Ed Mazria and an Architecture of the Earth

By Kira L. Gould posted 02-22-2021 04:51 PM


Ed Mazria and an Architecture of the Earth
by Kira Gould

This spring, Ed Mazria, FAIA, will receive the AIA’s highest individual honor, the Gold Medal. This transpires at an auspicious time for architecture and the world. The U.S. just rejoined the Paris Agreement, emissions-related policy is
actively being discussed in the government, and climate-responsive design and practice are becoming normalized. I have worked with Ed for several years on advocacy around design and climate change through his organization, Architecture 2030 (I serve as a Senior Fellow) and through the AIA (and its Committee on the Environment). I spoke with Ed about the state and future of the profession for ARCHITECT magazine's March 2021 issue. This is an expanded version of that conversation. 

Kira Gould: You were just awarded the AIA Gold Medal. This seems like a significant departure and a signal about how we view, practice, and celebrate leadership in architecture. Does it feel that way to you? 

Ed Mazria: Definitely. In January, [Archimage co-founder] Richard Buday, FAIA, wrote in a provocative article for Common Edge that we are in desperate need of a new “style” of architecture and proposed “buildings of the earth not on it” as an opportunity, evoking Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian design style.  

By awarding me the Gold Medal this year, the AIA forced the issue of architecture and style into the open, recognizing that we’re transitioning toward an “Architecture of the Earth” – not just as a style, but as substance and actions – integrating existing and new architecture with the Earth’s systems, renewable resources, and energy, while protecting the planet's ecosystems and biodiversity. 

KG: Some architects still balk at transitioning toward a climate-responsive “architecture of the Earth.” They say, “clients aren’t asking for it,” or “it costs more.” This is despite the fact that clients are increasingly demanding solutions that address climate and resilience factors, that the AIA Code of Ethics requires practitioners to address climate with clients, and that projects and communities face increasingly clear, costly, climate-related risks? How do you respond?    

EM: That response is a red herring, a deflection, a way to abdicate responsibility. Look, change is not easy, it requires work, education, retooling, and ... it can be threatening. There are no “additional costs” to designing responsibly. Architects have almost total design flexibility as long as a client’s programmatic requirements are met and the project is brought in on-budget.  

During design, architects influence and make hundreds of decisions – siting and landscapes, building shape, orientation, location and size of fenestrations, spatial configurations, circulation patterns, structural and enclosure materials, finishes and systems, and even whether an existing building is saved and renovated or replaced  – and each has environmental and cost implications. We control and are continually trading off design and cost options.  

During 50 years of architectural practice, I’ve never heard a client say they wanted an inefficient building that costs more to operate and damages the environment.  

KG: From your perspective, how is AIA 2030 Commitment progressing? WIth 822 signatory firms, many of them responsible for significant square footage, where do we stand?  

EM: The comment we hear is that “just 27 firms met the 70% energy-reduction benchmark set forth by the AIA 2030 Commitment.” This is not correct! Why? Because the 2030 Challenge 70% reduction benchmark is not an energy reduction but a fossil-fuel reduction -- and there is a big difference. 

To explain, the 2019 AIA 2030 Commitment Report details a 49% average energy use intensity (EUI) reduction--the actual energy a building uses regardless of the source – for buildings reported to the AIA that year. For these projects, most of the energy and emissions decisions were made in the early stages of design. The buildings tabulated in the 2019 report were designed for their energy consumption and emissions in 2017 to 2015, or even earlier. 

The 2030 Commitment called for a 60% fossil fuel reduction prior to 2015 and 70% from 2015 to 2020, with the reduction accomplished by energy efficiency (measured by building EUI) and by adding onsite and/or off-site renewable energy (up to 20% of the total reduction). This means that to meet the 2030 Challenge targets, a building's EUI would need to have a minimum 48% reduction from baseline if designed before 2015, and 56% if designed after that, with the remaining fossil fuel reduction coming from renewable energy.   

So, in fact, the average 49% EUI reduction of buildings reported in the 2019 report is an incredibly encouraging sign and is why the U.S. building sector’s emissions reduction today is so promising.  

