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Blueprint for Disaster?

By Tim Folger
OnEarth Magazine
Summer 2005


The buildings in which we live and work turn out to be the nation's
largest source of global warming pollution. Fear not: A renowned
architect has a new design.

It looks as though this interview might end before it has even
started. Ed Mazria doesn't want to talk about all the energy-saving
features of the home he has designed for himself in the hills
overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico. There will be no discussion of how
he warms his spacious house on a near-freezing November day without
a heater, no tips about installing solar panels. Mazria, a maverick
architect widely respected for his pioneering designs, wants to talk
about a much larger issue. He is convinced that the leading cause of
global warming has been overlooked by both scientists and
environmentalists. Architects like himself, he argues, and the
buildings they design and construct are responsible for nearly 50
percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

It's a startling assertion, and my first reaction is that it must be
wrong. What about all the SUVs and trucks, the coal-fired power
plants, the deregulated industries, all eructing tons of carbon
dioxide into the air?

Hunching his 6-foot-6 frame over a laptop, Mazria points to a
diagram on the screen, a pie chart he made using Department of
Energy statistics that slices energy consumption in the United
States into four neat wedges. The chart holds no surprises and in
fact contradicts Mazria's claim: There's no slice devoted solely to
architecture or buildings. But there's a fat one -- 35 percent of
the pie -- for industry, which includes manufacturing, mining,
agriculture, forestry, fisheries, construction, and the operation of
industrial buildings. The next largest chunk, transportation,
accounts for 27 percent of the total. The residential sector, which
comprises energy used at home for heating, air-conditioning,
cooking, and electricity, accounts for 21 percent; the commercial
sector, which includes energy used in office buildings, hospitals,
and government facilities, makes up 17 percent and is the smallest
piece. Divvied up this way, the worst offenders are the usual
suspects -- industry and transportation. All attempts to rein in
greenhouse gases focus on them.

But two years ago, Mazria, who is 64, realized that this way of
looking at energy use was fundamentally flawed. His insight came
shortly after the younger architects at his firm, Mazria Odems
Dzurec, asked him to give a seminar on green design. Mazria has been
interested in energy conservation for more than 30 years. In 1979,
he wrote The Passive Solar Energy Book, a guide to designing homes
that harness the sun's energy to heat and cool living spaces; it has
sold more than 500,000 copies. But until he began to prepare for his
talk, Mazria had never tried to quantify how the actions of
architects affect the most serious environmental problem: global
warming.

So he reapportioned the Energy Department data, shifting processes
that had been lumped under industry -- the manufacture of
construction materials, for example -- into a new category that
included all buildings: commercial, residential, institutional, and
industrial. When he finished adding up the numbers, he was stunned.

The built environment eclipsed the transportation and industry
sectors.

The evidence that our climate is rapidly changing is overwhelming.
It's found in tree rings and in centuries-old air trapped in
Greenland's ice: The average global temperature has not been this
high for more than a thousand years. Flooded coastal areas,
droughts, famine, species extinction, and the spread of tropical
disease into temperate zones are among the likely consequences.
Existing strategies for halting or reversing this scenario seem
doomed to fail, given that the leader of the world's largest emitter
of greenhouse gases -- the United States -- questions the reality of
global warming. But Mazria believes that our failure to grasp the
single most important cause of global warming is also preventing us
from finding workable solutions.

Mazria brings up an image of his redesigned energy pie chart on his
laptop. Now there are only three slices: industry, transportation,
and a new one -- buildings. The industry wedge has shrunk to just 25
percent, and the commercial sector has vanished; he has reassigned
the energy needed to operate all kinds of buildings to his
building-sector wedge. In Mazria's new pie, the built environment
swallows 48 percent of the nation's energy; transportation claims
the remaining 27 percent.

"Think of it this way," he says. "Your car is the size of this table
here, and you use it, on average, an hour and a half a day. But a
house? It's operating 24 hours a day. It's maybe a hundred times the
size of a car. It's got a water heater that burns gas or oil
on-site. Now this house has a solar hot-water heater and lots of
passive energy coming in; it doesn't use that much energy. But if
this were a normal house, you'd be heating it right now; you'd be
making hot water; the electricity would be going for all the
appliances."

