The 2030 Challenge

Ed Mazria came to town earlier this fall sponsored by GBA with a presentation on the 2030 Challenge. It was an exhilarating presentation put forward with great skill by the man who has been a leader behind energy conservation and the use of passive strategies for many decades now. Ed Mazria authored the Passive Solar Energy Book, the bible for many of us in the early 1980's who were interested in energy conservation. Many have determined the early "passive solar" movement to be a complete and utter failure. The houses looked like space ships, had enormous walls of south facing glass and many of them over-heated. It was a movement that was quickly relegated to the "hippies" of the time and failed to become mainstream. Making the judgment that the movement was a failure is grossly inaccurate. Mazria and others like him, such as G.Z. Brown in Sun, Wind, and Light, made us realize the wisdom that older architecture possessed, and that most architect's practicing in the era of complex HVAC systems had lost. It focused us on PASSIVE means to heat and cool our buildings, and emphasized the importance of building orientation and daylighting. They were the stepping-stones to where we are today and the basis upon which the idea of Passive House began.

Given this history, it was particularly startling to see Ed Mazria in front of charts and graphs showing us that the way out of the energy dilemma in our urban cores is to upgrade all of the HVAC equipment to more energy efficient models. Perhaps this is just an aberration of the Pittsburgh lecture, but the focus on other relevant issues was conspicuously absent. The 2030 challenge has caught fire and one can only be struck by the certainty that it must relate to Ed's charismatic, energizing, and positive outlook on the answers to climate change. Ed's team has made projections that show that HVAC retrofits will reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2030 over millions of square feet of office and commercial space. Of course, it is possible in projections and calculations such as these that there is the possibility for wild inaccuracy. The momentum of the 2030 Challenge is impressive and needs to be taken advantage of, but at the same time it is important to redefine the message.

While the impact and significance of upgrading equipment needs to be underscored, there are other equally important issues that need to be considered in order to really maximize carbon reduction. If architects just focus on the mechanical systems and leave out the discussion of the potential for savings with the envelope, we have all missed the boat. In buildings that are just receiving a mechanical upgrade then simply swapping equipment out for more efficient equipment makes sense but if a deeper retrofit is warranted then focusing on the envelope is key. Questions about the wisdom of all glass skins for buildings are important to ask. The Passive House movement that is just catching on in the US is a perfect segue into this idea. There are many commercial buildings in Europe that have been designed to this standard; it is not for residential architecture alone. Attention to the envelope allows for smaller sized equipment and energy derived using passive methods. Using these two methods together, along with addressing the issue of plug loads, buildings can easily approach zero energy use and that is really the most sustainable path we can take.