Architect Saves the Planet

By Michael Shilale, AIA, LEED - September 22, 2005


After hearing Ed Mazria's remarks at the AIA NYS convention in Syracuse, I imagined a future news story with this title.  I immediately telephoned my wife to advise her that although she had not married Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk or Superman her husband can possibly save the world.  She promptly reminded me, that upon my return I should first take out the trash before explaining to her the details of my plan.  The AIA Central NY Chapter as well as the AIA NYS office should be commended on the quality of the programs, general sessions, tours and design awards presentation.  For architects of any timbre, so much was available to inform, illuminate and inspire. 

Ed Mazria's presentation warned of the collision course our planet is on due to its reliance of fossil fuels  with the resulting production of carbon dioxide.  Scenarios projected a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature by the year 2050, with a 3-degree increase by 2075.  Environmental effects would be devastating.  Rising sea levels, melting of our Greenland ice shelf, disappearing coral reef, and a significant loss of species would result.  However, Ed's doom and gloom story can have a happy ending.  We were told that almost 50% of the world's CO2  production comes from buildings, the rest is split almost evenly between industry & transportation.  By the year 2035 it is surmised that over 75% of our building stock will be new or substantially renovated.  We have a chance to rethink the way we design and build the primary culprits of our global demise.  Ed says it is possible to create buildings that are carbon neutral - absolutely no carbon dioxide production.  He presented two conservatories he recently designed, both with no HVAC systems.  Architects were awed by the ability to create an all glass building with no provision for heating or cooling.  HVAC Systems were designed for the first conservatory only because the client, like most of us, did not believe this was possible.  After one year of successful performance the client was convinced. 
The science can be disputed.  The Kyoto Accord, with its 10 and 20 percent reductions fall short of what is necessary, especially with the exemption for pre-industrial nations to pollute at will.  The industrialized nations, including the US does need to reduce CO2 emissions more drastically than presently discussed.  We also need to educate, and assist the pre-industrial nationals so that they not make the same mistakes we made.  Even if the science is off, there is no disputing the limitations of our fossil fuel supply. 
Saturday's closing luncheon was titled the Role of Architects Building Sustainable Cities.  It highlighted the success of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Recently acknowledged for its transformation to a "greener", more sustainable and livable city, Honolulu was on a path to self-destruction.  Mayor Jeremy Harris, AIA told the ironic tale of how an island of pristine natural beauty was destroying the very element that made it so popular.  Designing for people rather than vehicles and allowing higher density, and spot zoning in some places so that other areas can remain undeveloped are some of the secrets of Honolulu's success.  All in all the conference helped me feel good again about being an architect.  Even if I can't convince my wife of the potential of my profession, I am happy that my new hybrid SUV emits half the CO2 as my old vehicle and the improved gas mileage doesn't hurt either.