Architects Finding New Life in Carbon-Neutral Building

Architecture is always finding itself.  From the Romans to the Renaissance, and from Wright to what used to be Modern – it’s always “Towards a New Architecture.”  Great architecture is far more than fashion, but in recent times, surface trends with wincing names like “Post-Modernism” were casting desperately for that old spark.  Well, it’s back – to stay.  Carbon-neutral building will drive architecture increasingly into the future, fired by a purpose deeper and more acute than ever before — the preservation of civilization itself.

Edward Mazria, (Photo Credit: USGBC Colorado)

Sure, this sounds grandiose, but architects rarely shrink from big ideas – least of all Edward Mazria, who will deliver a plenary at WREF2012 on Tuesday morning, May 15th.  He is the founding father of Architecture 2030, a truly big idea that beats a path to carbon neutrality in the building sector by 2030.  In his lectures, Mazria traces the history of architects as utopian dreamers, driving and driven by their times; leading us into the carbon trap, and leading us out of it.   While he condemns architectural contributions to climate change (almost half of US emissions,) he also praises the purity of purpose that drives architects to the front of the fray in finding solutions.  Carbon-neutral building is a complex game of give and take – of deep energy use reduction followed up by renewable energy supply.  Almost three-quarters of the 30 largest US architecture and engineering firms have taken up the 2030 Challenge, and many are already sending in data to support their 2030 commitments.  Deployed on the community scale, the solution quickly takes on utopian proportions:  Cities and states have taken the Challenge, and whole downtown districts are engaging property owners and tenants in the process of reaching carbon neutrality in the existing urban fabric.  Architects are ambidextrous problem-solvers — cracking technical problems with the one hand while artfully weaving environments where we can live happily with ourselves in an increasingly crowded world.

Lincoln Hall school renovation, Portland 2030 Challenge Design Awards (Photo Credit: Boora Architects)
Lincoln Hall school renovation, Portland 2030 Challenge Design Awards (Photo Credit: Boora Architects)

Mazria keeps his ear to the tracks; reads the clouds like a weatherman.  When I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago, he was brimming with the tacit recognition political powers are already giving to climate change by massing their military interests in the loosening arctic trade routes, and he was forecasting the shifting fortunes of nations relative to their exposed coastlines.  He cited cause for hope:  that our now 392 ppm CO2 can return to a safe 350 if we stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and learn to run ourselves and our buildings on the ambient energy that has been sufficient for millennia to run all other life.

Architects, says Mazria, are “predisposed to do the right thing.”  In a profession usually entered for idealistic reasons (certainly not for the money!), and now seeing one of the highest rates of unemployment, the drive towards clean energy in the building sector is an issue of survival as much as of purpose.  When he takes the podium at WREF, Mazria will make the case that carbon-neutrality is an issue of survival for all of us – but he will unveil new strategies, and new places, where architects are leading the way.

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