Design Justice – Creating a Framework

by Anthony Brower and in partnership with Allison Wilson, Jill Kurtz, Lindsey Piant Perez, Michele Oishi and Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

Prepared on behalf of the American Institute of Architects Large Firm Round Table Sustainability Committee

The American Institute of Architects is committed to an ambitious agenda in the fight against climate change. Climate justice refines that approach to embrace the complexities at the intersection of the built environment’s development, the effects of climate change, and the adjacent human rights issues — all to ensure that no one community is unfairly impacted by the burden of climate change.

“[Architects] should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors” and in doing so, put an end to the burdening of disenfranchised members of society with the climate fallout from actions of the powerful.

AIA Code of Ethics


The complexity of issues tied to climate injustice is something we must recognize and confront. As designers, we face complex issues daily and find creative ways to address them. Those same skills should be applied to climate justice issues. Chief among them is how design influences the inequitable distribution of carbon emissions, thus creating unjust environments hundreds of thousands of miles away from projects. Other critical issues include:

Air quality, which is often unhealthy next to construction sites, particularly in the summer, when ozone levels are higher because of increased equipment emissions

Heat vulnerability, which is increased in formerly redlined neighborhoods, compared to adjacent areas, because of lesser investments in tree canopy.

Toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants and incinerators release mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into the water, food, and lungs of fence-line communities.

Limited availability of affordable nutritious food, which is exacerbated by drought, flooding, and other climate-related impacts on agriculture.

As professionals we need
to lead the charge toward “a built environment that equitably supports human health and well-being” and is resilient to climate change beyond the limits of project scope to create a state of climate justice for all.

AIA Code of Ethics


Based on our aggregate market share the AIA Large Firm Roundtable members have a reponsibility to serve as catalysts for equitable change in the industry. The inequitable distribution of air pollution can be improved by design choices that are focused on reducing embodied and operational carbon emissions. Likewise, extreme heat conditions in vulnerable communities can be improved through materials selection and other design considerations. As an extension of Architecture 2030, bringing this social lens to our design process for all projects, not just those that request it, will lead to a better, cleaner, more equitable environment for all.


We must actively acknowledge Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) imperatives within our design work. These issues are critical to our current efforts to attract and retain talent. We are just getting started on the external facing applications necessary to appeal to top-tier clients. JEDI is an integral part of design accountability.


Increased climate impacts have already changed the way we design. These impacts affect our standard of care, degrade supply chains, impact project timelines, and reduce client, investor and employee confidence as design firms struggle to maintain relevance under a renewed design accountability.


Design Interventions: Incorporate specific strategies that reduce air, water and soil pollution, mitigate heat vulnerability, and reduce carbon emissions caused by our work.

Design Advocacy: Support the evolution of building codes that make justice a factor and address community health.

Design Values: Update or establish guiding principles that prioritize climate justice.

Include a community impact analysis on every design project to reflect local values and ensure design solutions do not create injustices within or to neighboring communities.
Embrace nature-based solutions to reduce the climate risks and vulnerabilities facing communities. For example, prioritize community tree cover and site vegetation to eliminate the uneven distribution of heat vulnerability and flood risk.
Engage local expertise and supply chains to reduce the climate impacts of consultant and material transportation.
At a minimum, organize around compliance with the AIA 2030 Commitment and the AIA Materials Pledge.
Mitigate localized air pollution from construction operations by moving selected activities to off-site fabrication in controlled environments.
Encourage large projects to address the most critical vulnerabilities in direct and adjacent communities. For example, incorporating urban farming centers near underserved communities can provide healthy food options and create jobs.
Empower staff to partner with government agencies so that state building codes accelerate environmentally responsible solutions. For example, advocating for electric buildings can eliminate our reliance on more carbon intensive energy sources.
Lean on support networks such as MasterSpec and other base specification vendors to identify appropriate climate justice content in boilerplate technical divisions.
Include climate justice as part of your corporate charter to address diversity in the design profession, and the work we do for society betterment.
Align or include UN Sustainable Development Goals in firm strategic plans and pledge to target operational carbon neutrality for all design work and office space.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: