Mike Cavanaugh
Mike Cavanaugh
October 11, 2019

Environmental Awareness Week: 16 Years and More Important Than Ever

Mike Cavanaugh
Mike Cavanaugh

It’s hard to believe, but this year marks the 16th anniversary of CannonDesign’s Environmental Awareness Week (EAW).

For those unfamiliar, EAW is a week-long conversation we host every fall focused on sustainable ideas that have a meaningful impact on our lives. The event started small in our Chicago office in 2003, but has since expanded to all of our locations in North America and abroad. It’s a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made in becoming a regenerative practice, and a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Why EAW matters

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but global warming is the defining issue of our time. Just turn on the news and you’ll get a glimpse of the challenges in front of us — unpredictable weather patterns, intense heatwaves, wildfires, drought, rising sea levels, ocean acidification. We are on the cusp of an unprecedented climate crisis that will have major implications for every living thing on our planet.

What’s hard to swallow for many is the fact that the greenhouse gas and carbon emissions driving global warming are the results of human activity — and we, collectively, have known about it for decades. Furthermore, as designers and creators of the built environment — which contributes more than 40 percent of all global CO2 emissions — we’ve played a major part in creating this crisis.

But this isn’t a doom and gloom post and firms like ours across the world are making significant changes. Many have signed the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) 2030 Commitment, which calls for all new buildings, developments, and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and the AIA is shifting a majority of its focus and resources on the urgent topics of the built environment’s operational carbon (the result of energy use by the building ) and embodied carbon (related to the manufacture, transport and construction of the building itself).

While the AIA has been clear on the path forward for carbon-neutral operations, all signs point toward a major refocus on embodied carbon — a move our firm applauds and supports. In the meantime, we continue to employ tools like Tally for Revit to analyze the embodied carbon of building systems, and the mindful MATERIALS library to help our clients make responsible decisions on individual products. Additionally, our in-house experts like Amir Rezaei continue to work with major institutional clients to use data visualization in crafting portfolio-wide carbon reduction strategies.

We still have a lot of work to do, but there’s no question addressing climate change through the way we design and build is unequivocally the most important issue design firms face today.

This year’s EAW happenings

To draw attention to the issues in front of us and the ways we can design for mitigation and resilience, we’re hosting several events across our offices starting today – from sustainable product tradeshows and firm-wide presentations to a keynote from Chad Frischmann, lead researcher and principal architect of the methodology and models behind Project Drawdown, which is an organization facilitating discussions about ways to reduce global warming with the goal of reaching drawdown.

This week also ends our annual EAW sustainability competition. We had over 400 employees participate in 53 teams from 16 different offices this year. Teams earned points for doing things like taking public transit to work, composting, recycling, using re-usable containers, reducing energy use and minimizing printing. This is our fourth year hosting the competition and the actions taken are estimated to have saved many tons of carbon emissions.

And finally, a big part of EAW is supporting nonprofits committed to environmental causes, and since EAW’s inception, we’ve donated more than $170,000 to nonprofits. This year we’re donating $32,000. Part of those funds are donated to local organizations in each of the cities where we have an office — organizations like Blue Water BaltimoreTrees for Houston, and Chicago Gateway Green — while the remainder is being donated to Architecture 2030 and the Amazon Conservation Team, a non-profit focused on conserving the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest as well as the culture and land of its indigenous people. A big thanks goes to all our EAW Partners who year after year help us bring these events to life and make donations like this possible.

The environmental challenges in front of us are some of the most complex problems we’ve ever faced, but my hope is that you can find some time next week to pause and think about the role you play in reducing your environmental impact. Whether you’re a designer or not, every action you take — whether as simple as biking to work or as complicated as redesigning our cities —plays a role in shaping the future for our planet.

Learn more about Environmental Awareness Week >