Ed Mazria is the influential environmental architect behind the 2030 Challenge, which aims to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in new construction, and to cut the use of fossil fuels in existing buildings by 50 percent before 2030. To help hit those targets, he has just publicly launched a unique new initiative called the 2030 Palette—a robust, visually oriented, online design tool that strives to help design low-impact, people friendly built environments from buildings to cities. We visited Mazria’s offices in Santa Fe, where we spoke with him in-depth about the new website, his work, and how sustainable development can save us from the worst climate change has to offer.

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INHABITAT: Can you tell us about your latest initiative the 2030 Palette?

Mazria: Absolutely. The 2030 Palette is an interactive online tool that puts the principles behind low-carbon and resilient built environments at the fingertips of architects, planners and designers worldwide.

Why is the 2030 Palette important? Our world is going to be redesigned, reshaped, and rebuilt over the next twenty years – affecting over 900 billion square feet of construction. That’s an area equal to 3.5 times the entire built environment of the U.S. today. How we plan and design the built environment from here on out will determine whether climate change is manageable or catastrophic.

The 2030 Palette provides an extraordinary opportunity to influence the direction we choose. We are introducing a powerful catalyst for driving global implementation of the 2030 Challenge and more – ensuring that our buildings and communities consume fewer fossil fuels, complement sensitive ecosystems, and are able to adapt to a changing climate.

Our goal is to inform the planning and design process at the point of inspiration. By curating the best information, and using powerful visuals and straightforward language, highly complex ideas are made intuitive and accessible. Guiding principles are presented as individual “Swatches”, which together make up the larger fabric of sustainable built environments. Swatches are both global in scope and local in practice, providing location-specific strategies for applications across the built environment ­­– from interconnected transportation and habitat networks that span entire regions, to elegant passive design applications that can daylight, heat or cool a building. The platform will continue to grow – with new content and features added as transformation of the built environment unfolds.

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INHABITAT: The Palette is based on your work developing and deploying the 2030 Challenge, can you give us the history of how you came up with the Challenge?

Mazria: In 2000, there was little discussion about architecture having anything to do with the climate issue. It wasn’t until 2003, when Metropolis Magazine published its “Architects Pollute” issue with the feature article titled “Turning Down the Global Thermostat”, that architecture and the built environment became recognized as the major contributors to the climate and energy crises and paradoxically, the sectors that could best solve them.

The notion of the Building Sector being a major contributor to carbon emissions originated in a workshop we conducted in our own architecture firm, bringing staff up to speed on the relationship of energy and the built environment. We conducted tutorials and one of the issues that came up was climate change, and “What does it have to do with us?” So we said “Let’s investigate, it’s an interesting question”. What we discovered was astonishing: buildings were consuming about 50 percent of all the energy produced and CO2 emitted in the United States.

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Shading devices © Levolux

INHABITAT: When you first started looking at that, did you have a hunch that it was going to be that big of a number?

Mazria: No. Because of the way statistics were published – residential and commercial energy consumption (not including electricity), industrial and transportation energy consumption, and electricity-delivered energy and energy losses, there was no Building Sector component. What we did was to create a true Building Sector operations number of about 43 percent, including residential and commercial building operations and building electricity consumption.

Then we said what about building the buildings? And what about building materials like concrete, steel, and wood? We researched government studies completed in the 1980’s breaking out materials and construction as an “embodied energy” number for various building types. We then computed the embodied energy numbers into a Building Sector square foot average. “OK, we know how much new construction takes place each year,” we said, so we multiplied annual building construction square footage and average embodied energy of building materials per square foot, and that came to four percent to seven percent of total annual U.S. energy consumption, depending on the amount of building completed each year. So, approximately 43 percent annual U.S energy consumption is attributed to building operations.

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INHABITAT: Building material’s carbon impact is a pretty small number.  It’s smaller than I think what most people would guess.

