Transforming US Architectural Education and Professional Practice

Climate change affects every person, every project, and every client. Image: American Institute of Architects.
Climate change affects every person, every project, and every client. Image: American Institute of Architects.

Have attempts stalled to mainstream zero carbon knowledge and skills in the US architectural curriculum? Where is the impediment? Despite many bottom-up efforts, why are accrediation criteria lagging behind?

Architects Marsha Maytum and Bill Leddy report on recent attempts to change the US architectural curriculum and architectural practice in order to mainstream zero carbon and protect the planet. The latest critiera set by the independent accreditation board do not address the urgency that many in the profession (and higher education) are seeking.

After a year of consultation, in February 2020 the US National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) released the new 2020 Conditions and Procedures for Accreditation for all architecture schools in the United States. This document defines the minimum standards that universities must meet for the professional education of US architects and is therefore highly influential in determining the curriculum and content in architecture schools. The NAAB is an independent agency that evaluates US architecture programmes to ensure that graduates have the technical and critical thinking skills required to have a rewarding career in the profession.

This update to the accreditation requirements occurs once every six years and this year’s update presented an important opportunity to revise the curriculum requirements in all architecture schools in the US to address the critical the role of architecture in the climate crisis.  The year-long consultation process received recommendations from architects, educators, professional organizations and other stakeholders across the country urging mandatory curriculum changes. Many voices demanded that the curriculum requirements be changed to ensure that the next generation of architects (i.e. current students) have the knowledge and capabilities to address the climate crisis.  Many advocated that the architectural curriculum must be clearly focused to create a carbon positive, healthy, resilient and regenerative built environment.

As 2019 Chair of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE), I (MM) submitted our recommendation for curriculum revisions and a pedagogical framework in alignment with the AIA focus on urgent climate action. Accredited architectural programs must address climate action and a broader integrated understanding of health, safety and welfare in every aspect of the education of future architects. It is our responsibility to educate and empower the next generation of professionals to be the leaders and innovators for an equitable, sustainable and just built environment.

In October 2019, my partner Bill Leddy and I also participated in the John Reynolds Symposium in Portland Oregon where a diverse group of over 100 educators and professionals from across the United States created the Portland Declaration in response to the NAAB process. The Declaration states:

Sustainability should be a major component of the NAAB program accreditation criteria.  We strongly recommend that the principles underlying the AIA Framework for Design Excellence provide the basis for defining sustainability in this context. Those graduating from an accredited architecture program must be exposed to and demonstrate the ability to engage in:

Design integration
Design synthesis
Building integration
Sustainability (as embodied by the AIA COTE Top Ten/Framework for Design Excellence)
Environmental stewardship values 

Sustainability, climate action, and environmental stewardship must move to the top of the mission statement of NAAB. Urgency!  This is critical to the continuing relevance, influence, and value of architecture as a profession that serves society.

What was the result of the NAAB consultation process? The outcome of the NAAB criteria review incorporated only minor adjustments to the conditions and procedures language to include environmental considerations in the architectural curriculum – but not substantive revisions to address climate action in architectural accreditation requirements.

The NAAB’s 2020 Conditions and Procedures for Accreditation does not embrace the extreme sense of urgency required by the climate crisis. It fails to enact the necessary change for our next generation of architects. The AIA Committee on the Environment will continue to demand NAAB to integrate stronger requirements to incorporate sustainable design into all aspects of architectural education and studio culture; this is in alignment with the AIA’s focus on climate action and environmental stewardship.

As an institution representing US architects, the AIA defines what professionalism means particularly its members’ professional responsibilities to safeguard society and our planet. The last year has seen profound action by the AIA in addressing the climate crisis. In 2018 the AIA revised their Professional Code of Ethics to include Obligations to the Environment “…a built environment that equitably supports human health and well-being and is resistant to climate change, and restoring degraded or depleted natural resources.” In January 2019 the AIA Board voted to focus on environmental stewardship throughout the organization. A grassroots-lead Resolution for Urgent Climate Action was overwhelmingly passed by the membership at the AIA National Conference in June 2019 in Las Vegas. The Resolution demanded that commencing in 2019 and continuing until zero-net carbon practice is the accepted standard of its members, the AIA prioritize and support urgent climate action as a health, safety, and welfare issue, to exponentially accelerate the “decarbonization” of buildings, the building sector, and the built environment, and that the AIA:

  1. Declare an urgent climate imperative for carbon reduction.
  2. Transform the day-to-day practice of architects to achieve a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient and healthy built environment by adopting the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. (The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Measures
  3. Align and utilize our external messaging to leverage support of our peers, clients, policy makers, and the public at large.

In September 2019 the Resolution for Climate Action was ratified by the AIA Board and the Framework for Design Excellence adopted by the Institute with the goal to transform the day to day practice of architecture.As a result of the Resolution, the AIA has initiated the creation of a Climate Action Plan for the Institute which will be voted on by the AIA Board in April 2020 with formal adoption anticipated by the AIA ’20 National Conference in Los Angeles.The Climate Action Plan Goals are to:

  • Establish the relevance and importance of the building sector and architectural practice in climate mitigation solutions
  • Design buildings and communities to anticipate and adapt to the evolving challenge of climate change.
  • Lead meaningful change and contribute to climate solutions in partnership with our global community.

The AIA has eloquently set forth the following Climate Imperative - AIA Blueprint for Better Campaign 2020:

One site.
Countless challenges.
A looming deadline.
Seven and a half billion clients.
This is the ultimate project.
It's time to show the world what design can do.

AIA and its members are dedicated to designing a healthy, sustainable, and equitable world, together. More information on the campaign here.

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