2030 Glossary: The Challenge, Commitment, Palette, Districts, and Products

Aurora Sharrard, PhD

Architects Pollute. That’s how Ed Mazria got the attention of Metropolis Magazine in 2003 – and it’s a message they plastered on their October cover. Since then, Mr. Mazria has taken the message that buildings are major contributors to climate change (using nearly 48% of all the energy nationally)—and created a solution set for how the building industry can create and operate buildings that become part of the solution for how the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions.

All of these opportunities are focused on the year 2030 (a mere 15 years from now), with the bedrock being The 2030 Challenge. Technically called “The 2030 Challenge for Planning,” Mr. Mazria created The 2030 Challenge with the goal of any new or majorly renovated building being carbon neutral by 2030, with the following incremental goals:

  • Pre-2015, buildings were working towards 60% reductions in energy use below the national median;
  • In 2015, 70% reduction in energy use below the national median;
  • By 2020, 80% reduction in energy use below the national median;
  • By 2025, 90% reduction in energy use below the national median;
  • By 2030, carbon neutral.

[Source: Architecture 2030]


Carbon neutral buildings by 2030 seems achievable, but the way it’s illustrated gives some building owners pause. “Does that mean my building uses no energy in 2030?” Of course not. People live, work, learn, and play in buildings; that’s their function. If buildings don’t meet their purpose, none of us are achieving our primary social goal of shelter, let alone the performance goals for that shelter as set out by The 2030 Challenge.

However, by definition of The 2030 Challenge, a net zero building alone is not a carbon neutral building that meets 2030 goals. Per the Challenge, buildings should first address energy efficiency and on-site renewables to reach their reduction goals; after that, 20% of the required reduction may come from off-site renewable energy. This means that a building with a design year of 2015 may meet its 2030 reduction goals of 70% through multiple paths, including 1) Using 70% less energy than national average; 2) Using 60% less energy than average and covering 10% of the reduction with on-site renewables; or 3) Using 50% less energy than the national average and purchasing off-site renewable energy credits that cover 20% of the required reduction below baseline.


[Source: Architecture 2030]


All of this begs the question: “So what is my baseline? What is my reduction measured below? Who am I being measured against?” Because all energy use reductions are below a national baseline, the details of how these reductions are measured and compared is tremendously important.

In 2007, Architecture 2030 (who facilitates The 2030 Challenge) agreed with AIA, ASHRAE, IESNA, and USGBC (with support from U.S. Department of Energy) that the national 2030 Challenge energy baseline would be national median building energy consumption values based on 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) data. Collected and analyzed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Association (EIA), the 2003 CBECS includes a representative dataset of U.S. building energy costs, consumption, and energy-specific characteristics (including building use type, size, number of computers, occupancy, etc.). As applied for The 2030 Challenge, CBECS data is used to determine national and regional median whole building site energy use intensity, using kBtu / ft2 / year. Generally, a lower EUI indicates better building energy performance, but EUIs vary widely by primary building use.

If you’re an architect, urban planner, or designer looking for tools to assist you in helping new or existing building achieve The 2030 Challenge, there are tons. Three with “2030” in their names include:

  • 2030 Palette – This free, online swatch book by Architecture 2030 provides a bevy of ideas, images, principles, and actions from across the world to help improve built environments worldwide (on scales from building systems to region-wide).
  • AIA + 2030 – This 10-part education series has already been offered in over 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada. In partnership, AIA, Architecture 2030, and local educators give architects and engineers the strategies they need to design buildings that use 70% less energy than baseline in 2015.
  • AIA 2030 Commitment – Over 300 architecture firms have committed to creating carbon neutral buildings by the year 2030. They report on their progress to AIA annually. In 2013, 99 firms reported on 2,464 buildings (1.6 billion ft2):
    • 401 of these buildings (16%) achieved the 60% energy reduction target (for their pre-2015 design years).
    • Only 66% of the entire lot used energy modeling.
    • 73 of these buildings (3%) were net zero energy.
    • Learn more from the 2013 AIA 2030 Commitment Report.

Whether you’re a designer or not, you’re likely thinking, “Wow, this is great and I want every new building I work on to achieve these goals. However, is The 2030 Challenge for new construction enough? Even if every new building or major renovation being designed today adopted the 2030 goals, would we achieve what we need to as an industry?”

In 2009, Brian Geller didn’t think so. Instead, he drew a map of all the buildings on Seattle’s district steam system and ultimately created the Seattle 2030 District, which is now one of nine 2030 Districts in North America. 2030 Districts create boundaries around communities of buildings (mostly downtowns, but not exclusively) and incentivizes private / public / nonprofit partnerships to work collaboratively to get every building (new or existing) in the boundary to commit to the goals of The 2030 Challenge.

“In under 5 years, this grassroots application of The 2030 Challenge has yielded over 200M sqft of existing buildings in 9 existing 2030 Districts committed to 2030 reduction goals.”

In under 5 years, this grassroots application of The 2030 Challenge has yielded over 200 million square feet of existing buildings in 9 existing 2030 Districts committed to 2030 reduction goals. As a result, it’s no longer just new buildings across the country who are attempting to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030; there are now also over 780 buildings in Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Stamford, and Toronto working toward 2030 reduction goals as well.

Because they mostly include existing buildings, The 2030 Challenge applies to existing buildings a little bit differently. In short, existing buildings commit to working towards 50% reductions (below baselines) in energy use, water use, and transportation-related emissions by the year 2030, with new construction still achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. (More details on 2030 District measures next time.)

But, lest you believe The 2030 Challenge is just for buildings, think again. There’s also The 2030 Challenge for Products, which challenges building products to achieve the following carbon-equivalent footprint reductions:

  • 35% or better today (2015)
  • 40% or better in 2020
  • 45% or better in 2025
  • 50% or better in 2030.

So, what’s the moral of this 2030 glossary? The year is important, so let’s not forget it. By 2030, all new construction and renovations should be carbon neutral. Existing buildings should be using 50% less energy than their 2003 peers did. Products should have carbon footprints equivalent to half that of their peers. There are lots of 2030-specific tools to help building industry stakeholders of all types achieve these goals. Whether it’s the 2030 Palette, AIA + 2030 education series, AIA 2030 Commitment, or 2030 Districts, if you’re not doing anything today with building energy performance, the time for excuses is over. Make a commitment, start measuring your performance towards it, and work towards achieving your 2030 reduction goals. You can get there, your buildings can get there, and we can (and must) all get there together.

Aurora Sharrard, PhD
Dr. Aurora Sharrard is Vice President of Innovation for Green Building Alliance, one of the U.S.’s oldest regional green building organizations and a USGBC Chapter. With nearly 15 years of experience in design and construction, Dr. Sharrard brings both pragmatic and innovative solutions and ideas to projects working to achieve more. Dr. Sharrard holds a Master’s and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering with an emphasis in Green Design from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Tulane University. She is a LEED AP BD+C.