A Call to Action on Sustainability

Amanda McAllister wants to put a spotlight in the AIA 2030 Commitment

The well-known program aims to address climate change by working toward a goal of carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. Now in its 14th year, the program has seen its signatory firms swell to more than 1,300. Despite that growth, however, the percentage of those firms reporting data remained at just 33% in 2022. In recent years, the program has expanded its scope from focusing primarily on tracking operational carbon—both in building design and firm practice—to include additional metrics, including embodied carbon—the CO2 emissions associated with the life cycle of a building’s materials, to better understand the total environmental impact of buildings. In 2022, the third year the program’s Design Data Exchange (DDx) collected embodied carbon data, the number of projects reporting embodied carbon data data jumped from 924 to 3,818.

Growing that number even higher will require the commitment and leadership of architects like McAllister. A project architect and sustainability specialist with the St. Louis-based firm Trivers, McAllister has not only been pushing her own firm’s sustainability efforts forward, but she’s also been spreading the word about the 2030 Commitment to other architects, speaking at events such as the AIA Conference on Architecture to empower other firms to join the effort.

In addition to her work with the 2030 Commitment, McAllister has been combining her extensive experience in civic and historic adaptive reuse with a passion for eco-conscious design. Think Wood sat down with McAllister to talk about her firm’s sustainability transformation, the growing need to consider both operational and embodied carbon, and the role wood and adaptive reuse can play in constructing low-carbon, climate-friendly buildings.

Think Wood: Tell us about your role at Trivers.

Amanda McAllister: I joined Trivers in 2016 as an architectural designer and am currently a project manager and associate. When I joined the Green Team [a Trivers group focused on sustainability efforts], the focus at that point in time was really on business operations—things like recycling and purchasing policies. But we recognized really quickly that we had a much bigger opportunity for an impact through our work. From that point on we made a very intentional effort to incorporate sustainability into our design process.
We’re a small firm of about 36 employees, which includes architects and interior designers. There was a pivotal ownership transition in 2015. The new owners aimed to be an Architect 50 firm. In 2016, we submitted to Architect 50, but scored lower in sustainability than we would have liked. The silver lining was that it led to a commitment to boosting our focus on sustainability within the firm. That’s when we signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, marking the beginning of our exciting sustainability journey.

Was part of that commitment finding people like you to add more focus to sustainability?

Yes, the firm’s leadership has been great about letting people explore their passions and has encouraged a cultural shift to embedding sustainability into our firm. I joined the Green Team here and we pushed for more sustainability in our design process, beyond just LEED projects and business operations. Our first year of commitment in 2016 was just about submitting data to the Design Data Exchange. The Green Team took over reporting and we aimed to report on all of our projects. Now, our goal is 100% energy models with our submissions, using tools like Insight, a Revit plugin. We are beginning to think more and more about embodied energy and the role wood can play in that.

Has sustainability always been a passion for you, especially in architecture?

Yes, I’ve always been passionate about sustainability. My focus has been on adaptive reuse and historic renovation work, which is challenging for high-performance buildings. But now the conversation includes embodied carbon, and we’re getting metrics to understand the benefits of renovation in terms of embodied carbon.

Why is it important to consider both operational and embodied energy?

Energy modeling helps us understand predictive energy performance and optimize our designs for future emissions-saving operations. Without an energy model, there’s a lot of variation in performance. Energy modeling is the best tool we have to predict and improve operational carbon. But as a sector, it’s quickly becoming apparent that it’s not enough to consider just operational energy. Reducing embodied energy can significantly lower a building’s overall carbon footprint. Wood, as a building material, is inherently low in embodied energy compared to materials like steel or concrete. It also has natural insulating properties, which can reduce the operational energy needed for heating and cooling, complementing its low embodied energy. 

Woodward Lofts
Photo Credit: Sam Fentress

Is there a project Trivers has completed that showcases wood construction and adaptive re-use?

Woodward Lofts is a notable project that used cross-laminated timber (CLT) to convert an old printing company into 164 residential lofts and retail space. The project really showcases the value and versatility of mass timber for adaptive re-use projects. We really capitalized on the high factory ceilings, working lofted bedrooms in among the worn steel trusses and timber decking of the original structure. It’s a great example of how we can curb embodied carbon by both selecting low-carbon materials like wood and also retaining and restoring existing buildings. 

What advice do you have for firms considering signing the AIA 2030 Commitment, or that have signed but are looking for ways to improve their performance against the program targets?

Start with small goals. Our approach was to incrementally increase the level of information we were reporting. Setting small, achievable goals can make the journey to meeting the 2030 targets less overwhelming. Initially, the 2030 Commitment was a little more focused on operational carbon, but they’re now emphasizing embodied carbon tracking as well, and that’s a great next step for firms looking to up their game when it comes to sustainability. I suggest looking for opportunities to get involved. We joined the St. Louis committee and we have now sponsored an educational series on the 2030 Commitment, aiming to get more local firms engaged.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Woodward Lofts

  • Photo Credit: Sam Fentress
  • Photo Credit: Sam Fentress
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