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How Architects can Reverse Global Warming:
A Conversation with Edward Mazria, AIA

Interviewed by Deborah Snoonian

In January Edward Mazria, AIA, launched "Architecture 2030" (www.architecture2030.org), where he explains the link between buildings and global warming and calls for all buildings to be carbon-neutral by the year 2030. Mazria earned a bachelor's of architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1963, then spent two years as an architect in the Peace Corps in Arequipa, Peru, later returning to New York to work for Edward Larabee Barnes before joining the faculty of the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 1973. His book, The Passive Solar Energy Handbook, is considered a primary text on the subject, and he travels throughout the world to lecture about buildings, energy efficiency, and climate change. He talked with Record shortly before launching his new Web site about the urgency of his proposal, and how he's working with the design community to achieve it.


Photography: Courtesy Edward Mazria

ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Your research has determined that buildings are responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. How did you come up with that figure?

MAZRIA: I developed a way to look at buildings as a sector of the economy, the way the industrial and transportation sectors are tracked. And I defined the building sector to consist of what we, as architects, control. When we design a building-its orientation, massing, fenestration-we set in motion the energy consumption pattern over the life of the structure. We also control what materials buildings are made from. So, in my calculations, I included the energy use of buildings as well as the embodied energy of construction materials.

AR: How did you handle plug loads in your calculations, things like the electricity used by computers and printers and other home and office equipment?

MAZRIA: We calculated that as part of the building's energy use. However, it's important to realize that plug load is relatively low compared to other systems in a building that consume energy, such as lighting and HVAC systems.

AR: So then how did you determine that designers have under 25 years to figure out how to make carbon-neutral buildings?

MAZRIA: This is based on climate research done by the European Union. Their scientists have determined that the maximum amount of global warming the planet can tolerate is two degrees Celsius. If we continue on our current path, we'll achieve that rise by about 2050, and we'd reach a rise of three degrees Celsius by 2070. With a temperature rise that high, the consequences are catastrophic-the polar ice caps would melt, warmer ocean temperatures would result in severe weather patterns, and we could lose 25 percent of the species on the planet. To avert the two degrees centigrade rise by 2050, scientists say we need to reduce total worldwide carbon emissions by the year 2050 by 40 to 60 percent below 1990 levels, which was the benchmark set by the United Nations. For buildings, this means we must rely less and less on fossil fuels for energy. When you compare the building industry to the industrial and transportation sectors, you realize that only in the building industry do we have the chance to reverse the pattern of global warming. The industrial sector gets marginally more efficient every year. And the transportation sector is changing rapidly because there's simply no option-oil is getting more scarce and more expensive. It's up to us, as members of the design and construction community, to contribute our knowledge and skills toward making buildings as carbon-neutral as possible. If we don't get a handle on that, we're going to not be in very good shape in the near future.

So, when you back-calculate how much energy buildings consume, combined with the temperatures predicted by these scientific models, you come up with a very rapid timeframe: reducing fossil fuel consumption of buildings by 50 percent by the year 2010, and 10 percent more every five years until we achieve carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. As architects we can achieve this by designing more energy-efficient buildings and also specify materials that have low embodied energy and are made with clean energy sources.

AR: These are very ambitious goals. Are they achievable using current technologies and systems?

MAZRIA: Absolutely. You can reach the 50 percent reduction right away by making siting, fenestration, and orientation of buildings work with the local environment, so that buildings take advantage of passive heating and cooling and natural lighting. That's just smart design. Let me give you an example in the housing sector. Approximately 15 percent of all energy in houses is used for domestic hot water. Yet we've had solar hot water heating in this country for 30 years now. It's not a new technology. The payback on that sort of system is three to five years. So using solar hot water heating would reduce residential consumption in many areas of the country by about 15 percent overnight-that's a no-brainer. Another example for the commercial sector: In the early 1980s the Department of Energy did a demonstration project at the Mount Airy Library in North Carolina. They wanted to see what kind of reductions you could get simply through design. The project was built and then monitored for several years. That project achieved an 80 percent drop in energy consumption thanks to natural lighting, passive heating and cooling concepts, and simple conservation strategies. There were no special energy systems or technologies or materials involved. These were all just design solutions.

