Land use, water, energy, materials: For the last 25 years, the Committee on the Environment (COTE) has promoted sustainable measures in the design process. And now, after so much proselytizing, they’re seeing progress at a rate commensurate with their efforts.

Rand Ekman, AIA, is the director of sustainability at CannonDesign in Chicago and current COTE chair. He’s been involved with COTE both locally and nationally for the last 15 years, and sees it as a reliable barometer of what’s possible now for the AEC industry and what could be possible just around the corner. Most of all, he sees it as reliably mission-focused.

“One of the things that is remarkable about COTE is the shared purpose and a shared mission,” Ekman says. “A committee changes, people come and go, the chair changes, but the purpose and the mission remain pretty much the same.”

COTE’s most prominent program is the Top Ten, an annual batch of honors granted to projects that find what its members see as a sweet spot between design that pushes the envelope technologically, environmentally, and from an ecological whole-systems perspective, and great architectural design that would win in any standard awards program, according to Ekman.

“The fact that they’re able to do that and meet our requirements is remarkable,” he says.

More recently, COTE has introduced the Top Ten for Students and Top Ten Plus awards. The Student awards are a joint design competition with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture that develops and recognizes sustainable student work. Top Ten Plus, however, is a step in a slightly different direction. While the Top Ten Awards predict performance, the Top Ten Plus award examines the actual operation performance and output of a project that was previously honored. A jury reviews submitted metrics and measures its sustainable impact; the third annual recipient is the Federal Center South Building 1202 in Seattle, Wash., a project that received LEED Gold certification and met impressive performance benchmarks.

“One of the things I think architects are very good at is telling stories about the work that they do,” Ekman said. “We have a great ability to build narratives. What we haven’t been particularly good at is actual metrics and actual performance that demonstrate the relevancy of the designs that we’ve delivered.”

“Just like in school, we didn’t want to admit it but we had report cards,” added William Sturm, AIA, principal at Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago and a past COTE chair. “They were the only way we could determine what was being achieved and how we were achieving.”

A Future of Incorporation

The introduction of these new extensions of the COTE Top Ten commemorates the committee’s 25th anniversary and the realization of one principal goal for its members in making building performance a commonly accepted criterion for design excellence. The AIA Institute Honor Awards, for example, now requires basic sustainability details as part of the submission process—an initiative backed strongly by William Leddy, FAIA, principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco and COTE chair in 2013.

“What’s been gratifying is to see the level of participation,” Leddy says. “Since 2013, when this first started, 60 percent of the submissions included a sustainability narrative and metrics. By 2014 that had bumped to 81 percent, and by 2015 it was at 97 percent.”

“What we’ve recently discovered,” Ekman adds, “is more of a focus on sustainability and performance happening everywhere and no longer owned by COTE. We’ve changed the relationship from COTE being a specific committee with a topic, to being fully embedded and fully engaged across many areas of the profession. This feels like progress.”

There’s still a ways to go, however, to unite the entire profession. Until the majority of clients are willing to make short-term sustainable investments for long-term gains, or until building codes enforce energy efficiency or green building materials in more than just a few major cities, there will be a divide between those who require sustainable design to be part of the creative process and those who do not.

“There are still so many battles to be fought: net-zero buildings, resiliency, materials,” said Andrea Love, AIA, director of building science at Boston’s Payette and a member of the COTE Advisory Group, “and we don’t even know what the next frontier beyond that will be.”

For now, COTE will continue to work on integrating sustainability into both design and practice. In fact, Sturm noted that—if he had his way—the next step would be to drop that particular s-word from the architectural vernacular entirely.

“In my simple world,” says Sturm, “sustainability becomes quality.”