energy, materials, air quality, and daylight and the client supported careful monitoring after occupancy so results could be documented; many people refer to this project as an important early exemplar of the shift from energy-driven design to a more full-spectrum understanding of ecologically informed design.

I am encouraged by and engaged in two related, collaborative initiatives in America’s Heartland. The first is the Regenerative Heartland Partnership, which has three partners: The Nature Conservancy, The Land Institute, and Deep Roots (formerly the KCNPI). Their intention is to do the research to understand carrying capacity of existing systems in the Heartland that will inform changes in land management, agriculture food systems and all the infrastructure that is connected to living on the planet successfully. The initial research will begin this spring, which will provide new understanding about sequestering carbon, regenerating soil, and converting new perennial plant systems to food production. The second is the Heartland Commons, a diverse group of individuals and organizations across the heartland that are forming a collaboration to create new regenerative business, development and economic systems to transform the vitality and resilience of the heartland.

A multidisciplinary focus and holistic viewpoint—and EPA funding—drove the development of the Environmental Resource Guide (ERG). The manual was introduced in 1992. The ERG Review Council—Pliny Fisk III, Levin, and Bierman-Lytle—worked with dozens of AIA members and others to develop the detailed and comprehensive guide and to expand it in subsequent years. Joel Ann Todd did seminal work for this project, developing the technical reports on materials that are the ERG’s backbone. The project benefited from the support and leadership of the EPA’s James White and the AIA’s Joe Demkin. Alex Wilson and Nadav Malin (of BuildingGreen and Environmental Buiding News) developed the application reports based on a framework crafted by Gordon. Others provided critical input into this detailed resource. “The building professions were very uncomfortable addressing key issues of human health and well-being,” Croxton recalls. “The Environmental Resource Guide was designed to develop and disseminate reliable and scientifically sound knowledge and insights needed within the profession.” EPA funding also covered a group of non-architects who worked with AIA COTE® in the early years; the Scientific Advisory Group on the Environment (SAGE) members included Amory Lovins, Patricia Hynes, Robert Gillman, Bob Simmons, Bill Browning, David Wann, and others.

Randolph Croxton, FAIA: “We saw early on that one of the most valuable roles COTE could play would be in the development and dissemination of reliable, and scientifically sound knowledge and insights needed within the profession to pursue this deeper consideration of architecture and design. This eventually became the ERG.”

By this time, Gordon says, the perspective was beginning to be integrative, going far beyond energy: “We were talking about healthy environments for people. We were looking at waste, land use, ecologies, and water.” They were also having critical early discussions about life cycle assessment and how that framework related to specific regional characteristics. From 1990 through 1993 were years of intense development of the ERG and coincided with the growth in expertise of AIA COTE®: the “biology” of environmental design was being identified for the profession, using site, water, energy, materials, and waste as a basis of measurement. The COTE® Steering Group also organized focused symposia on issues related to environmentally-responsible design. The first one, on Building Energy Conservation and Efficiency, was held at University of California-Los Angeles.

A think tank came together to develop these concepts. Berkebile, Fisk, Levin, Todd, Barbara Lippiatt, Greg Norris, and others were involved, as was the National Institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Lippiatt and Norris had been developing the Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) software package in collaboration with Todd and her staff. The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems hired Levin, Todd, Norris, and Bill Bavinger to explore a country-wide life cycle analysis (LCA) approach—geographically “upstreaming” life cycle data and describing the inputs and outputs of more than 12 million businesses. Results showed that the architecture and construction industries were directly connected to one-twenty-fifth of all material flow activity. Their document, BaseLineGreen, was so called because users could “baseline” any generic building type against which to measure design work using regional parameters throughout the United States. (Eventually, the LCA approach found its way into BEES, which extends the early work of AIA COTE® using more formal and widely accepted practices for evaluating the environmental impacts of building products using life cycle assessment tools.)

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush issued a National Energy Policy, and AIA President Lawler convened an advisory group to issues a response and resolution that was passed by the board one month later. The resolution, written by AIA COTE® members, Croxton, and Lawler, called on all AIA members to undertake environmental reforms within their practices, such as the immediate cessation of ozone-depleting refrigerants.

