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Better Architecture As A Tool For Addressing Climate Change

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(AP Photo/Noah Berger, File

In this Sept. 28, 2020, file photo, a staircase remains at the Restaurant at Meadowood, which burned in the Glass Fire, in St. Helena, Calif. In three of the past four years, major wildfires driven by a changing climate have devastated parts of the world-class region, leaving little doubt that it's vulnerable to smoke, flames and blackouts during the fall.

This summer, wildfires devastated the West Coast. And the entire planet just had its hottest September on record. People are thinking more than ever about climate change and ways to combat it. 

 

But it’s nothing new to architect Edward Mazria

Fifteen years ago, he founded a movement to combat global warming through design. On Wednesday, Mazria will talk about that with the American Institute of Architects in Las Vegas. 

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Mazria became interested in climate change and the impact the building sector had on it during the 70s and 80s. That interest revived in the early 2000s as more and more alarm bells started ringing about greenhouse gas emissions and the impact they were having on the environment.

He and his firm researched what impact the building industry was having on climate change and were surprised by the findings.

“We were responsible for 40 to 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.,” Mazria said.

At around that time, he started the think tank Architecture 2030, which worked to research how architecture and the built environment were affecting climate change.

Soon, there were so many requests for service that Mazria decided to split the think tank off from his architecture firm so it could focus entirely on researching climate change and finding solutions.

One of the main goals of the think tank is to put out information to architects, builders, developers, product suppliers and planners about the impacts of the building industry on climate change and what can be done to address the crisis.

Mazria said, overall, since his firm published its research on the issue in the early 2000s, the building industry has improved. 

“Energy consumption in the building sector has not increased since 2005 even though we added about 47 billion square feet to our building sector, because we build all the time, and that’s because we’re designing better,” he said.

He said that buildings are much more efficient than they were and firms are savvier about addressing energy consumption and, therefore, emissions.

“If we’re not increasing energy consumption in the building sector, (then) every time we add a collector to a building for example, or every time we build a solar farm or a wind farm, we reduce emissions,” he said.

Mazria said emissions by the building industry have dropped 21 percent.

Now, the industry is taking on the impacts of climate change like rising temperatures, flooding, wildfires and the heat island effect. Mazria said the American Institute of Architects, one of the largest professional groups in the country, has reoriented to putting climate change as its top priority.

Since it is such a large and influential professional organization, others around the country have followed.

“The entire global architecture profession is really moving very quickly to both to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to what is coming down the pike,” he said.

Mazria is very hopeful those adaptations can make a difference to the climate. He pointed to the fact that as the economy boomed over the past 15 years and the building industry built millions of square feet, it also didn't increase emissions.

"What happened was for the first time in recorded history the economy went up, building construction went up and energy consumption de-coupled and remained flat and emissions went down,” he said.

That de-coupling saved consumers millions in energy costs and kept emissions low.

“Now, we have a model. We know we can do this,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic is speeding up that process, Mazria said. Although tragic, there is an upside.

“Fossil fuels still maintain their cost but renewables keep coming down every single year. They’ve now passed fossil fuels. They’re cheaper than fossil fuels,” he said.

With cheaper prices, more people are interested in using the technology. In 2016, Mazria said 17 gigawatts of photovoltaic solar panels were installed in the U.S. - the biggest year ever. This year, they are on track to install 37 gigawatts - almost double.

When we get to 40 gigawatts, Mazria said, we'll be on track to replace carbon-intense electricity in 15 years.  

The pandemic has allowed the world to buy a little bit of time when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis, but the global community still needs to work fast. For one thing, smaller, older buildings need to be updated to be more efficient. 

“As we renovate, it’s very easy to upgrade to the most efficient equipment and make our buildings highly efficient and get to zero carbon in terms of building operations,” he said.

Mazria suggested the state encourage those upgrades at intervention points such as when a building is sold or when it is getting a zoning change. 

The owners of larger buildings, which account for 50 percent of emissions, usually have enough money to make those changes on their own and should be encouraged to do so, Mazria advised.

As for new buildings, he suggests the state implement new zero-carbon building codes and have onsite renewable energy sources. If that is not possible, owners can buy renewable energy from utilities.

“We have all the technologies. We have the techniques. We have the strategies. We have the policies. We have the codes. It’s all doable. It is just a matter of implementing them,” he said.

Guests

Edward Mazriafounder of Architecture 2030 

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