Buildings key in U.S. climate push thanks to architecture's 'persuader in chief'

DENVER -- Getting off at the wrong subway stop may have been the best thing that ever happened to the guru of energy-saving architecture.

Ed Mazria, who's now 72 years old, had just finished high school and was heading from Brooklyn to an unfamiliar part of the city to play in a basketball scrimmage in front of New York City-area college recruiters. But his mistake made him miss all but the last 15 minutes of the game and all but a couple of coaches, so the 6-foot, 6-inch kid ran onto the court in his street clothes and played hard.

"I took over the game," the soft-spoken Mazria recalled in a recent interview.

The two coaches were from the Pratt Institute, a Brooklyn college known for fine arts, engineering and architecture. They liked Mazria, and he liked the idea of playing basketball near home.

Mazria, a second-generation American of Spanish and Syrian descent, grew up the son of a dry goods merchant in a Middle Eastern-North African community in Brooklyn. He was the first member of his family to attend college.

Pratt coaches' "hearts sank," Mazria said, when he chose architecture as his major because he liked to draw when he was younger.

"I really didn't know what [architecture] was," he recalled. But his coaches knew. It was, he said, the school's most demanding major in a department that "had no love" for the basketball team.

The coaches hired a tutor for Mazria, and a month later, he passed the entrance exam -- barely -- and then nearly flunked out his first year.


But Mazria's competitive zeal took over. He befriended the "smart" architecture crowd -- because it doesn't hurt to be the best basketball player at the school to attract friends, he said -- and studied hard. In four years, he went from a D student to an A student.

While Mazria flirted with professional basketball, spending a summer at the New York Knicks training camp, architecture ruled in the end. After a stint in the Peace Corps as an architect in Arequipa, Peru, and teaching at several universities, Mazria had his own firm, Mazria Inc., based in Santa Fe, N.M., from 1978 until 2006, when he closed it to devote more time to the building and climate change issue.

"One thing I love is to learn and create whole new avenues to learn," Mazria said. "In everything you look at, there are hidden elements. ... It is fascinating to look behind things and look at the patterns."

Mazria's love of competition, strategy and teamwork that he learned in basketball has been a hallmark of his work in architecture and his mission to use buildings to reduce energy use and carbon emissions. He still plays basketball three times a week at a local high school in an all-ages league, nicknamed the "Noontimers," where he said he has to keep his competitive side in check in order to prevent injuries.

"He is a genius as a communicator and persuader in chief for the issue of energy efficiency meets climate change and buildings," said Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the U.S. Green Building Council. Platt has been on the speaking and conference circuit with Mazria for almost five years and has been influenced by Mazria's work for years.

"I think it is because he has a kind of matter-of-fact manner," Platt said. "Matters are scrupulously researched, and he is very good about giving you enough of a trail about how he reached his conclusions that it is clear and it is very, very disciplined."

'He has shaken things up'

Mazria's most famous and controversial finding: Buildings and architects are a primary cause of -- and a solution to -- climate change.

In 2003, Mazria shocked the architecture world by piecing together federal energy data to show the building sector was responsible for almost 50 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

He unveiled his findings in a cover story, "It's the Architecture, Stupid!" for Metropolis Magazine.

After pointing the finger, Mazria formed a nonprofit, Architecture 2030, and launched the "2030 Challenge," which sets a goal for all new buildings or major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030. It also set a goal to glean equivalent deep energy cuts in existing buildings.

The goals must be achieved through innovative sustainable design, on-site renewable power and purchasing up to 20 percent renewable energy.

The far-reaching, aggressive targets were adopted relatively quickly by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Governors Association -- their members finding Mazria's presentations and hard data difficult to disagree with.

Then a provision tucked into the 2007 energy bill signed by President George W. Bush mandated that all federal buildings be carbon-neutral by 2030.

"It is actually pretty shocking that this was passed six years ago. That is something pretty incredible," said Cody Taylor, energy technology and policy specialist jn the Building Technologies Program at the Energy Department, during a conference here last month on net-zero energy buildings co-hosted by the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) and New Buildings Institute (NBI).

People would normally think something like this would be in "crazy California," he said, "but this is a national law."

A longtime friend of Mazria, architect Victor Olgyay, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute's buildings practice, said that on top of Mazria's "dogmatically, unapologetically and irrefutably kind of logical" arguments, he also presents energy efficiency in a way that speaks to architects and their love for design.

USGBC's Platt added, "Architects really embraced him as 'Hey, he is one of us,' but he is talking about public policy. He really catalyzed the architectural community in a really incredible way. AIA is a very mainstream organization, with a conservative background. He has really shaken things up."

More than 10 years later, Mazria is still trying to shake things up.

Spreading the word about building design as an energy and climate change solution, he travels with messianic fervor (he's just back from a trip to China), pausing to spend time with his family -- especially a granddaughter -- at his home in Santa Fe.

"It is challenging to keep it front and center in people's minds," said Ralph DiNola, NBI's executive director. "I think it is good Ed has been able to maintain interest and enthusiasm. It's clear that his motivation comes from a place of personal passion, and glad to see that he carries on that, as well."

Despite great strides, Mazria said, energy efficiency still has a long way to go. A major worry, he said, is how people think about the cost of boosting a building's energy efficiency.

"No one says you can't use the Sheetrock unless it has a payback of three years," Mazria told the audience at the NASEO-NBI conference where he was a keynote speaker. "The only decision that actually has a payback, an actual payback on a monthly basis, is saving energy."

An architect makes thousands of decisions about a building quickly, and he or she can "pay off" glazing for windows to maintain a more constant temperature by only painting the walls with two coats of paint instead of three, Mazria explained.