Around this time, early planning for the 1993 AIA National Convention in Chicago began in earnest. It would be the first to focus on sustainable design, presided over by AIA’s first woman president, Susan Maxman, FAIA. “We said we wanted the convention to focus on sustainability—architecture at the crossroads—and several people suggested that no one would come,” Maxman recalls. “It was a big success.” At that event in Chicago, more than 3,000 AIA members joined Maxman and the Union Internationale des Architects, in signing the Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future, a document placing “environmental and social sustainability at the core of our practices and professional responsibilities.”

Susan Maxman, FAIA, in 1993: “We have the knowledge, we have the riches, we have the power. What is called for is a profound shift in the way we regard this planet and everything on it. Exploitation must be replaced by stewardship. And for stewardship to extend its healing hand, we must act responsibly.”

Since 1990, there have been 13 chairs of the AIA COTE® national advisory group (or steering committee, as it was earlier known). Berkebile served as chair from the start through 1992, Gastinger in 1993, Franta in 1994, and Harry Gordon in 1995. Watson chaired in 1996, followed by Gail Lindsey in 1997 and 1998. During this time, many other individuals contributed to the success of AIA COTE® in a variety of ways, including Bill Browning, Hon. AIA; Charles Eley, FAIA; Dan Nall, FAIA; and Bill Reed, AIA; among many others. AIA COTE® hosted a conference on Energy, Environment and Architecture in December 1991, a symposium on Designing Healthy Buildings: Indoor Air Quality in November 1992, and a three-part workshop series for architects and allied professionals on Design for the Environment in early 1993. Many AIA COTE® leaders were also involved in the Greening of the White House that year, including Berkebile, Gastinger, Franta, Robert Simmons, John Picard, Robert Gilman, Browning, Kathleen Cruise, Carl Costello, and others. In 1994, a group of AIA COTE® leaders, including Franta, Fisk, Gastinger, Gordon, Berkebile, Lindsey, Watson, Gregg Ander, Lesley Brown, William Edgerton, and David Hirzel, hosted the Global Symposium on Sustainable Environments in New York. The next year, AIA COTE® organized the Environmental Design Charrette, held simultaneously in 12 U.S. locations; participants included Chris Gibbs at AIA and Ander, Berkebile, Fisk, Franta, Lindsey, Watson, Gastinger, Gordon, Jestena Boughton, Kristine Anstead, Rover Cevero, Anne Crawley, Elizabeth Ericson, James Franklin, Margaret Howard, David Lewis, Andrew Maurer, John Peers, David Sellers, Lynn Simon, and Elaine Stover. This was sponsored by the EPA and summarized in the Environmental Design Charrette Handbook (AIA Press, 1996).

Bill Browning, Hon. AIA: “The process pioneered by the Greening of the White House charrette has become an integral part of the green building movement.”

Recognizing that practitioners need to study exemplars, AIA COTE® introduced the Top Ten Green Projects program on Earth Day in 1997 under Lindsey’s leadership. The program, which pioneered a blend of qualitative and quantitative assessment, is now in its eleventh year. The involvement and support of the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program have been important to the growth and strength of this program and Energy Star is the current sponsor. Strong juries are another distinction; they have been multi-disciplinary and diverse, including engineers, architects, and young practitioners. The COTE® Top Ten program has a sophisticated online submission process, developed with Malin’s team at BuildingGreen and the DOE’s High-Performance Buildings Database (managed through the National Renewable Energy Labs). While relying on the display board to give a first impression to the jury, the online submission provides detailed metrics, giving this program its unique qualitative and quantitative framework and providing a critical web site resource.

Gail Lindsey, FAIA: “We called it ‘Earth Day Top Ten’ when we started the Top Ten Green Projects program. I was interested in case studies and thought that a top ten would be a great way to start a database of the very best.”

In November 1997, AIA COTE® was a cohost of the Environmental and Economic Balance: The 21st Century Outlook, which also involved the U.S. Green Building Council and the DOE. Several other AIA professional interest areas (now known as knowledge communities) were also involved. Later, there was a meeting in Maho Bay that included the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), and the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Present for this meeting were, among others, Berkebile; Rick Fedrizzi; Rob Watson; Maxman; Bill Reed, AIA; David Gottfried; Lindsey; and Muscoe Martin, AIA. A similar meeting followed in Seattle. Martin served as chair in 1999, and in 2000 and 2001, Sandy Mendler, AIA, was chair. These were critical years for the AIA COTE® Top Ten Green Projects program, as it was gaining a more prominent profile and the number of entries was increasing. In October of 1999, AIA COTE® cosponsored a conference in Chattanooga that became an important milestone for many in the movement. Mainstreaming Green: Sustainable Design for Buildlings and Communities, which also involved the USGBC and DOE; the other PIAs involved included Public Architects, Building Codes & Standards, and Specifications and Building Technology. Martin recalls the “extraordinary” contributions of AIA staff member Gribbs. Keynote speakers included Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry, and architect McDonough.

