Ed Mazria, FAIA, Honored with 2015 AIA Kemper Award


Dec. 10, 2014 

On December 10, the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects bestowed the Edward C. Kemper Award on Edward Mazria, FAIA, for catalyzing the architecture community to combat climate change through the design of energy efficient buildings. Named in honor of the AIA’s first executive director, the award is given annually to an architect who has contributed significantly to the profession through service to the AIA.

Today, stories of carbon neutral buildings are no longer exotic and elusive unicorn tales. Building codes are being updated to make sustainability a legally enforceable mandate. Most major construction projects assume some level of LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Moreover, “sustainability” has become a commonplace concept, from grocery store checkout lines to corporate roles, and from academic majors and minors to private- and public-sector mission statements.

Mazria has been at the center of this engine, pushing a grassroots revolution to get architects, public officials, developers, and decision-makers to see how buildings affect the environment, why architecture matters, and what role architects can play in driving positive change. Through research, compelling imagery, and tireless public presentations, he made it clear that architecture is the gateway to true long-term global sustainability. All the while, his basic argument—supported by data—has been simple: Buildings are responsible for nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions, and the architects who design them have the responsibility, and the power, to stop a cascading global climate change disaster.

“Through Ed’s leadership,” wrote 2007 AIA President RK Stewart, FAIA, in a recommendation letter, “architects have been placed at the center of humanity’s greatest challenge and positioned to lead our planet’s survival.”

“It’s simply a design problem,” Mazria told the architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne in a 2003 Metropolis article. “You can solve a design problem a thousand ways to not cost more. If you’re an architect, just like you solve the functional problem and the budgetary problem, you must solve the environmental problem—and solve it by design.”

The catalyzer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mazria earned an architecture degree from the Pratt Institute and continued with graduate studies at the University of New Mexico. He built a successful practice in New Mexico, becoming an expert on passive solar buildings and energy efficiency. During the oil embargos of the 1970s, Mazria closely examined the energy consumption of his buildings—long before any widespread understanding of climate change existed. His projects were bright and airy, filled with natural light, and always attuned—through form and site orientation—to their climate and ecology.

In the early 2000s, while reviewing research in climate change and carbon emissions (much of which had not been updated in 30 years) for a series of workshops at his firm, Mazria noticed that many of the projections stopped at the year 2000—as if, to researchers, the new millennium would be a new lease on life. Mazria discovered that those projections were invalid. Our risk of irreparable environmental harm had not been mitigated between the 1970s and the early 2000s, but had metastasized—and he wanted to let architects know.

Mazria looked at how energy consumption is measured in the U.S. Typically, this pie chart is broken down into four categories: industry (35 percent), transportation (27 percent), residential (21 percent), and commercial (17 percent). Mazria saw a common theme across several of these categories: These categories represented buildings and spaces that were, for better or for worse, designed by architects. He combined the residential and commercial categories, and placed a percentage of the industrial category designed by architects in this new group. By redrawing a few lines on a pie graph, Mazria had created the most important statistic in the sustainable design movement: Buildings account for nearly half (48 percent) of all energy consumption.

He cold-called Metropolis with his discovery, and it put the story on the cover of its October 2003 issue—the words “Architects Pollute” staggered over three rolled-up blueprints in the form of belching smokestacks. “This is the most important moment in the history of architecture,” Mazria told Hawthorne. “If architects don’t attack this, then the world doesn’t have a chance.”

Architecture 2030

After the Metropolis cover story, Mazria became a lightning rod for support and criticism. For some architects, Mazria put words to something they long suspected but couldn’t articulate. For others, Mazria’s claims were damning. After all, architects were inherently stewards of the environment, not polluters, right?

The science was sound, and Mazria ushered in a period of soul-searching and consternation within the design community. In response, Mazria founded Architecture 2030 in 2006 and issued The 2030 Challenge: To incrementally reduce fossil fuel usage in new buildings by the year 2030, by which time all new buildings should be completely carbon neutral.