Mazria: Yes, but that’s because it’s the embodied energy of total building construction that particular year. Total embodied energy plus building operations (energy) is the total energy consumption of a building in any particular year. In year one, the total percentage of building energy consumption, before people walk in the door, is obviously 100 percent embodied energy – constructing the building and making its materials – and zero percent is building operations. Now look what happens over time, there’s a crossover point. The total energy consumed by a building built today in the year 2030 is going to be divided equally between embodied energy and operation energy. And that’s why building materials and construction is so important. If you want to reduce emissions between now and 2030 you must address the embodied energy issue as well as the operations energy consumption issue.

When we discovered that the Building Sector was responsible for about half of all energy consumption and emissions, we reframed the energy and climate change problem, and its solution.

The scientific community, for example, frames the problem as burning fossil fuels leading to an increased concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) accumulating in the atmosphere. Its solution is to reduce GHG emissions by substituting non-CO2 emitting energy sources. This puts the focus on the supply side of the issue: how much we’re burning, projected to burn, and is left to burn, and how that will impact our planet. Bill McKibben outlined the argument beautifully in an article titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math in Rolling Stone.

At Architecture 2030, we look at the demand side, the built environment.  By dramatically reducing demand, and through careful planning, design and harnessing site renewable resources – solar, wind and water – we can substantially eliminate the need to burn fossil fuels. The 2030 Palette provides the guiding principles for this solution-oriented approach.  Putting these principles into practice can also alleviate the political and economic pressure to dig up and burn unconventional fossil fuel reserves – shale oil and gas.

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Residential Densities © EURIST e.V.

INHABITAT: Or try to put it back into the ground.

Mazria: Or try to put the carbon emissions back in the ground, which is not going to happen any time soon, certainly not within the tipping-point time frame scientists are talking about.

INHABITAT: What is that tipping-point date?

Mazria: In a scientific paper published in 2009, and featured in a recent article The Most Influential Climate Science Paper Today Remains Unknown to Most People at Inside Climate News, the authors estimate a climatic tipping point in roughly eleven years at current rates of fossil fuel use.

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Daylighting from Multiple Sides © Iwan Baan

INHABITAT: The story about how you published the finding of our building’s impact of carbon emissions is interesting.

Mazria: In 2003 I made a cold call to Metropolis Magazine after we discovered the Building Sector’s contribution to the problem. At that time, transportation was the emissions story and SUV’s were the poster child of America’s excessive burning of fossil fuels.  So they were very skeptical at first about our Building Sector data, and it was contrary to a long-held belief in the architecture community that our work makes the (built) world a better place and enhances people’s lives. To say something like “we’re a global problem”, is well, somewhat controversial.

I pushed it a little bit and sent them the data. It took a few weeks but they got back to me saying they looked at the numbers and they checked out. One thing led to another and they said, “How about publishing a story in October, we’ll send a writer out and give you the cover?”

Chris Hawthorne came out, we spent a few days together, and he wrote the article. Metropolis had the cover designed and chose the cover title “Architects Pollute”. The issue came out in October 2003, created quite a stir in the profession, and grabbed national attention. Susan Szenasy, the editor of Metropolis, took some criticism when the issue first came out.

It stirred things up, but architects, being who they are by training and temperament, are predisposed to do the right thing; so they took up the cause – to problem solve, to create, and to make the world a better place.

INHABITAT: Its an idealism?

Mazria: Yes, idealism is built into architectural educational, into studio culture. It’s one of the reasons people enter the field. So when we issued the 2030 Challenge it took hold. The day we issued the Challenge in January 2006, the American Institute of Architects adopted it. That tells you something about the profession, its social commitment.

Since that time, approximately 50% of U.S. architecture firms have adopted the 2030 Challenge (Design Intelligence Survey). All of the top-10, and 75% of the top-20, Architecture/Engineering/Planning firms in the U.S. (e.g., ARUP, Perkins+Will, ZGF Architects, SOM, HKS, and HOK), have adopted the 2030 Challenge. These firms design billions of square feet of buildings worldwide.

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INHABITAT: It sounds like you’re the leader of the leaders in that respect. You’re talking to the heads of particular industries and they’re disseminating the information.

