Architecture of Sustainability

Friday, May 05, 2006

Day 2: Ed Mazria

The Architecture of Sustainability
AIA Conference
Day 2: Purpose

Posted by John Morris Dixon, FAIA

Much of the discussion by speakers and among attendees at today’s session involved the value of LEED’s mathematically calculated ratings compared to the subjective criteria applied to the Top Ten Green projects (Day One blog). If there was a consensus, it was that both are needed and that, whatever LEED’s limitations, it has been crucially valuable in raising awareness among architects, owners, and the public. It is also not static, but under continual revision.

In introducing the speakers, James Binkley of COTE stressed the importance of ecological education for architects and the public, and David Greenbaum of COD predicted that sustainability will soon be part of building codes, saying it is essential for architects to play a key role in that code-writing.

Mazria: Dire Warnings and Hopeful Prescriptions

The first speaker, Edward Mazria, a long recognized expert on energy strategies in architecture, first painted a frightening picture of the world’s future if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. What with the steeply increasing energy demands of India and China, among other countries, fossil fuel use has already risen steeply and could more than double by 2030. Reserves of oil and natural gas will be running very low by that time, but the damage will have been done. Coal is cheap, plentiful in many countries, but produces the worst atmospheric pollution. (China is now opening one coal-fired power plant a week, he reported.)

Today, says Mazria, renewable energy sources account for only 13-14 percent of the world’s consumption – and most of that represents the burning of wood. Doubling or tripling the sources such as hydroelectric, wind, or solar power cannot significantly solve the world’s problems. If CO2 production continues on its present course, many heavily populated areas of the world will be flooded in this century (Long Island, for instance, and the whole nation of Singapore) and many food sources will be threatened.

So what does this have to do with architects? Mazria showed graphs charting the energy use over time in three main categories: industry, transportation, and building. He pointed out the industry steadily improved energy efficiency, turning out much more now that decades ago, using about the same amount of energy. Transportation use has risen sharply, but can also level out or drop quickly as the cost of fuel rises. The energy use for buildings – for both construction and operation – has also risen sharply and continues to. In the world, buildings now account for 46 percent of energy consumption, in the U.S., 50 percent.

Architects and the building community must take the lead in reigning in energy consumption because that’s the only area where the rise in energy consumption can be sharply reversed. Mazria has the prescription, and it has been adopted as policy by the AIA and the State of New Mexico has adopted it for state buildings It would require a rapid transformation in the profession and a strong will to influence the political system, but he judges that manageable.

What Mazria proposes are a few simple rules.
All new buildings must meet a fossil fuel performance standard of half the current national average for that building type.
At a minimum an equal amount of existing building must be renovated to half the energy they now consume. (Our amount of renovation is currently about equal to our new construction; that is not true of China, to take one important nation.)
This standard would change 50 percent per decade, to savings of 90 percent of current fossil fuel and finally to zero fossil fuel consumption late in this century.
How do architects accomplish this?
With no-cost measures such as building form and openings.
With technological improvements, such as more efficient light and ventilation.
By using renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal, and biomass.

He pointed out that of the 30,000 students now in professional degree architecture programs, half (based on a two-year-old study) have had no course work on the relation of energy to building design. Most have had one course taught by a mechanical engineer. He is calling for a mandatory full-year design studio focused on sustainability at all schools. Given the incentive, the students would research existing sources, and they in turn would teach the faculty. All of them would then know how to design “zero-carbon” buildings. In 10 years, they would transform the entire profession.

He recalled that, with an informed profession, it took only a few years to eliminate lead-based paint.

If U.S. architects don’t accomplish this transformation, says Mazria, it will not happen globally

He called upon the LEED program to get tougher. Platinum should mean carbon-neutral – no use of fuels that produce CO2. When he also called upon LEED to eliminate “fluff” such as bike racks, the audience laughed and applauded. Clearly, the bike rack provision seems to undermine respect for the LEED program. (A later speaker pointed out that LEED only awards points for bike racks if showers are also provided, while another said bike racks are valid if the users and the local geography make bikes practical.)

To review the program Mazria advocates, see
(And please don’t depend on this blog to be 100 percent accurate in reporting his rapid-fire talk.)

Much discussion among attendees after his talk revolved around Mazria’s contention that architects design more of the built environment – specifically in the huge area of spec residential – than is customarily believed. (AIA research, he says, doesn’t count architects working for builders or construction from unsigned drawings.) Hence his confidence that architects can transform the culture. Many of those present seemed to believe that in the areas of spec house building, and spec commercial building, as well, the developer, not the architect, makes the key decisions that involve initial cost. And while some office developers are learning to love LEED, most still care little about long-term operating expenses.


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