Demystifying the Architecture 2030 Challenge with Nathan Kipnis of Kipnis Architecture + Planning

Kipnis Architecture + Planning
Designed by Kipnis Architecture + Planning, this lodge-style home incorporates natural ventilation, daylighting and other passive features, and achieves a 72% reduction from baseline. Photos used with permission from Nathan Kipnis. 

Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 Challenge to the global architecture and building community in 2006, in a bid to reduce the contributions of the building industry to carbon emissions, reduce the use of fossil fuels and consequently help halt global climate change. In 2017 alone, this effort has contributed to savings of more than 17.8 million metric tons of carbon compared to baseline equivalent buildings, and $3.2 billion in annual operating costs. As of early 2019, 550 firms are currently signed on to this initiative.

Participating firms report their projects’ predicted Energy Usage Intensity (pEUI) during each stage of design, and seek to achieve the stipulated reduction targets for the year. For example, firms are challenged to reduce their design’s pEUI by 80%  in 2020, (on the local code baseline) 90% in 2025, and carbon neutrality by 2030.  Projects are uploaded to the AIA’s Design Data Exchange (DDx). This can be done directly from Sefaira. The AIA tracks these uploads in an annual report. Data from its latest report shows that Sefaira is the top tool used by architectural teams to improve building performance and communicate their shared targets.

Sefaira in the AIA 2017 Report
According to the AIA, Sefaira ranks as the top tool used by architectural teams to improve building performance.

To get a better sense of what inspires these architectural teams and how they incorporate analysis within their workflow to achieve great performance, we spoke with AIA 2030 Commitment Working Group members. 

The third and final spotlight is on Nathan Kipnis, FAIA, principal of Kipnis Architecture & Planning in Evanston, IL, and current 2030 Working Group co-chair. Nathan is passionate about well-designed, efficient and resilient architecture and has been fine-tuning his sustainable design approach since 1985.

Nathan Kipnis
Architect, Nathan Kipnis, of Kipnis Architecture + Planning
"There are plenty of people who can design a green house that doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing, and there are plenty of people who can design a beautiful house that isn’t energy efficient. The trick is to create a blend of both and, to me, that’s what architecture is about."

How did you and your firm get introduced to the 2030 Challenge?

In 2008, the AIA took Ed Mazria’s 2030 Challenge and signed on to it under the “2030 Commitment”.  Then, in 2009, the Chicago AIA chapter began to seriously take on the 2030 Challenge and this was when I was asked to serve on the Chicago 2030 Commitment Working Group. The Working Group was tasked with creating a spreadsheet for reporting. The recession had hit and as a representative of a five-person firm, I was tasked with figuring out a way for small firms to do energy modeling at a low cost. We started off with a free program developed by UCLA called HEED. It worked but wasn’t graphically polished. I gave presentations on HEED and also looked at all the other tool options that a small firm would want. This was when we found Sefaira. We liked that it was easy to use and provided client-worthy graphics.  

I’ve been a member of the AIA’s 2030 Commitment Working Group for the last nine years and about five years ago I joined the AIA National committee. I’m currently in a two-year co-chair role with the committee. 

As an AEC professional, what does the 2030 Challenge mean to you and the future of buildings?

The 2030 Challenge is more important now than ever. When I first joined the movement ten years ago, we were 21 years away from the 2030 target. Now that we’re eleven years out from this, it’s important that the 2030 Challenge becomes ingrained in firms’ cultures.  It’s especially important considering it takes a year or more to design and build a building.

The current goal is to be 70% better than the 2003 baseline for a building. That’s tough to do and firms can get discouraged when they don’t achieve this number in the first year. We don’t expect them to accomplish this feat right away because it’s a big one. The best approach is to start energy modeling and familiarize your firm with a project’s pEUI so that over time, you can hit a 50 – 70% reduction. This is good preparation for 2020 when 80% reduction from baseline will become the standard. Overall, the goal is to keep making progress, year over year.

How do you incorporate building performance into your workflow?

Historically, the architecture industry did building analysis through hand calculations and progressed to spreadsheets. Technological changes mean that with a BIM model, you can change an element and the software will update all the calculations for you. We discovered Sefaira in 2014 and liked that it was easy to use and provided client-worthy graphics. Eighty percent of our work is focused on single-family detached homes and the rest are build-outs associated with large commercial projects, as well as restaurants, offices, and retail builds. Once we have the project scope, we test various design layouts. For residential projects, sometimes we’ll model three design layouts and test them in Sefaira first to get a general pEUI number and a sense of the form and orientation. We refine the models using the data from Sefaira. 

We also build energy modeling into the project plan and we allot around four hours of work, most of which is recreating our models in SketchUp from Vectorworks. Since 80% of our projects are residential and in the same climate, our workflow is very efficient. Despite this, we really appreciate the real-time results and easy-to-read graphics. Energy modeling is integral to our design process. We feel that it’s important for clients to understand that energy modeling is important to us.

What challenges have you found when designing buildings with the 2030 Challenge in mind? 