Mazria: Architects and planners and Building Sector professionals are the real leaders. They are the ones changing the world, building-by-building, and by developing and executing regional, city, district, and development plans.  Architecture 2030’s role is to bring clarity and connect the dots between climate science, energy consumption, GHG emissions, architecture, planning and construction, and then provide the blueprint for our colleagues to move forward quickly and effectively to solve the climate and energy crises.

INHABITAT: Which is the challenge of architecture, right?  It’s not just the scalability, it’s just there’s a lot of complex moving parts and it can be overwhelming.

Mazria: That’s correct, but we understand the issues and can explain complex data, strategies and concepts in a language that our colleagues can understand. That allows them to focus on designing and planning effectively. This is why the 2030 Palette is so critical; it articulates a global “shared language” for success.

INHABITAT: That seems to be one of your trademarks, you just don’t find the problem, but define its context and then look for the solution. It’s a very consistent process.

Mazria: Absolutely. When we define a problem, we try to expand on it, place it in its larger context, look for connections, understand the Building Sector’s role, and then develop solutions. Once we have a solution, we work to get it implemented. That’s the strength of Architecture 2030: we are a solution-oriented organization.

Today, our planet is at  400 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in the atmosphere. We’ve already passed 350 ppm, the target for a relatively stable climatic system.  We’re in trouble – and our goal is to get us back to 350 ppm.

The 2030 Palette provides the network of guiding principals, actions and resources for not only low carbon built environments, but also for buildings and communities that are resilient and adaptable to the effects of climate change already built into climatic system. To put what we are doing in context, let me run some numbers by you:

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), globally we’re consuming about 542 Quadrillion BTU’s or Quads of energy annually; 83% of that energy is from burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal; 5.5% is nuclear energy; and 11.2% is from other sources. If we break out the “other sources”, hydroelectricity is 7.6%, and wind and solar add up to 3.6%.

So, that’s roughly 30 Quads nuclear, 41 Quads hydro, and 19 Quads wind and solar, or about 90 plus Quads out of the 542 Quads consumed globally today. Now, we’re expected to increase our global energy consumption to 722 Quads by 2030; that’s an additional 180 Quads. That’s how much we’ll need, given global population growth projections and the continuing migration of people into urban areas.

Globally, there is some hydroelectric power left to tap. The EIA estimates an increase of about 21 Quads of hydro by 2030. Then there’s nuclear, but the next nuclear plant scheduled to come online (Finland’s Olkiluoto 3), is seven years behind schedule and costing almost double its original price tag. The EIA estimates that nuclear power generation will increase 17 Quads by 2030, but I believe that’s optimistic.

That leaves wind, solar, and biomass. The EIA estimates that wind, solar, and biomass energy production will increase by about 19 Quads. So, hydroelectricity, nuclear, wind, solar, and biomass – non-CO2 emitting energy production – is expected to increase 57 QBtu by 2030, but we are projected to need an additional 180 QBtu above the 542 QBtu we are now consuming.

INHABITAT: So we’re just under a third the way there just to make up the difference?

Mazria: Yes. Just to make up the difference in the increase. Even if we doubled the projected production of non-CO2 emitting energy, which is highly unlikely, we can’t even supply the increase.

So, this is how Architecture 2030 frames the issue: we will not stop digging up fossil fuels, and we will not succeed in addressing climate change, unless we dramatically reduce energy demand, because people are going to go to work, shop, go to church, take vacations, and heat, light, and cool their homes, offices, grocery stores, malls, and airports.  There will be huge pressure to keep all that running. What we can do is design a built environment that consumes less energy in a smarter way: the 2030 Palette provides the tools to achieve that outcome.

INHABITAT: And obviously the economy right now is directly linked with energy consumption.

Mazria: That’s right. Look what happened in Greece when the government raised taxes 450% on heating oil. Many Greeks returned to wood burning, illegally logging and removing trees in national and city parks. They’re burning whatever they can get their hands on. If you have that kind of economic and climatic pressure, people will look to satisfy short-term needs. All of this is doubly unfortunate because Greece has a mild climate ideal for passive heating – it would be easy and preferable to incorporate passive design systems than damage the local environment.