According to Mazria, one of the reasons that the role of the built
environment in global warming has been largely ignored is that few
people understand what architects really do. To illustrate his
point, he describes the work his firm did in designing a community
center in Santa Fe. It produced two 400-page documents specifying
thousands of construction materials -- concrete, steel, floor tile,
lighting fixtures, switches, paint, insulation. Although Mazria
didn't purchase all those materials himself, he instructed the city
to buy them -- and it did. "Architects are the largest consuming
block in the country," he says. "With the stroke of a pen, we can
specify anything we want for a building. We could specify parts --
recycled brick, stone, or steel, for example -- that don't use much
fossil fuel to manufacture."

Projections of construction growth are staggering. "Over the next 20
years, we'll add 22 million homes and other buildings in this
country," says Mazria. Each will have a boiler that burns oil or gas
to heat water, and each will be an individual source of greenhouse
gases separate from power plant emissions. More than half of the
households in the United States -- nearly 62 million -- use natural
gas in furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and clothes dryers, and that
gas is burned in the home. Close to 10 percent use oil. "When did
you ever hear someone say, 'Hey, we're going to put in 22 million
little power plants in this country in the next 20 years'?" he asks.
"I've never heard anyone talk about this."

Even the most drastic improvements in automobile emissions or the
widespread adoption of wind and solar energy won't curb global
warming without better building design. Of course, that's not to say
such efforts shouldn't be made, Mazria says, but our priorities are
off.

he irony is that a solution is at hand -- and has been for more than
two decades. In the early 1980s, the Department of Energy
commissioned a dozen or so pilot projects to study energy-efficient
building design. The goal was to reduce sharply the energy use of
commercial and institutional buildings solely by making smarter
design choices, without solar panels or other new technologies.
Mazria's firm got one of the contracts, for a library in Mount Airy,
North Carolina. By using natural light instead of electric lights
and carefully placing windows and furniture to maximize natural
heating and cooling, the finished library requires 80 percent less
energy than other buildings of its size in the state.

Twenty years later, the results of that study have yet to be widely
implemented, but Mazria aims to change that. He now devotes most of
his own energy to promoting two policy initiatives: updating both
architectural training and building codes. If Mazria has his way,
architecture schools will require students to design buildings that
use little or no fossil fuel, and building codes will be revised to
force architects and contractors to limit energy use to half of the
regional average for a given structure, be it a school, an office
complex, or an apartment block. Under Mazria's plan, the energy
conservation requirement would increase by 10 percent every five
years.

His ideas are getting some attention: Mazria just returned from
Canada, where he gave the keynote address at the Royal Architectural
Institute of Canada's annual convention. In the audience were
influential members of the National Council of Architectural
Registration Boards, the organization that regulates the entire
architectural profession in the United States: Mazria was
immediately invited to deliver the keynote address at its annual
meeting this summer.

Each year, new buildings constructed in this country total about
five billion square feet -- and an equal amount of space is
renovated. Once a project has been completed, its daily energy
consumption is fixed until it is either renovated or torn down;
typically that means it stays the same for 50 to 100 years. The
Energy Department project demonstrated decades ago that design alone
can reduce energy use by at least 50 percent. "So this is a
no-brainer," Mazria says.

hortly after I visited Mazria's home, Christian Dagg, a professor at
Auburn University's College of Architecture, Design, and
Construction, in Auburn, Alabama, invited him to give a talk to the
students there. When Mazria arrived on campus, he and Dagg met at a
coffee shop, which turned out to be a perfect prelude to his talk
that evening.

"We sat in this huge, heated space," says Dagg. "You could hear the
fans running. The lights were on, there were neon signs over the
counter. We just looked around at all the power required to heat the
space, and we were the only people there."

Now Dagg is among the converted. "Once you get people to grasp all
the elements of the problem," says Mazria, "the answers become
clear."


Finding a green architect or contractor isn't always easy, but
the U.S. Green Building Council, which promotes and certifies
environmentally responsible building practices, can help. Its
members include green architects and contractors; if they
can't do the job, they'll know someone who can. Find a chapter
near you.

Knowing what's out there is a good way to begin thinking about
future projects, even if you're not ready to build or remodel
right now. Ed Mazria pioneered the use of passive solar
heating in building design. Learn more about the construction
techniques by visiting the Energy Department's website.

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from
OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

 

 

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