As both a firm and a member of the 2030 committee, we’re trying to demystify the 2030 Commitment. We found that education is key so we created a five-point sheet about barriers to taking the Commitment up.  One of the issues we address is “this is difficult to do”. To show people that it’s not difficult when I do lectures I’ll show a series of images. First are hand calculations from 1940 by an architecture firm called Keck & Keck, who was one of the first firms to implement passive solar design and coined the term ‘passive solar’.  These types of hand-drawn calculations are what I started with at school. Second are spreadsheets and the third image is a Sefaira report with beautiful graphics. Once they see how hard it used to be, it’s easy for them to see how incorporating sustainable design is more straightforward now. The ability to push and pull a model, add windows and see the impact in seconds is amazing. 

Kipnis article_Keck & Keck computational diagram
Keck & Keck computations for Solar Heat dated from 1940. Photos provided by Nathan Kipnis.
The benefit of performing energy modeling is that you get to experiment with different design strategies before they are built and see what the performance impacts are.

Finally, changing the general mindset that sustainable design is more costly is a challenge. It can be hard for people to look past the little bit of extra time a design takes and the perceived extra costs. Oftentimes, sustainable design costs nothing and can be used to create beautiful, green buildings that don’t appear as stereotypical sustainable homes. With that said, progress has been made since I graduated from school and the conversation has shifted from just energy efficiency to a more comprehensive discussion of climate change, health, labor, materials, and more. There are plenty of people who can design a green house that doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing and there are plenty of people who can design a beautiful house that isn’t energy efficient. The trick is to create a blend of both and, to me, that’s what architecture is about. 

What successes have you had by incorporating performance tools into your workflow?

When doing energy modeling, there are so many success factors that can impact performance. The thing that surprised me the most that I noticed due to quick feedback was the window characteristics. For example, when you optimize the solar heat gain coefficient of the windows for a specific orientation, you could make a big difference to your energy use for zero cost. The benefit of performing energy modeling is that you get to experiment with different design strategies before they are built and see what the performance impacts are. 

Right now, we’re doing residential home projects that are registering at 64-72% better than baseline. In addition, we’ve committed as a firm to specify all electric appliances versus using natural gas on almost all our projects. While our firm’s tagline is ‘High design, Low carbon™’, our overall goal as a firm is to institute not just sustainable design, low carbon design, and zero net energy design, but also resilient design. 

With this goal in mind, one challenge is to find quality climate data for 2030, 2050, and 2070. The better the data, the better we can model our building with a specific year’s data in mind and adjust our design strategy for the future.  

The last one is both a success and a challenge. We worry that we could hit ‘peak EUI’ for specific building types, such as fast food restaurants with EUI numbers of 500, that rely heavily on energy-intensive equipment. On the success side, we’ve been able to achieve a 72% reduction from baseline and a pEUI of 12 on a project.

How do you approach the DDx reporting process?

In the last two years, the AIA opened up the DDx to allow project uploads on a case-by-case basis versus end-of-year reporting only. This has made it a lot easier and we now upload qualified projects as soon as they’re done.

DDx Upload from Sefaira
Sefaira makes it possible for its users to upload their projects straight into the AIA’s Design Data Exchange (DDx)

Towards the end of the year submission deadline, the AIA Committee also started hosting online conference calls every two weeks that continue up until the submission deadline. There are calls for specific topics, ranging from international, California-based, residential, large office, and multi-project. We also present at events such as the AIA national conference and Greenbuild. Currently, we have over 550 firms signed on to the 2030 Commitment and DDx reporting. This includes most of the largest firms in the world, so the total square footage of projects uploaded in 2017 amounted to over 3 billion square feet. That is starting to be a significant percentage of the total global building square footage, so we’re very proud of this contribution. 

The 2030 Working Group committee is also working to make the reporting process simpler. A lot of the data had been required for the Department of Energy, and that will not be the case moving forward.

What percentage of your firm’s projects do you upload?

We upload about 66% of our projects to the DDx, about 8 out of 12 projects annually.  In comparison, huge firms like Gensler upload thousands of projects per year. The Sefaira feature that links to the DDx reporting can be an especially helpful tool for larger firms. 

Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve been able to hit targets or make big wins?

Project by Kipnis Architecture + Planning
Designed by Kipnis Architecture + Planning, this lodge-style home incorporates natural ventilation, daylighting and other passive features, and achieves a 72% reduction from baseline. Photos used with permission from Nathan Kipnis.

Of course, our favorite project is always our next project! However, we recently completed a project right on the lake in Lake Zurich, IL. It is located on a pie-shaped site, and we incorporated curved walls that respond to the lot’s shape. It is a lodge-style home that integrates all of our best practices, which includes being all-electric, having a huge solar panel array, a super tight perimeter shell, and all of the equipment in the home being Energy Star®. We included a lot of natural daylighting as well as operable skylights located up high to encourage natural ventilation. The materials were locally sourced where possible, and the finishes are all eco-friendly. The reduction from baseline came to 72%. The owners just moved in and they love it! 

About the Author

Sumele Aruofor

Sumele contributes architecture and performance focused content to the SketchUp and Sefaira blogs. When she's not writing or practicing architecture, she can be found singing with her three-man band, cooking up a storm or stuck in a book.

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