U.S. and global economies are picking up, so construction is also picking up. Over the next two decades, 900 billion square feet of building will be built and rebuilt in urban areas around the world. It is imperative that we plan, design and build differently. We need to be planning truly sustainable, low-carbon, and resilient cities and towns. All new buildings and major renovations need to designed to be carbon neutral by 2030, and achieving a 50% energy reduction in our existing building stock by 2030.

The 2030 Palette delivers the framework to meet these targets and complements our other Architecture 2030 initiatives, particularly the 2030 Districts and AIA+2030 Professional Education Series.

The AIA+2030 Professional Education Series is a year-long, 10-part professional course in the design and technology applications needed to design buildings that meet the 2030 Challenge targets. The course is being offered to over 21,000 architects in 24 markets across the U.S. and Canada including, New York, Boston, Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Boise, Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, Portland, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., among others.

For cities, we’ve originated a program called “2030 Districts”, large urban areas that have adopted and are implementing the “2030 Challenge for Planning” – an initial 10% reduction in energy, water consumption and vehicle emissions, incrementally increasing the reduction to 50% by 2030. Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cleveland , and Los Angeles have launched 2030 Districts, with new Districts now forming in other cities across the U.S.

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INHABITAT: Joe Lstiburek, in a recent Inhabitat interview, is saying the same thing you said in 2003, that architects are the problem.

Mazria: That’s only half the story. In 2003, I said architects are the problem and the solution. Look, some degree of climate change appears inevitable. Whether it is manageable or catastrophic, however, will not be determined in Washington, or Geneva, or Beijing, or by legislation and international treaties, or by silver-bullet energy technologies, but by how we – the architecture, planning and building community – respond and act.

There’s a misconception out there that high-performance buildings cost more, or that clients, or contractors, or city governments, or financial institutions control the design process. Make no mistake, architects control how and what they design. They conceptualize a building and select the systems and materials that go into it. That, right there, determines 60% to 80% of a building’s energy consumption pattern like the siting of a building, its shape, color, and orientation, the location and size of fenestrations, materials and their properties, and the systems and equipment that go into a building. Architects conceptualize, design, and specify the thousands of parts and materials that give a building form and make it function. And, they make hundreds of decisions and choices along the way, and for each decision or choice there are hundreds, maybe thousands of available options.

Building design is a complex process of trade-offs to meet a specific program and project budget. As long as architects bring a project in on budget, they have great flexibility in what they design and specify. They can design an efficient or inefficient building for the same cost. They can specify more efficient building envelope components, and trade that off with less expensive applications like paint. For example, instead of using three coats of paint and sanding between each coat to obtain a smooth finish, which is very expensive, they can specify two coats with sanding between coats and a slightly textured finish, which is inexpensive. The type of wall base they specify, the type of flooring, the structure itself, all have cost implications that allow architects to make choices and cost tradeoffs.

The point is, the only design choices that save owners or tenants money every month by reducing energy consumption and GHG emissions, are the choices that ensure that a building design meets the 2030 Challenge targets.

INHABITAT: Are buildings actually trending to be more energy efficient?

Mazria: Yes. Energy consumption per square foot of building has been dropping in the U.S. every year since 2005. It may surprise you that today we have a market-based, building sector imposed moratorium on additional electric power plant capacity in the U.S., meaning there will be little need to build new power plants in the near future. In fact, GHG emissions in our sector are expected to 7.8% below 2005 levels by 2030, even as we add 70 billion square feet to our building stock. According to the EIA, if we incorporate the best demand technology available today, we can reduce emissions in the Building Sector even further, to 21.8% below 2005 levels. And, if we incorporate best practices, those planning and design strategies outlined in the 2030 Palette, the reductions will be even greater and we will meet the 2030 Challenge targets.

Over the next two decades, most of the global built environment will be either new or rebuilt. This is an opportunity – one with a defined window that will not remain open indefinitely. The time to act is now.

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Lead photo of Ed Mazria © Jamey Stillings

Diagrams and 2030 Palette screen shot Copyright © 2030, Inc. / Architecture 2030