AR: That's great, but North Carolina is a fairly temperate climate. And as far as houses are concerned, isn't it true that the same two houses can have very different consumption patterns depending on what the owner does?

MAZRIA: Well, it's true that if someone wants to leave his thermostat on 85 degrees all winter, he'll use more energy. But maybe that person has the heat up high because the house is not well insulated or sealed properly, or it doesn't get enough natural light for passive heating. There are also foolproof strategies that require little or no user interface, especially for commercial and institutional buildings-if you bring in enough natural light, for instance, most people will opt not to turn on lights inside.

AR: How do you expect the goals you've outlined to affect the initial cost of buildings?

MAZRIA: Each project is unique, of course. It's hard to generalize about costs. Some designers are better than others and will figure out how to do things more cost-effectively at first. Some regions and climates are more challenging than others in terms of the systems needed. The point I'm trying to make by establishing Architecture 2030, and showcasing all this research and data, is that there's no alternative to the changes I've proposed. The science on these issues has become indisputable-and once people understand that they quickly come to realize that additional costs, if any, are of secondary importance.

Clearly, things are not moving as fast as we'd like politically in terms of getting agreement on these issues. I'll give you a recent example that shows you how far apart things are right now. At the recent meetings last fall about climate change in Montreal, the U.S., China, India, and Brazil failed to get on board with mandatory reductions of greenhouse gases. Simultaneously, on the west coast, in San Francisco, James Hanson, the head of NASA's climate program, gave a lecture to 10,000 climate scientists at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Hanson said, at best, we have 10 years to make major reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to avoid runaway, irreversible global warming. And we can't even get the largest polluting countries to even sign on to any reductions at this point! So, individual industries and groups must act together. For architects, it's up to us to work with the AIA, government institutions, and other trade institutions to change the built environment and its energy use. And at some point we hope that the global politics catch up.

AR: Last summer you gave a talk to a small committee assembled by the AIA to hammer out the Institute's policy on sustainability-the same lecture you've been giving around the world about buildings and climate change. What sort of feedback do you receive on that speech, typically?

MAZRIA: The feedback has been unbelievable. When I tell people that a huge study published in Nature magazine stated that up to 25 percent of the species on the planet will die off by 2050 if global warming happens-and the temperature increases they used in their models were even less drastic than what's predicted to happen-this hits home. How do you assign a value to that loss? You simply can't. It's too enormous. When you say to people that global warming endangers the existence of all the very special places on earth, the places we prize as a society-New England for its fall foliage, Costa Rica for its diversity of species-they take notice, because these places mean something to them. People have a very emotional response when the information is framed in that way. And they're receptive to hearing what might be done to reverse these patterns we're stuck in.

In the architecture and building community, I've never gotten the attitude that anything I'm proposing is unrealistic or impossible. It's more like, great, when can we start? I gave the talk in Edmonton a couple of years ago at the annual meeting of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. It got a standing ovation. A lot of the AIA leadership were there as well as leaders from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and others, and that got the ball rolling in terms of talking to architects in the U.S. I was recently asked to give the keynote address at the New York State AIA Convention for the second year in a row. [Manufacturer] Polysteel just asked me to do a talk at their annual meeting of all their distributors. My wife just had me give a talk to her women's group and I'll soon be lecturing to another local community in Santa Fe. Educating the general public on all these issues is very important, because as consumers they have enormous power to make choices about their homes and even their workplaces that will affect how companies view these issues.

AR: Apparently your talk worked, because the AIA endorsed your point of view with a major policy statement about green building released in December. But there were few specifics about how changes would or should be implemented. What steps need to be taken next to achieve these energy-reduction goals?

