Edward Mazria: Advocate & Pioneer in Sustainable Design

He turned our planetary crisis into a design problem, and then got architects to do something about it.

Occupation CEO/Founder
Affiliation Architecture 2030
Location Santa Fe, New Mexico

It began with the cold call to Metropolis ten years ago. An architect from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edward Mazria, a pioneer in sustainable design and author of the best-selling The Passive Solar Energy Book (Rodale Press, 1979), had conducted some interesting research on energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. At the time, conventional wisdom placed the blame for global warming on the usual suspects: belching smokestacks (industry) and gas-guzzling SUVs (transportation). Mazria crunched the numbers and reached a different conclusion. By looking at the energy data in a new way—in essence redrawing the pie chart and creating an architecture sector—he determined that buildings were responsible for nearly half of the carbon emissions in the U.S. In our subsequent October 2003 “Turning Down the Global Thermostat” cover story, Mazria pointed an accusatory finger at his own profession, but more importantly laid out a vision for moving forward: He took a large, complex, seemingly intractable issue, and transformed it into a design problem. Architecture was both the earth’s problem and its potential salvation. “That’s the beauty of it,” Mazria told Christopher Hawthorne. “This is design with a capital D.”

The article, with its accompanying “Architects Pollute” cover (a deliberate provocation), pretty much launched Mazria’s remarkable career as an environmental activist. Today it is widely accepted that buildings must play a huge role in mitigating climate change. His organization, Architecture 2030—an intrepid band of 20-somethings, led by the 71-year-old architect—has reshaped the debate, shifting the focus when necessary away from the messy political process (where it’s often hopelessly, tragically, stuck) to the built environment, where real progress is occurring.

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“We’re not a large membership-based organization,” Mazria says. “We’re a small group that targets very specific areas to make change happen.” That vehicle for change, the group’s organizational tool, is the 2030 Challenge. It asks architects and designers to set a series of targeted energy-reduction goals aimed at achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. This is vintage Mazria: a clear destination attached to a concise road map on how to get there.

“Ed’s biggest strength is taking something that’s very complex and distilling it to its simplest form,” says Vincent Martinez, the director of research and operations for Architecture 2030, “He wrote The Passive Solar Energy Book in 1979 and took a lot of complex information, which was then in the form of scientific formulas, and turned it into a tool that was easy to understand.” When the 2030 Challenge was launched in 2006, an already motivated green building community suddenly had a specific goal to strive for and the program exploded. To date, more than 1,000 firms, the American Institute of Architects, ASHRAE, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the U.S. Green Buildings Council, and many municipalities (including Fulton County, Georgia; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle) have adopted the challenge, which now includes products and planning as well.

Mazria is adept at navigating the messy political process, too—advancing and retreating as doors open or close. When Congress was drafting the landmark Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, Architecture 2030 worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to set aggressive goals for federal buildings. The collaboration produced Section 433, which mandated that all federal buildings be fossil–fuel free by 2030. To give you an idea of its scope, in 2010 the government owned or operated a staggering 490,000 buildings, comprising more than 3.3 billion square feet of space. This was so radical that oil companies, lobbyists, congressional Republicans, and other interested parties did their best to gut or weaken it. “The good news is that effort is dead because Obama got reelected,” Mazria says. “Had Romney gotten in, I think they would have pursued it.”

In 2008, Architecture 2030 pulled off an even bigger coup, working with the state of California (whose economy, if it were broken out into a separate country, would be the ninth largest in the world) to adopt the 2030 Challenge as part of its long-term strategic plan. “They were already gung-ho on it, because all anybody really needed was a number and a reason. Ed brought that to the forefront, because before then, it was all focused on transportation,” Martinez says.

Mazria characterizes Architecture 2030 as a “seeding organization.” Martinez agrees. “We come up with these small ideas, these little nuggets, and then the fertile soil of the architecture and planning community takes it up, lets it grow, and creates their own version.” A perfect case in point: the 2030 Districts. In 2009, Brian Geller, an architect at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects (ZGF) in Seattle, attended a conference in Chicago where Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill spoke about their de-carbonization study for the Loop.

Geller came back interested in doing something more ambitious in downtown Seattle: He wanted to encourage local building owners and real estate developers to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. “We were talking about uniting them around one common set of goals,” says Geller, who is now executive director of the Seattle 2030 District. “I knew that we could easily spend months and months figuring out what those goals should be. Right around that time, Ed and his team expanded the challenge to include something they called the 2030 Challenge for Planning. It had separate goals for existing buildings and new buildings, and added in transportation emissions and water-use reduction goals. It was something we could present to building owners and say: ‘This is a national standard. It’s from a renowned organization. If we adopt it, we can call it the 2030 District.’” That seed sown in Seattle gave rise to 2030 Districts in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, with three more cities signing up this year, and a dozen more in the exploratory stage.

All this is good news for the building sector in the United States. Unfortunately, this genuine transformation is set against a rather grim reality: global carbon emissions and the temperature of the earth both continue to rise at alarming rates. Luckily, unlike many environmentalists who appear to thrive on eco-apocalyptic rhetoric, Mazria’s dire warnings are always followed by design remedies. A recent New York Times article by Justin Gillis and John M. Broder, headlined “With Carbon Dioxide Emissions at Record High, Wor-ries on How to Slow Warming,” painted a dark, worrisome picture. I forwarded the piece to Mazria, with the subject line, “What do you make of this?” He responded by outlining the problem, pulling the sliver of positive news out of it (emissions in Europe and the U.S. are falling, slightly), following it with a warning, and then concluding with a solution. Rather than wring his hands over coal-burning power plants in the developing world, he announced the launch of an open-source Web site dedicated to teaching architects and designers worldwide how to meet the 2030 Challenge. “We will need a paradigm shift brought about by a new and highly sustainable design and planning language for the built environment that is global in scope, readily accessible, and universally adopted,” his e-mail read. “To this end we will publicly release the 2030 Palette in September 2013 as a step in making this shift happen.”

Correction: Brian Geller did not attend the conference in Chicago, where the Adrian Smith Gordon Gill decarbonization study was presented. Bob Zimmerman, the managing partner in the Seattle office of ZGF Architects, attended the event, and informed Geller about it

Game Changers 2013

Game Changers | Architecture: Women’s Opportunity Center

Game Changers | Advocacy: Edward Mazria

Game Changers | Planning: The Great Lakes Century

Game Changers | Patronage: Jamie Gray

Game Changers | Research: Dream:In

Game Changers | History: Vincent Scully

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