AIA COP27 Delegate Illya Azaroff, FAIA, on “The Real Work”

The AIA sent eight delegates to the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, held November 6 to 20, 2022. The purpose of this conference was to convene representatives from governments, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations to discuss and implement plans to address climate change. 

Though the conference ended with a recommendation to create a loss and damage fund to mitigate climate disasters, it also crafted ground-breaking policy to balance disaster mitigation investment with infrastructure for greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

AIA delegate Illya Azaroff, FAIA, Director of Design, Resilience and Regenerative Strategies at +LAB Architect PLLC met with the AIA California Climate Action Committee to discuss the value of architects as participants in climate action.

What was the big message that came out of the COP conference for architects?

In the past, these conferences were only focused on the short-term response for resilient communities or managing retreat. COP27 marked an intentional move towards adaptation and trying to balance mitigation and GHG emission reduction. This conference began conversations about the immediate effects and impacts of climate change, the frequency and intensity of storms, frontline communities, and rebuilding.

This expanded focus is good news for architects. We have the 2030 Commitment to reach net zero emissions in the built environment and that’s important to continue. At the same time, we need to move toward adding resilient building techniques and infrastructure and working with cities or communities to address those pieces.

Another big message is that architects can make an extraordinary difference with this broader emphasis on implementation. We can really do broad systems thinking and aggregate various systems into a common goal, like bringing together social systems and hard infrastructure systems, and help implement the visions of communities.

How will resilient buildings and infrastructure get implemented?

Currently, it’s difficult for small practices to obtain financing. The smallest project that can be funded is at a $200 million threshold. Small practices’ intermediate projects don’t even come close to that scale or size. There was a lot of discussion about blended financing and aggregation as strategies to fund a variety of projects.

What does it mean to aggregate projects?

As architects, we work with communities or a campus. On some small projects, it’s in your best interest to work with other groups to combine funding mechanisms. That is really hard to do, especially in the developing world because trying to get to $200 million is difficult with the cost of construction so much lower.

There’re tons of global financing, and communities that know what they need to do to become sustainable and resilient. The pinch point is that there are not enough intermediaries. Architects are intermediaries that can actually translate the goals of communities and state entities into what projects can be, and that unlocks funding.

The hot topic from COP27 has been implementing funding for loss and damage. What is the architect’s role in those projects?

The broad acknowledgment is that we will blow past 1.5 [degrees Celsius global warming] and that’s why COP27 went to moving towards resilience and adaptation, because we have to live with the consequences.

The folks who advocate for loss and damage are doing so because it gives the ability for communities to fund repair and engage in broader systems thinking about how to engage and not just suffer through many years of trying to repair themselves.

Were there conversations about whether this loss and damage fund would help or detract from other issues like regeneration and resilient design funding?

There were a lot of side conversations, but the positive that you find at COP is that everybody can talk a really good game. The real work comes after COP. If you’re going to pay for loss and damage and be able to put a community back in either a better location or with better infrastructure, it naturally makes it more resilient. Therefore, fundability is better and community longevity is your return on investment.

The problem with funding is that there’s a kind of formula – you have people who know how to build back and are willing to do it but never have the money. There are others that have tons of money but just don’t have the governing structure to build back properly.

What is an example of a good governing structure for resilient design or mitigation projects?

CARICOM, the Caribbean Community is made up of countries in the Caribbean and they’re wonderful to work with. They are able to seek this global financing that’s coming available, and their work is helping to shape the conversation about resilient design. I’ve also worked with people in Bangladesh, and they have some of the most resilient coastal projects in the world. They built disaster preparedness shelters that would put just about every shelter in the United States to shame. We need to set aside the perception that money makes a successful project. There are people that know how to better deal with resilience because they’ve had to do it with little or no money.

What smaller funding opportunities are available?

Justice40 includes more than 300 programs that the Biden administration has put together. These are for very small projects, everything from community centers to retrofits.

We need someone to decode the global funding, Justice40, and the Inflation Reduction Act. This should be the priority of the AIA advocacy group. These could be long, fairly technical webinars that need to happen because it’s not really transparent.

Are there groups or entities that approached you and said “Wow, I never thought I needed an architect”?

I was just talking about the work that I’ve been doing and some of the work of other architects and they said, wow, that’s great. We have something about infrastructure and managed retreat or strategic relocation coming up. Would you be willing to speak? I’m like, “great”. Two days later I was on the mainstage speaking about this stuff. And there were audible gasps in the room when I said I’m an architect, here representing an NGO, the American Institute of Architects, representing 96,000 members worldwide.

I’ve been receiving emails every day, connecting people that I met at COP with other architects. A lot of information is available through the work that we do in the built environment because these folks are policymakers or extraordinary people who have come to the conference through various avenues, but rarely are any of them architects. The funny thing is I’ve met several people who are architects that work for the World Bank. We started to talk about what infrastructure reinvestments, strategic relocation, what the difference between investment in existing conditions versus reinvestment in newer infrastructure and renewable energy ideas. So, after COP I’ve been asked to join a couple of think tanks.

Are these connections part of the value of having an AIA delegation at COP?

Having us there for the second year has opened a lot of people’s eyes that we know how to implement the work and that was fascinating. One of the takeaways might be that we need to reconnect with those that were educated in architecture or worked in the industry and have gone into alternate career paths.

There weren’t a lot of architects at COP, but the largest A&E firms in the globe were all there. They were in sessions and had created their own sessions, presenting, and sitting with heads of state. They’re all not just collegial about it. They share the sentiment that you can get every architect on the planet working on this, and there’s not enough of us to get the work done. That’s how much money there is, and that’s how much work there is to be done. That’s why we have to share all this information, decode it for one another, because we’re not fighting over the same projects.


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