Sustainability was the theme of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2007 National Convention and Design Exposition. Although green will be a leitmotif at this year’s event in Boston, which is themed “We the People,” the AIA hopes that from the standpoint of producing less waste and carbon emissions, the conference will be its greenest yet. RECORD’s news editor, James Murdock, recently chatted with Christopher Gribbs, Assoc. AIA, senior director of conventions, to learn about some of the AIA’s sustainable strategies—and its city selection criteria.

Christopher Gribbs, Assoc. AIA
Photo courtesy American Institute of Architects

Christopher Gribbs, Assoc. AIA

James Murdock: First of all, why Boston?

Christopher Gribbs: We select cities 10 years out based on a number of criteria: that the convention center is of a sufficient size, for example, that there are sufficient hotel rooms and transportation options. We try to get a lot of diversity in the cities because architects learn a lot from them and the tour opportunities they offer. We were last in Boston in 1992. We survey our members for destination appeal and Boston is consistently No. 3 or 4, which is tremendous.

JM: Last year’s conference had a very strong green theme. Will that be the case again?

CG: The theme of the San Antonio conference was “Growing Beyond Green.” Content-wise it was the most visible aspect of the conference: What does green mean for the architectural community? It went in tandem with looking at, operationally, how do we green a conference. We began planning for that in 2005, when we had an audit done by a third party consulting group to measure the “greenness” of our 2005 convention. That set a benchmark for what normal operations look like. We got a report card and it wasn’t very good. Conventions are quite wasteful, in general. So we worked with the Committee on the Environment and some of our member architects to study best practices in the industry. At the 2007 event, after we’d promised to be more green and taken a number of initiatives, we had another audit and it came back singing—it was a night and day difference. But we still have room for improvement and we’re still looking for low-cost and no-cost actions we can take.

JM: What are some of these actions?

CG: A lot of what we’re doing is digital: doing things electronically rather than in print. Last year we stopped giving out the speaker handouts at presentations and made them available online. We’ve also reduced the number of our advertising pieces. We used to mail out 110,000 advance convention guides, which are very thick. Now, we encourage people to look at the guide online and we print only 30,000, of a significantly smaller size. One of the big pushes this year is encouraging the use of public transportation. On our registration page we have an offer for attendees to buy a week pass on the MBTA bus and subway system. One other thing is that the Boston convention center caterer offers biodegradable, reusable cutlery and dishware. Plates and bowls are made from natural fiber including sugarcane, grass, and reed plasma; cups and lids are made from corn. All those things add up. We’re not making a lot of noise about it in 2008, because it’s a standard course of business, but it’s an improvement over last year and every year we strive to do better.