BuildingGreen’s Nadav Malin: “COTE was involved in making the Chattanooga conference happen in 1999. And AIA/COTE and the Committee on Design collaborated on the Architecture of Sustainability conference in May 2006. These collaborative conferences were important moments for many people.”

Joyce Lee was chair in 2002 and during this time AIA COTE® explored ways to team with groups to make effective appeals to legislators and others to help codify green design goals. Lee worked with the Institute to renew a critical Memorandum of Understanding with the DOE and to initiate a new one with the EPA. (The EPA MOU has yielded important efforts such as the 2006 Water + Design Conference and research collaborations with the USGBC.) Lee’s work as chief architect with the Office of Management and Budget for the City of New York helped spotlight green cities initiatives. AIA COTE® held its first Dean’s Roundtable on Sustainable Design at this time.

Daniel Williams, FAIA, was chair in 2003, and his involvement in the group coincided with further development of the COTE® Sustainable Design Measures and Metrics—the framework for the Top Ten Green Projects Program—to fully include issues of site, watershed, urban design, and regional issues and to distinguish between “green design” and “sustainable.” At this time, the COTE® advisory group was pushing to bring the issue of sustainability back into the forefront at the institute. 2003 AIA President Thom Penney, FAIA, appointed Williams and Bill McDonough to be the AIA liaisons to the Union of International Architects for the Sustainable Design meeting in Barcelona. Williams helped lead the Greening of the AIA Headquarters charrette in 2003, which also included Dan Nall, FAIA; Vivian Loftness, FAIA; Mark Rylander, AIA; and others. The report was provided to the Institute and is a foundation for current greening efforts.

Daniel Williams, FAIA: “The ecological model illustrates that we are nature and that all communities of all things are connected. A sustainable society designs and builds sustainable structures and communities. This is not a ‘business as usual’ period in professional design practice. Today’s opportunities will define the profession for the next century.”

Mark Rylander, AIA, the 2004 chair, worked with Williams and Loftness to secure a grant from the Tides Foundation to pursue the Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education project, which included a strategy meeting that involved David Orr, Don Watson, and several others and included recognition of leading programs and a published report, Ecology and Design: Ecological Literacy and Architecture Education. Rylander helped push the board to appoint the first of a series of sustainability task groups and for refinement of the COTE® Top Ten measures, honing the qualitative measures and the quantitative metrics. AIA COTE® advocated the greening of the AIA convention, Graphic Standards, and awards. Rylander and Lee oversaw the Writing the Green RFP tool.

While Loftness was chair, sustainability was gaining renewed momentum at AIA, and she was a vocal advocate for funding for sustainability and building research. AIA’s Center for Communities by Design expanded the successful Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team program to include Sustainable Design Assessment Teams (SDATs). The Government Advocacy department began to weave sustainability into its focus areas and it became a theme of Grassroots as hundreds of regional leaders visited senators and congressmen in Washington, DC, in 2005 and 2006. James Binkley was the 2006 chair of AIA COTE® and a supporter of thinking beyond green to what true sustainability might mean for architects and citizens. He has overseen advances and coordination of the Greening of the AIA convention, with critical support from local chapters and AIA’s Gribbs.

AIA COTE® leaders have been a resource for AIA. Berkebile and Mendler represented AIA COTE® at the Green Building Summit in July 2005, which resulted in two position statements adopted by the board late that year. AIA presidents, including Thom Penney, FAIA (2003); Gene Hopkins, FAIA (2004); Doug Steidl, FAIA (2005); Kate Schwennsen, FAIA (2006); and R K Stewart, FAIA (2007), have helped to champion the subject as a transformer of the profession and related industries. AIA/COTE leaders have served on the Sustainability Task Groups; the third in 2006 was chaired by Williams. That group’s September 2006 report to the board was unanimously approved. (Current AIA efforts toward sustainability include working with the nation’s mayors, encouraging greening architecture education, and providing architects with sustainable design strategies. Learn more about AIA's sustainability initiatives >

Vivian Loftness, FAIA: “The story of COTE and its energy and research initiatives precursors at AIA illustrates the strong, continuous dialogue of energy and environmental advocates in the architectural community for more than 60 years. This had its underpinnings in the early 1900s.”

Since AIA COTE®’s inception, collaboration within AIA and far beyond it has been an important part of the recipe for success, and this approach to environmental leadership is particularly evident with respect to the USGBC. Several COTE® chairs—Berkebile, Gordon, Mendler, Martin, and Loftness—have served as board members to the USGBC and many other chairs and AIA/COTE members at all levels have been leaders in that organization and in the development of its LEED™ program, which has been at the center of the US market transformation. Key collaborators are also active leaders within the EPA, the DOE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the American Planning Association (APA), the ULI, the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC), the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the American Water Resources Association (AWRA), the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and other groups. Within AIA, the committee collaborates closely with knowledge constituencies, especially the Center for Communities by Design and the Diversity Committee, and with several other knowledge communities, especially the Committee on Design, the Regional/Urban Design Committee, the Housing Committee, the Public Architects Committee, the Center for Building Science & Performance, the Educator/Practitioner Network, and others.

An important strength of AIA COTE® is its multidisciplinary structure. Some 8,000 AIA members are also AIA COTE® members, and many are active in local and state chapters. A committed team of six past chapter chairs serves the advisory group as volunteer regional team leaders; our link to these many active groups. These chapters are proactive and diverse with missions that range from education of members, K-12 environmental and design education, legislation, and public events. They collaborate with many of the groups listed above. AIA COTE® has always depended on and championed cross-disciplinary collaboration as a key aspect of social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

In the mid-2000s, AIA COTE® expanded its leadership framework beyond the five-person national advisory group. The 2007 Advisory Group includes myself (I am the 2007 chair), Binkley (immediate past chair); Henry Siegel, FAIA; Ken Scalf, AIA; and David Miller. We are supported by an Adjunct Advisory Group that includes Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA; Lance Hosey, AIA; Greg Mella, AIA; Deborah Snoonian; and Catriona Campbell Winter. These groups and the regional team leaders (past local/state chairs) are joined by the 75 chairs of the 52 state and local COTEs as well as dozens of volunteers who assist in the committee’s work on education, advocacy, communications, and environmental leadership. AIA COTE® leaders current and past are gratified to see AIA embracing sustainability. We take seriously our mission to be a resource for AIA members, clients, and communities working toward sustainability.

Donald Watson, FAIA: “After 50 years of practice, I continue to be inspired by the contribution of AIA members, colleagues, and staff. The combined and continuing efforts of all who have raised, carried, and gathered behind the banner of architecture and environmental quality for all of life have made a lasting impact on the values, principles, and practices of architecture worldwide. The simplest statement for this banner was articulated by Alvar Aalto in the 1930s: ‘the responsible designer must inflict no harm.’ COTE is one part of the dialogue built upon this precept.”

Author’s note: AIA COTE® has involved dozens of passionate, committed people over time—AIA members, allied professionals, and AIA staff members—not all of whom are named here. I talked with many, and several were generous with their time; they mined their memories and even recovered documents from basements to help me tell this story. Not all recollections aligned precisely; omissions or errors are unintentional. Please send corrections or comments to

 View the COTE timeline PDF >

AIA Committee on the Environment Chairs

Bob Berkebile, FAIA 1990–1992
Kirk Gastinger, FAIA 1993
Greg Franta, FAIA
Harry Gordon, FAIA 1995
Donald Watson, FAIA 1996
Gail Lindsey, FAIA 1997–1998
Muscoe Martin, AIA 1999
Sandy Mendler, AIA 2000–2001
Joyce Lee, AIA 2002
Daniel Williams, FAIA 2003
Mark Rylander, AIA 2004
Vivian Loftness, FAIA 2005
James Binkley, FAIA 2006
Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA 2007
Henry Siegel FAIA 2008
Ken Scalf, AIA 2009
Dave Miller, FAIA 2010
Alexis Karolides, AIA 2011
Filo Castore, AIA 2012
Bill Leddy, AIA 2013
Bill Sturm, AIA 2014
Rand Ekman, AIA 2015
Paula McEvoy, FAIA 2016
Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA 2017  
Angela Brooks, FAIA 2018
Marsha Maytum, FAIA 2019
Julie Hiromoto, AIA 2020