KG: What should architects be doing at the local level to ensure that our sector, the built environment, meets the 1.5 degree C targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement -- on embodied carbon, building decarbonization, codes, or other things? 

EM: The architecture community, both individually and through their national, local and state chapters, has considerable influence and can promote and advocate for low to zero carbon policies, zoning ordinances and building codes.  

For example, building energy codes regulate all new building designs. The AIA, with the support of Architecture 2030, successfully introduced the Zero Code Renewable Energy Appendix (a zero-carbon commercial building code standard) as part of the 2021 IECC. With many states and local jurisdictions on the IECC code system, local chapters and firms can, and are now, promoting its adoption.  

With support from the architecture community, New York State and New Jersey have proposed legislation to increase the competitiveness of low carbon concrete, through a discount rate for bids on state and state-funded construction projects – basically promoting a race to zero carbon concrete. 

If the states can do it, so can the architecture and development community through the bidding process and their specifications – requiring approved LCAs on high-embodied carbon products and discounting the bid price for the lowest carbon material in that category. A small discount on a product bid price, which is a small percentage of total building construction cost, is a negligible project cost increase, but the dividends in embodied carbon reductions can have a huge impact on that industry. We are now working to develop specification and bidding language for the private sector.  

We can also promote infill, repurposing and renovation, instead of sprawl, tear-down and rebuilding when possible. And as important, firms can sign on to the AIA 2030 Commitment and design to meet or exceed its targets.  

KG: How do you advise architects who are exploring the role that climate justice plays in climate action?  

EM: We know that fossil fuel emissions and climate change impacts have a disproportionate effect on low-income and underserved communities, which have also been hit the hardest by COVID-19.  With few options and limited resources, they must contend with heat waves and heat-related occupational illness, climate hazards and air pollution, and displacement from flooding, fires, drought, and other natural disasters. These impacts will only deepen and exacerbate current injustice if the root cause of climate change is not immediately addressed.  

Tackling emissions is critical to seeking a healthy, equitable future for all. Our opportunity to slow emissions and then reverse warming is right now -- it requires urgent and sustained action.  

KG: What is your position on the climate world's slogan, "net zero is not zero" and their effort to downplay offsetting as a solution (on the theory that people will always do the least they can rather than the most they might)? 

EM: A “zero-net” or “net-zero” carbon (ZNC) building definition was established just after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement as: “the balance achieved when an equivalent unit of carbon-free renewable energy is produced (on or off-site) to offset each unit of fossil fuel energy used by a building.” The “net” balance of carbon-free energy provided a path to achieve ZNC for buildings and developments that use some form of fossil fuel energy or are unable to produce sufficient renewable energy on-site.  

However, today, we have a remaining global CO2 emissions budget of approximately 340 GtCO2 to retain a 67% chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5oC target and avert the most dangerous aspects of climate change. To stay within this budget, we must rapidly reduce and phase out all global fossil fuel carbon emissions by 2040. 

Put simply, we must now design and renovate all buildings to “zero carbon” operations standards – or buildings with no on-site fossil fuel combustion that produce on-site, or procure, only carbon-free renewable energy.  


Edward Mazria, FAIA, Hon. FAICP, is an internationally recognized architect, author, researcher, and educator. Over the past decade, his seminal research into the sustainability, resilience, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions of the built environment has redefined the role of architecture, planning, design, and building, in reshaping our world. He is the founder of Architecture 2030, a think tank developing real-world solutions for 21st century problems, and host of the AIA+2030 Professional Education Series.  

Kira Gould, Allied AIA, LEED AP, is a writer, strategist, and convener dedicated to advancing design leadership, climate action, and climate justice. Through Kira Gould CONNECT, she provides strategic communications for firms and leaders working in these areas. She is a Senior Fellow with Architecture 2030 and serves on the AIA Committee on the Environment national leadership group (and was chair in 2007). Kira co-authored Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007), and is co-host of the Design the Future / Women in Sustainability podcast with Lindsay Baker.  

 photo c Jamey Stillings, courtesy Architecture 2030