Event: Architecture: On the Brink
Location: Cooper Union Great Hall, 04.20.11
Speakers: Edward Mazria, AIA — Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Architecture 2030
Introduction: Margaret Castillo, AIA, LEED AP — 2011 AIANY President; Ilana Judah, Int’l Assoc. AIA, OAQ, LEED AP — Director of Sustainability, FXFOWLE Architects; Pat Sapinsley, AIA, LEED AP — Senior Associate, Good Energies
Organizers: AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)
Sole Sponsor: Con Edison Commercial and Industrial Energy Efficiency Program
By the end of the presentation by Edward Mazria, AIA, there was something in the air besides excessive carbon dioxide: a surprising amount of optimism. Crises in energy, the environment, and economics are converging. Today’s architects have not only the knowledge about what needs doing but the power to do it, Mazria noted. Industrial society is at a tipping point between destructive and restorative practices, he declared, and “the most powerful instrument for change on the planet today is… the stroke of a designer’s pen.”
Mazria recalled his freshman year at Pratt, when Louis Kahn opened a lecture by drawing “Silence” and “Light” on the chalkboard, then noted that “at the threshold of this crossing is Design (calling on nature).” Between those two entities lie space, time, and environment. Mazria proceeded to run through architectural history before and after the Industrial Revolution, arguing that successive technologies have largely “taken time and the environment out of the equation.” The gradual rise of Modern architecture meant increasing disconnection of the built environment from natural limits, all at the cost of increasing dependence on energy based on fossil fuel extraction.
The verdict of climate science is clear, Mazria says: get the atmosphere back to 350 ppm CO2. The architectural profession can serve this aim by restoring time and environment to practice, not just spatial form. Political measures to date have been ineffective. The real silver bullet, based on studies of available world reserves of various fuels, addresses not oil and gas, which are too close to exhaustion to drive climate change much further, but coal, which is abundant enough to trigger irreversible change. This is where the building sector is both the problem and the solution: coal causes most U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity generation, and building operations consume the lion’s share of coal. Since most buildings have a limited lifespan and some 75% of the built environment in 2030 will be new or renovated, phasing out coal use and reaching carbon neutrality is feasible, provided architects make the fundamentals of sustainable design and construction the norm. Many influential major firms (73% of the 30 largest architecture and engineering firms) have adopted the 2030 Challenge (an organization that Mazria founded). A communication tool under development, the 2030 Palette, will organize benchmark information in visual form to spread the principles more widely.
The question of whether rational design leadership can outmaneuver entrenched interests is inevitable, as an audience question noted, but Mazria encourages architects to insist on low-emission materials and processes. “[Architects] don’t really, I don’t believe yet, understand the power that you have.” Mazria predicts that the transformations now needed will occur over about the next three years. It’s not mysterious or utopian, he’s convinced; it’s a matter of following through on things we already know.