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Sustainability is in Cuningham’s DNA. Since the integrated design firm was first launched in 1968, it has never taken lightly its role as wise stewards of the resources of both their clients and the planet. More recently, this commitment to sustainability took a bold step forward when the firm began prioritizing measuring its emissions as part of a carbon action plan for sustainable design, and ultimately, regenerative design. 

We chatted with Paul Hutton, Director of Regenerative Design, to explore Cuningham’s approach to measuring and then credibly reducing its operational emissions to reach net zero and be a frontrunner for its peers in the design field.

Measuring what matters

In 2018, Cuningham decided it was time to take a close look at its carbon impact. Paul initiated the process of understanding the firm’s carbon footprint, engaging in comprehensive estimations covering scope 1, scope 2, and portions of scope 3 emissions.

He and his team spent months measuring the impact of everything from company-owned electronics and business travel to paper use and utilities for Cuningham’s six offices. The resulting in-depth report was shared with the entire company along with a request to the board to begin a strategic process to lower the firm’s carbon footprint.

“The firm itself was shocked, not so much at the total carbon footprint, but by the major components of it,” Paul says. “It’s safe to say business travel totally surprised people and especially the air travel component which comprised 53% of our total footprint. It was an eye opener for myself and the entire company about what happens when we get on these planes and fly around.”

Since its first carbon footprint measurement in 2018, Paul and his team have continued measuring the firm’s emissions every year. To date, Cuningham has achieved an impressive 61% reduction in its emissions, resulting from a combination of changes in company policy and work-from-home efficiencies. In 2021, however, Paul once again came to Cuningham’s board with another request—to begin offsetting their emissions as the next important piece of the equation towards mitigating their climate impact.

Commitment to actions backed by science

Cuningham’s leadership recognized that knowing their company’s emissions was critical to being a good steward of the environment. But simply knowing this impact is only as good as the climate action plan to reduce it. In order to bring the firm’s internal operations to Net Zero, Cuningham committed to offsetting its scope 1 and 2, along with business travel from scope 3.

The offsetting process was initially intended to include a diverse group of providers, but it didn’t take long for Paul and the Cuningham team to recognize the value of Climate Vault’s verifiable, quantifiable, and transparent approach to carbon reductions and removals. Which is why in 2023, Cuningham made the decision to move away from other methods of offsetting and make Climate Vault its sole reduction partner. 

According to Paul, “I knew enough to be skeptical of traditional offset programs. I was looking for something that I could say was scientifically based and that also had a little bit of diversity within it. Simply put, I appreciated that Climate Vault is based in real science and that the carbon reductions it provides will endure, as opposed to tree planting programs in the Amazon.”

Climate Vault’s integrated approach – which leverages government-regulated compliance carbon markets and cutting-edge carbon dioxide removal tech – maintains the integrity that Cuningham prioritizes. Furthermore, the durability of quantifiable carbon reduction through Climate Vault lends itself to providing accurate and defensible offsets that Cuningham can rely on.

Leading the charge for the design industry

Not only is Cuningham focused on becoming Net Zero Carbon in their internal operations, but they are also committed to reducing emissions in the projects and experiences Cuningham creates.

In 2021, the average GHG reduction in Cuningham projects was 56% compared to the baseline year provided by the Architecture 2030 Challenge, putting Cuningham in the top 10% of firms belonging to the AIA Large Firm Roundtable. 

Cuningham’s participation in the group’s Large Firm Roundtable discussion in Chicago this year enabled them to be an advocate for the requirement that other firms in the design industry measure their scope 1 and 2 and business travel out of scope 3—something Cuningham has already been doing. 

“At this year’s roundtable meeting, we got commitments from our CEOs that in 2024, all 62 member firms are going to offset scope 1 and 2 and business travel from scope 3. So, whereas a year ago, I could say that Cunningham is leading the way in this area, soon I’m just going to be going along with everybody else. And it’s a truly wonderful thing to see that the design industry is moving very fast in this direction.”

The shift from sustainable to regenerative design

Sustainable design has become a commonplace term associated with design and construction practices that minimize harm to the environment. Cuningham has always emphasized ecological and social well-being in everything it does, and Paul recognized the need to deepen their capabilities by shifting from sustainable design towards regenerative design. 

Regenerative design seeks to not only lessen the harm of new development, but rather to put design and construction to work as positive forces that repair natural and human systems. Paul and his team believe “regenerative design” better represents the desired outcomes of Cuningham’s work and is just one more area where they are leading the charge for other design firms.

“Sustainable design was always about simply doing less bad or less harm, but we’re to the point on this planet where we need to think better and deeper than that,” Paul says. “Cuningham’s goal is to use design as a force to improve conditions on the planet both for humans and for all the other species with whom we share this habitat.” 

This article is part of an ongoing series spotlighting the climate action taken by Climate Vault’s 2023 Carbon Champion Award recipients. The award program celebrates Climate Vault Partners who go above and beyond in their climate commitments to make a positive and meaningful impact on their business emissions and the planet.

For its influential advocacy and proactive steps to change how the design industry approaches sustainability, Climate Vault is proud to recognize Cuningham as the 2023 recipient of the Carbon Champion Catalyst Award. The Catalyst award celebrates the Partner that drives and accelerates progress by collaborating with others, mobilizing and inspiring them to knock out their own carbon footprints. They build momentum for climate action and bring about real and lasting change through advocacy, education, partnership, and other means. Meet all of our 2023 Carbon Champion honorees here.