This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Metropolis cover story that launched Edward Mazria’s career as a climate and environmental activist. The blunt and glaring cover—designed by Pentagram’s D.J. Stout and commissioned by Criswell Lappin—showed a rolled-up set of architecture plans shaped like a smokestack and billowing black smoke, with the accompanying headline “Architects Pollute”. The idea that buildings, and by extension the architects who designed them, were somehow environmentally culpable is pretty much accepted wisdom now. Two decades ago, however, the connection between architecture and climate change wasn’t as clear cut. And that urgent message kickstarted the green building movement and ignited the field. As then–executive editor at Metropolis, I played a small role in helping to make this groundbreaking article happen. To talk about how it happened, where we are now, and where we’re going, I talked to Susan Szenasy, former editor in chief of Metropolis, and Mazria.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
EM: Edward Mazria
SS: Susan Szenasy
Ed, it’s the 20th anniversary of the Metropolis story. Do you remember how it happened?
It started by me cold-calling Metropolis magazine and asking for Susan.
I was on one of my trips. I wasn’t there when you called.
So I said, “Who should I talk to?” The receptionist said, “Martin Pedersen.” So they put me through to you. And because I knew no one was going to believe it, I asked you a question: “What’s the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions?”
And I guessed … industry or transportation?
You said the internal combustion engine.
Not a terrible guess.
“No,” I said, “It’s architecture.” You were skeptical. “It’s architecture,” I said, “and we want to write an article about it.” You said, “Well, let me think about that.” And so I sent you all the data I had, and you called back a few days later and said it checked out.
I knew almost immediately that Ed’s data had the potential to recharge the dialogue.
You were putting the story on the cover before I’d even set up the story.
Ed’s stroke of genius was redrawing the U.S. pie chart, including all the energy used to build, heat, light, and cool buildings, into a single Building Sector Category.
Which, astoundingly, accounted for almost half of all CO2 emissions.
Once I got you interested, I said, “OK, we want to write the article.” You said, “No, we don’t take articles, we write the articles.” I said, “Well, I don’t think that’s gonna work.” And we left it at that. Then you called back a few days later and said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ve got a great writer. We’ll send him out to New Mexico, and you can sit with him for as long as you want. Make sure he gets everything right. He’ll write the article.” And you sent Chris Hawthorne out, and he spent three days with me at my house. We meticulously reviewed everything. He was incredible. After he drafted the article I called and said, “OK, we need to publish right away, because we gotta get this information out. Can we get it out next month? … Oh, and we want the cover, too.” You said, “No, we can’t do that. We have our covers, stories, everything all set a few months in advance. But I can give you October.”
Initially, Susan got a lot of blowback from architects, who were angered by the cover’s blunt message.
I had a lot of fingers wagged in my face, by architects who took grave offense.
Right after the issue came out, I called the AIA. They were having a board meeting in Santa Fe, and I asked to be put on the agenda, but my request was denied. The meeting was held at a local hotel, and I remember a few architects walking in with the Metropolis in tow. Many years later, I got a call from Thom Penny, who was the chair of the board at that time. He said, “I was on the board, and I remember you calling, asking to present to us, and we didn’t invite you. It’s been nagging at me ever since. I’d like to nominate you for the Gold Medal.”
By December 2005, we refined the data and issued the 2030 Challenge targets. And almost immediately, the AIA adopted them, which was amazing for an organization of that size to move that quickly. At first, I had one member in our practice working with me on research, Quilian Riano, now the dean at Pratt Institute. Once the AIA adopted the Challenge, things escalated very quickly. We were spending an enormous amount of pro bono time in our architecture practice researching, writing, developing, and presenting new material and information. Around that time, Rockefeller Brothers Fund came across our work at a conference and extended an offer to support us in order to expand our team. In late 2005, we decided to spin off Architecture 2030 from our practice and establish it as a nonprofit organization.
Let’s fast-forward. Where are we now? The green building movement started in the ’70s with the passive solar movement, died down during the Reagan years, picked up again in earnest in the ’90s with the Rio Summit and the founding of the USGBC. The Metropolis story in 2003 gave a sense of urgency to the issue. But here we are in 2023. Where are we?
