The 2030 Challenge, founded by architect Edward Mazria in 2002 and widely promoted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is an aggressive strategy to reduce the environmental impact of the building sector until it reaches net zero. Research by the 2030 Challenge indicates that approximately 5 billion square feet of buildings is renovated and another 5 billion square feet is built every year, meaning by the year 2035, 75 percent of the built environment will be either renovated or new. The Challenge encourages designers to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption in buildings by setting energy reduction targets of 60 percent better than average energy use in 2010, and gradually ramping up in increments of 10 percent every five years until the goal of carbon-neutrality is met by the year 2030.

The timeline of the 2030 Challenge is aggressive. So aggressive, in fact, that many firms which have signed on won’t be able to meet the carbon-neutral goal by deadline. It’s a bleak finish line, a zealous stretch of the imagination, but it’s a goal well worth aiming to attain.

The building sector accounts for 47.6 percent of energy consumption in the United States; was responsible for 44.6 percent of CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2010; and requires 75 percent of all energy produced in the U.S. just for the day-to-day operation of buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The building sector has the greatest impact on climate change, and so it’s up to those who design and construct the built environment to enact a change.

“Sustainability is central to everything we do at OPN. Tracking energy use and improving it is something that we’re implementing on every one of our projects, whether it has environmental aspirations, or just wants to save money,” says Tate Walker, AIA, LEEP AP DC+C, architect with a special emphasis in energy and sustainability, and in-house sustainability expert at OPN. “The 2030 Commitment is rigorous. It’s a continuous process that touches all of our projects from their inception. It’s a big challenge, and we can’t do it in one big leap. So we’re incrementally improving over time and tracking those results, and our ultimate goal is to get to zero [fossil fuel energy consumption].”

There are myriad ways to reduce the environmental impact of a building, from design through occupation, and it starts with education and awareness. Thirty seven of OPN’s 92 employees are LEED Accredited Professionals, and 29 projects have been LEED certified or registered, making the firm a region-wide leader in sustainable design. To keep the firm on track for the 2030 Challenge, a sustainability task force was created. This task force provides a tool kit for teams to use throughout the project process, educates employees across all three studios, raises awareness on resources used in practice, and collects data on building performance.

Creating a sustainable building requires acute attention to detail, taking a step back to analyze every decision, from the building massing and orientation to the materials used. A critical component in sustainable design is the early integration of an energy model, which allows the team to test different sustainable strategies and determine the payback period. “Many strategies cost more in terms of initial cost, but pay for themselves rather quickly in terms of energy savings,” says Bradd Brown, AIA, principal at OPN Architects. “We are tracking actual energy use and costs and comparing them against our predictions in the energy model.”

In 2014, the average logged OPN project reduced energy use intensity (energy use per square foot of space) by 62 percent below the national average, which is 2 percent better than the year’s reduction goal set forth by the 2030 Challenge. With many new exciting works in progress, OPN continues to use existing data to integrate more sustainable technology and practices to stay on track.