Again, Mazria took a herculean task and made it manageable by breaking it down into composite parts that architects already had their hands on. With or without The 2030 Challenge, Mazria calculated, 900 billion square feet of new buildings will be built by 2030—that’s 60 percent of the world’s entire building stock. Just three nations—the U.S., Canada, and China—will be responsible for 53 percent of these new buildings. If architects reduce dependence on fossil fuels there, they might head off mass extinctions and water from melted polar ice caps flooding Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. If they don’t, these emissions levels will be locked in for 80–120 years.

The 2030 Challenge was immediately endorsed by the AIA, which used it as an impetus to create new task forces and continuing-education requirements. In 2009, the AIA issued the complementary 2030 Commitment, which helps firms track their progress towards meeting the challenge and offers tools for developing sustainability actions plans for firms’ internal operations.

Mazria’s challenge has also been widely embraced by the profession and public sector. Fifty percent of architecture firms have signed on, along with the federal government. Likewise, several states (California, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington) have pledged to build only carbon neutral government facilities by 2030.

“It can be argued that the mitigation and adaptation to climate change is the defining challenge of this century,” wrote Topaz medalist Harrison Fraker, Assoc. AIA, in a recommendation letter. “Ed can certainly be said to have jump-started climate change awareness, action, and new purpose to the architecture profession on an international scale. What he has done is place the profession and the AIA at the center of a positive solution.”

That federal, state, and local government have picked up the 2030 mantle is especially notable, since Architecture 2030 is not a large membership organization meant to influence public policy directly through advocacy. It’s a small nonprofit that makes it presence felt through the grassroots actions of architects. Even as governments fail to encourage more sustainable energy policy, Architecture 2030 sees the designers of buildings as holding the ultimate responsibility. Cap and trade or no, architects determine how much it costs to heat, cool, and power a building.

This outsized impact is testament to Mazria’s skills as an organizer. Architecture 2030’s primary role is not offering technical guidance on sustainable design (though the group has done more of this lately). Instead, Architecture 2030 catalyzes the architecture community to seize this challenge with clear goals. Likewise, Mazria understands that the challenge can’t be met by redesigning at the single-building scale. Lately, Architecture 2030 has been offering designers guidance on how sustainability can be tackled at the neighborhood, city, and regional scale. The 2030 Palette website offers case studies of sustainable building techniques at a variety of scales. The 2030 Challenge for Planning issues sustainability goals for water use and transit energy usage. And the 2030 Districts program is using private-sector partnerships to encourage energy efficient development in five major-city downtowns.

“[Mazria’s] 2030 Challenge broadened the discourse to consider whole sections of cities, in addition to buildings and neighborhoods, examining their energy and material use, and in general, our quality of life,” wrote DesignIntelligence founding editor James Cramer, Hon. AIA, in a recommendation letter.

“Do the right thing” 

In any system as complex as planetary climate, direct cause and effect are difficult to determine. But since Mazria issued The 2030 Challenge, new environmental trends have emerged. In 2012, The New York Times reported that developed nations are seeing slightly declining emissions levels. In 2014, Mazria told Dwell that from 2005–2013, 20 billion square feet of new buildings were added in the U.S., yet total energy consumption declined.

But what about the billions of square feet of existing buildings around the world? In 2014, Mazria introduced the 2050 Imperative, to completely decarbonize the building sector in the next four decades. This goal asks that developed nations renovate 2–3 percent of their existing buildings each year so that they use 50 percent less energy and moderately increase renewable energy production, progressively reducing fossil fuel dependence to zero by 2050. Once again, Mazria asks architects only to do what they’re already doing—but to do it better. In the U.S., architects are already renovating 2–3 percent of the building stock each year. (Developing nations are asked to only renovate 1.5–2 percent of existing buildings per year.)

Mazria’s most steadfast ally in getting architects to embrace the responsibility of climate change has been their natural inclination to “do the right thing,” as he told the website Inhabitat in March 2013. “Idealism is built into architectural education, into studio culture. It’s one of the reasons people enter the field,” he said.

Every day, architects are asked to envision new homes, businesses, and communities. In essence, they envision new worlds. Over the last decade, Mazria has asked architects to envision not just a new world, but an entirely new relationship with the planet’s ecology. Architects are uniquely positioned to make a greater positive difference than anyone else, says Mazria. They just have to answer the call to do so.

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