I was just looking at that. As I was going through the issue, I came across an equation that projected if the following steps were implemented and 20% of the country’s energy is produced by renewable sources within 20 years, then energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector would flatten out and reverse. The grid right now is at 20% renewables; energy consumption in the sector is down slightly, and emissions in the sector are down over 30% from 2005 levels.
Where are all the other emissions coming from then? Because total emissions aren’t down.
Total CO2 emissions in the U.S., including industry and transportation, are down about 19% from 2005 levels. Although emissions in many countries are also declining, emissions globally still continue to rise.
As a result we really need to look deeper. When we’re talking about building performance, that’s a fairly easy metric to track, and even to attack, because you’re lowering energy use. It’s a lot more complicated with embodied carbon.
Yes and no. There are millions of materials involved in various stages of the production and the lifecycle of buildings and infrastructure. This encompasses mining and transporting raw materials, handling and storing them, manufacturing them into finished products, storing and transporting those products, constructing buildings and infrastructure, and, eventually, their demolition and disposal. It borders on mind-boggling. So the yes part of the answer is very complex.
But here’s the no part: only four materials—iron, steel, concrete, and aluminum—are responsible for almost half of all direct industrial emissions … half, so if we address those four, not only will it buy us time to tackle the hundreds of thousands of other materials, but it will also put pressure on manufacturers to transform their businesses. We say, in the immediate term, focus on those and the problem becomes simplified. And we’re beginning to see a rising availability of alternatives such as bio-based materials and mass timber. So the critical 20-year period we outlined in the article appears to have materialized.
The materials you just talked about are still the industrially produced raw materials. Getting a handle on those is great. But how do we break out of the industrial paradigm completely and connect our buildings to the earth? Do you see attitudes changing around these issues?
Yes, we’re collaborating with landscape architects to lead the exact transition you mention—shifting towards nature-based solutions instead of high-emissions hardscapes and materials. The concept of nature-based solutions has evolved significantly since the passive solar movement in the ’70s. While that movement laid the foundation for harnessing the power of nature in design, our understanding of nature-based solutions have advanced considerably since then.
Let me step back for a second. Susan and I conducted a symposium years ago with James Hansen. I was seated next to him while you handled the microphone. During someone else’s presentation, I nudged Hansen and asked, “Jim, when will we begin witnessing the effects of climate change?” This was shortly after the article was published. He whispered back to me, “Once the planet warms by 1 degree Celsius, we will start seeing the effects.” We have now reached that threshold, currently at around 1.02 degrees, and we are indeed witnessing the effects of climate change. How will we mitigate and adapt to all of this? Continuing to pour more carbon intensive concrete is not the solution. The most effective solutions lie in embracing nature-based approaches.
At Architecture 2030, we consider ourselves a catalyst organization. We initiate ideas and strategies, and once they take root, larger organizations step in and work with us to drive them forward. For example, years ago we developed the Zero Code and worked to incorporate it as part of the International Energy Conservation Code. At the time we faced resistance within the organizations we typically collaborate with. However, today we see great progress with cities and states adopting zero-carbon building standards, and the Biden administration is currently supporting zero codes and developing a common zero-carbon building framework. In an upcoming conference where I will be speaking, my focus will be on coexisting and interfacing with the natural environment. Similar to how the October 2003 piece marked a paradigm shift in our sector, we’re actively advancing the promotion of the integration of built and natural environments, their interdependence, adaptability and resilience. This is the direction we’re promoting.
There’s a lot of cross-disciplinary learning going on now in the architecture schools. So I think we’re developing a new ethic, a new aesthetic. What do you see there that’s possible?
I am actively delivering talks to numerous schools, students, and academics in the fields of architecture, design, and planning, working to disseminate this new ethic as widely as possible. Recently I ran across exactly what you describe: the 2030 Project at Cornell, an interdisciplinary collaboration bringing together faculty members from diverse departments that transcends traditional boundaries and silos. These types of collaborations in design education are essential in addressing today’s complex issues.
Increasingly, many of the collaborations involve landscape architects, which bodes well for nature-based solutions.
Which is good, but it’s just the beginning.
From my perspective, landscape architects play a pivotal role in shaping viable solutions for the interplay of built and natural environments.
Featured image: October 2003, Metropolis cover story spread, designed by Criswell Lappin, via Architecture 2030.