Rethinking the energy tribute of our buildings, before that energy kills us
Architecture 2030’s quest for zero-net energy buildings
by Allen Best
In 2006, when Edward Mazria issued his challenge to fellow architects and others involved in the building industry, the energy future looked grim.
The year before, the national task force overseen by Vice President Dick Cheney had issued a report that envisioned rapidly expanded electrical demand that would be met by a proliferation of new power plants, as many as 1,900 altogether in coming decades, most of them burning coal. Many were to be in the West.
Atmospheric accumulations of carbon dioxide were racing toward 400 parts per million, well on the way toward the mark that many scientists had already established as a threat to climate stability. Buildings use nearly half of all energy, and the estimated total energy use in 2005 was 40 quadrillion Btu. Looking forward, the U.S. Department of Energy projected total demand of 56 quadrillion Btu in the next quarter-century.
Then, something didn’t happen. Instead of rapidly increasing demand, it flattened. In a succession of forecasts, the Energy Information Administration has steadily bent the projected demand curve from something that looks like a mountainside to a future energy demand that looks more like the Great Plains. The recession is part of the story, but so has improved energy efficiency.
“It’s essentially flat, business as usual,” said Mazria at a conference in Denver called the Getting to Zero National Forum.
From the perspective of 2006, this is a significant success. But when Mazria formed Architecture 2030, his goal was far greater than just business as usual. He wanted to persuade fellow architects, engineers and developers to radically rethink how buildings are conceived. Buildings, he insists, can be net-zero in their energy needs for operations of heating, cooling and electrical use.
In a sense, this is the life work of Mazria, who operates from a headquarters in Santa Fe. In 1979, he published what remains a seminal book about passive solar construction. The fundamental idea of passive solar is that design and construction can dramatically reduce need for imported energy.
Despite the gains since 2006, Mazria points to dangerous times. If the continued development of fossil fuels continues, the climate almost certainly will be destabilized in ways harmful to human existence. In his speech, Mazria showed slides that depict the burning of coal, natural gas and oil that have pushed the global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 400 parts per million. Then he showed charts of the repercussions of burning the coal, natural gas and oil now within the theoretical reach of technology. They would push the global atmospheric concentrations to 850 ppm.
“If we extend business as usual, this is where we’re going,” he said. Fossil fuels can only be burned through carbon capture and sequestration or not at all. Some industries – he didn’t specify, but I think you can infer the coal-mining sector — want to test the projections of climate scientists about climate stability by continuing to burn fossil fuels, but it’s a path laden with risk. “Once we go that route, there’s no turning back,” he said.
Instead, Mazria sees building design and energy technology being able to dramatically reduce demand, perhaps by 75 percent.
He sees a dramatic pace of construction and redevelopment of buildings around the world: 900 billion square feet altogether by 2030. “Let me put that into perspective: 900 billion square feet is an area equal to 60 percent of the entire building stock of the world. That is how much we will build by 2030. We will essentially rebuild the world in the next two decades. That is a huge opportunity if we do it right.”
Where will that building occur? Architecture 2030 thinks 9 percent will be in the Middle East, another 9 percent in Latin America, and then 9 percent more in India. Other emerging economies, mostly in Southeast Asia, will be responsible for another 12 percent.
But the big work will be in the United States and Canada, with 15 percent of global construction. “And of course, we all know about China, about 38 percent,” he said.
That, he added, means 53 percent of all global building will be in China, the United States or Canada.
“What that means is what we do here in the United States matters. What happens in the US and China affects what happens all over the world, because we are building out a majority of the global built environment. In order to meet the challenge of the scientific community, we need to get there (to net zero energy building) and get there quickly.”
Mazria’s target has been adopted by three-quarters of the top architecture and engineering firms of the world and, more broadly, an estimated 52 percent of all architectural firms. Many of the big firms work not just in the United States, but also in China.
Having arrived in Denver after a trip to China, Mazria testified that the Chinese “are very aware of their situation.” He showed a photo taken from his hotel room on what appeared to be a dark, drizzly or foggy day. The insinuation was that it was from pollution caused by coal-fired electrical generation.
Despite the dreary view in China, those who advocate a dramatic rethinking of our built environment expressed frequent optimism during speeches at the conference. The most significant trend is a bottoms-up, private-sector creation of net-zero energy districts.
It started in Seattle and has expanded to projects in Cleveland, Pittsburg and Los Angeles, with one in Denver soon to be launched. Another 12 districts are in the planning stages. The private-sector energy districts represent efforts in smaller areas within cities to remake themselves to use dramatically less energy and employ renewable energy, resulting in net-zero energy use. They would still be connected to the grid.
This concept is also taking root in Fort Collins, Colo., one of the more interesting, forward-thinking communities in this energy transition. See this story.
Also a boost to net-zero energy work are policies in California, which is seeking to achieve “zero-net energy” for residential buildings by 2020 and for commercial buildings by 2030.
Doesn’t this cost a lot? That’s the usual criticism of low-energy building, but Mazria will havenone of it. He laid out the numbers for a single-family home of 2,200 square feet. Using standard construction techniques, the house costs $250,000. Using zero-net energy design and technology, it costs $280,000. But with just a small increase in the down payment on the zero-net energy house, the monthly costs for mortgage and energy for that house will actually be slightly less than for the traditional model. Architecture 2030 found this to be true in all 50 states, he said.
Mazria also argued for a different perspective on how energy efficiency and renewable energy are considered in building budgets.
“I have never heard anyone say, ‘What is the payback on the carpet? What is the payback on the sheetrock? You can’t use the sheetrock unless it has a payback of three years.”
After 40 years as an architect, he said, he has never once had a client say that “I don’t want to save any money on a monthly basis and I want this building to cost a fortune as long as you build it on budget.”
Further, what is the cost of burning gas, of burning coal? he asked. “What is cost in terms of emphysema, in asthma, in premature deaths?”
And, of course, the cost of a destabilized climate is beyond calculation.
About the conference: The Getting to Zero National Forum comprised the last two days of a three-day annual conference of the National Association of State Energy Officials and the New Buildings Institute. Architecture 2030 has many resources on its websites, but a good illustration of the opportunities is illustrated in a slide show.