"This whole notion of singling out the only thing that can save you money and not letting you do it, because it doesn't take three years to pay back and it takes four years to pay back, is insane," he said, to loud applause from people at the conference.

For all his enthusiasm for architecture as an energy saver, Mazria, who wears a thick white mustache below a full salt-and-pepper head of hair, is calm and methodical at the podium. He barely raises his voice, even before hundreds of people.

"There is a huge building boom going on in the world today," he told the conference. "We will essentially rebuild the world over the next two decades, and that is a huge opportunity if we get it right."

For the love of the game

While it's easy to write a story showing Mazria as the man on a mission, he says his most important life choices were random.

"Life is like bumper cars, you know," he said in the interview. "You ride the bumper cars, and you are banging into different cars, and then thrown into another direction. My life is just like that."

Studying architecture and playing college basketball were unplanned, he said. So, too, was his move to the West to teach at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, seeking adventure and what seemed like "unlimited" opportunities at the time, he said.

Then, trying in the 1970s for a post at the University of California, Berkeley, where he planned to focus on social issues, Mazria was one of three finalists but didn't get the job.

There was another opportunity, though. One of the panelists screening applicants for Berkeley offered Mazria a job teaching solar energy architecture at the University of Oregon.

Knowing nothing about solar, Mazria asked for six months to get up to speed. He went to Albuquerque and found an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories to help translate "formula-heavy" solar textbooks for him. With that help, Mazria designed and built a passive solar house and was ready to teach in six months, he said.

Mazria published one of the first passive solar energy books in 1979, and fellow architects say it remains influential today. It found patterns and provided solar design processes and procedures in simple, plain language for architects to follow "at a time when [scientists] were still just trying to figure out how solar energy worked," he said.

"It just showed very clearly to folks how it can be done and it wasn't really complicated," RMI's Olgyay said. "It was not some esoteric columns of numbers, and you could just do it. ... That, again, is what Ed brings to the story here is a very well-researched foundation for this information, and then an ability to synthesize it clearly so it can be communicated in a way that people get it is not that complicated."

It also shaped much of Mazria's future award-winning architecture design work, including the Mount Airy Public Library in Mount Airy, N.C., an iconic passive-energy building built in 1984 that won accolades from DOE and AIA.

Mazria said both his solar and building energy use work is influenced by Christopher Alexander, emeritus professor of architecture at University of California, Berkeley. Alexander created and wrote a book in 1977 on a "pattern language" that broke down classical buildings into pieces and rules to enable anyone to design and build at scale. The theory has also been applied to computer science and software engineering, where patterns are essential to coding.

Alexander is a controversial figure in architecture, as he neglected to include any contemporary design in his analysis of building patterns, but Mazria said he found Alexander's idea of patterns and smaller pieces useful in solving these larger system problems.

Mazria brought the same love for patterns and simple but direct goals and guidance to the 2030 Challenge and his mission to lessen the building sector's impact on climate change.

"The most compelling way to do it is to set a very bold target, and then to both, as he does, to provide guidance and also sit back and see creative ways to see how the architectural community is changing practices on a firm-by-firm basis," USGBC's Platt said.

The latest setback for the challenge is a recent push to repeal the 2007 carbon-neutral federal building provision and instead increase energy efficiency targets as an amendment to a broad energy efficiency bill authored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that is currently on a lifeline for consideration this year (E&E Daily, June 25).

The amendment would not be as effective as the carbon-neutral goals, and the federal government would lose important leadership on the issue if the provision were gutted, according to Mazria. "They are failing to look at the bigger picture of emissions," he said (E&E Daily, Sept. 19).

'We can't stop'

An analysis and survey by DesignIntelligence this past summer found that 52 percent of U.S. firms have adopted the 2030 Challenge, and almost 70 percent of the leading U.S. architecture and design firms named Mazria's Architecture 2030 as the most effective sustainable building resources and design organization.

Mazria is most proud of the hard numbers, however. He quickly rattles off the latest federal data that show building-sector energy demand projected for 2030 has significantly dropped, even after adjusting for the last recession.

In 2005, projections called for an additional 16 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of building energy use by 2030. By 2011, the predictions showed consumption flat-lining in two decades, saving consumers about $4.5 trillion, according to Mazria's calculations.

The 2013 projections actually see building energy consumption drop about 5 quadrillion Btu of energy use before leveling off again in 20 years -- making it easier to meet President Obama's plan to cap emissions from power plants announced in June, since very few will have to be built, Mazria added.

And, he said in the interview, his voice rising to top the background pop music in the hotel lobby, "If the best available energy efficiency technology were used, the building sector would only consume 8 quadrillion Btu by 2030. And that is without design!"

Creating a structure or an entire system of buildings that make maximum use of daylight, sun exposure and fresh air ventilation can significantly cut down the use of mechanical -- and electricity-sucking -- systems. The goal is, in fact, to get it to "net zero" so the building consumes no more or even less than it generates.

While net zero used to be considered just a plaything for foundations or Fortune 100 companies, it is slowly moving into the mainstream realm.

"The fact that we could suggest to hold a net-zero forum," NBI's DiNola said as he introduced Mazria at the Denver conference, "is due in no small part to Ed's initiative to go farther, faster."

Along with policy work on net-zero energy, Mazria's organization has created 2030 Challenge targets for building materials and products and is applying the targets to "districts" of buildings in various cities across the United States (Greenwire, Sept. 11).

And next month, Architecture 2030 will unveil the 2030 Palette project, a free, online resource of models and examples of sustainable planning and building projects that architects and urban planners can pull for their own use. The organization calls it a "pattern language" for global sustainable structure and design.

"We can't stop," Mazria said. "We have to keep up the momentum."

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