Designing Down Demand | Environment | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Designing Down Demand

"We cannot supply our way out of the issue."

When energy usage is discussed in terms of climate change, most people frame the problem as one of supply: How can we possibly produce enough clean energy for billions of people at current usage rates?

Ed Mazria, by contrast, emphasizes this simple answer: We can't. Fossil fuels, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures, now supply 83 percent of the world's energy — a percentage barely expected to decline by 2030, when we'll be using one-third more energy than now. Even if renewables like wind and solar grow twice as fast as predicted, it would barely slow the burning of oil, coal and gas that's raising sea levels and playing havoc with the climate.

"We cannot supply our way out of the issue," says Mazria. "On the demand side is where the opportunity really exists."

Mazria is the veteran Santa Fe, N.M.-based architect who founded the 2030 Challenge. Its goal is to halve energy and water use in the built environment by 2030, and to assure that by then all new buildings will be "carbon-neutral." That doesn't mean living in cold, dark rooms. Indeed, planners, architects and designers are already creating structures that actually improve quality of life while still reducing demand — by enough, one hopes, to eventually phase out fossil fuels.

Pittsburgh, which last week hosted the inaugural 2030 Districts Summit, boasts one of just four 2030 Districts. Among voluntary local efforts to reduce consumption — through better air-sealing, wise use of daylight, more efficient equipment, etc. — the 2030 District stands out for its ambitious, quantified target. Pittsburgh's year-old district, administered by the Green Building Alliance, includes 100 buildings and more than half the square footage in its central business district; participants include PNC, Alcoa, Highmark and the City of Pittsburgh.

Mazria, who spoke at the summit, says big ambition is necessary. The 2030 Challenge arose after Mazrie learned that — SUVs notwithstanding — buildings are responsible for nearly half our energy use. (Most of that goes to heating and cooling spaces; 77 percent of electricity usage also occurs in buildings.) A galvanizing 2003 cover story in Metropolis magazine, headlined "Architects Pollute," was followed in 2006 by the 2030 Challenge.

The Challenge is distinct from the well-publicized LEED system for certifying so-called "green buildings," only the highest-rated of which meet 2030 standards. Mazria was shocked by how quickly his idea spread. More than half of all architecture firms have now accepted the 2030 Challenge, as has an even higher percentage of the very largest firms, including global names like HOK and Perkins + Will. Last week's summit hosted representatives from a dozen North American cities hoping to join Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Seattle and Cleveland with their own 2030 Districts.

Mazrie says that the big motivator here — aside from saving the planet — is saving on utility bills. He contends a good architect can usually achieve those future savings within a client's construction budget.

Energy use in the U.S. has leveled off in recent years, though much of that's due to the recession. However, to meet the Challenge, Mazria says, everybody must join in: By 2030, the U.N. projects the world will add or renovate 900 billion square feet of building space — 38 percent of that in China. All of it needs to be high-performing. It would help if more governments emulated California's, where new residences must be net-zero energy-users by 2020, and new commercial buildings by 2030.

Allegheny County's government manages some 1.8 million square feet of space in Pittsburgh's 2030 District. When the county joined the District, it was three years into its own green overhaul — doing stuff like replacing 400 inefficient old window-unit air-conditioners and installing low-flow water fixtures at the county jail. County sustainability manager Jeaneen Zappa says the county also urges employees to share printers, unplug unused electrical devices and simply turn out the lights.

By year's end, the county hopes to have cut energy and water usage by 20 percent from 2008 levels. That's county-wide, not just in the 2030 District. But Zappa says the District's 50 percent reduction goal is almost as as good a motivator as saving money: "It complements what we're [already] doing, but it pushes us for a higher bar."

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