MAZRIA: Clearly we've got to take action on several fronts. For starters, we've called for a mandatory one-year studio program in every school of architecture to teach the principles of carbon-neutral design. NCARB passed a resolution supporting these goals, and now they have to look at licensing, continuing education requirements, and professional education criteria for how students are taught. And we're calling on the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) to get involved as well.

Then we need to start with the federal government mandating energy and fossil fuel reductions for buildings through the RFP process. And we'll work with the states to do that as well. We've been working with Governor Richardson in New Mexico on this very issue and we hear that an executive order will be issued soon.

Then we'll start working with the cities. The U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement states that they want to do something regarding buildings, so we're going to take this proposal to them and get their endorsement. Then we can approach the counties and the school boards. Once you've handled all those public owners, which represents such a huge chunk of construction in the U.S., we'll go after the building codes, because through that and regulation, that should get developers to start doing the right things. We should have a performance-based energy code for buildings, like what Europe has started to do. All European nations now are having to come up with performance-based codes by 2007 to meet their agreements on the Kyoto Protocol.

Next, of course, we've got to go after the international community and the U.N.: China, India. I'm going to China myself in a few months to give my talk. The IPCC needs to establish a building sector climate change committee, and they need to sponsor a global climate change conference just for the building sector, where they set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the global building sector and standards for architecture and planning schools. In most schools of architecture there's very little is being taught about green design. In Brazil, which has nearly as many architecture students as the U.S., there's one course at the University of Sao Paulo, taught by an engineer. In Italy, there's one class at an architecture/engineering school at the University of Turino.

And we really need this new IPCC committee to establish building-based performance energy standards based on those that are currently in their infancy in Europe. So this is a huge effort, yes, but critical to the future of the planet.

AR: Regulations and changes in education are clearly needed and helpful. But what if private owners and developers ask for buildings that fly in the face of green design?

MAZRIA: Owners may weigh in on issues like materials and fixtures, but by and large, in terms of the design itself-how the building is shaped, where the fenestrations are-that's really left up to the architect. Most commercial and institutional owners don't get that involved in those types of things. And that's where the major opportunity to cut consumption is, in terms of building operations. I've never heard a client tell me, don't save me 50 percent on my energy bills, especially now when those bills are doubling. And you can also make a difference for these buildings by purchasing clean power.

AR: Among today's architects, who do you think is getting it right in terms of designing for sustainability?

MAZRIA: There are many, and their numbers are growing. You have Norman Foster who's great on the large-scale stuff, like London City Hall and 30 St. Mary Axe. I hear from people in England that his buildings aren't quite hitting their energy targets, but at least he's trying, you know? You have Glen Murcutt, who's doing great stuff in Australia. You have Busby up in Vancouver, which just became part of Perkins + Will. They do excellent work. You have Will Bruder here in the Southwest. Buzz Yudell of Moore Ruble Yudell was on a panel with me a couple of years ago and I'm impressed by what he and his firm are trying to do. Thom Mayne and Morphosis just finished a building in San Francisco that speaks to these issues. So I think there's movement, although perhaps the movement has been driven by the fact that it's suddenly fashionable to do green design. Like a feather in your cap, a reason for clients wanting this sort of building to come to you because you have expertise and experience. But there are worse things than that, I suppose.

AR: I take it you're pleased with the statement the AIA made in December.

MAZRIA: Extremely! In the 1980s, when we were doing all this natural energy stuff in New Mexico, most people looked at it and thought it was pretty far out and funky. Then as soon as Los Alamos National Laboratory got involved and backed up our findings, it legitimized our work. The AIA's policy statement provides the weight of the entire architecture profession behind this issue. They've set in motion a process that will transform the architecture and building community as radically and as dramatically as the Industrial Revolution did. In all my readings of architecture and architectural history, it's the first time I know of that architects have been given the opportunity to lead the world in solving the most significant global problem in our history. It's a huge task. But there's no alternative. It would change the profession for the better. And it puts architecture at the top of the list of the most important professions in the world.