Ed Mazria’s Master Class

Ed Mazria, known to American architects for his 2030 Challenge to clean up the environment through sustainable practices, recently joined select members of the DLR Group at the Island Wood campus on Bainbridge Island, Washington to help them design a fictional middle school. Six different designs would be proposed to suit six different locales in an exercise that was part of the architecture firm’s annual company-wide educational retreat, focused this year on building skills to pursue the 2030 reduction targets. My interest piqued by the opportunity to watch Mazria in his designer’s role, I ferried to the island from Seattle one early morning to take in the day’s events.

In preparation for the session DLR’s six project teams went through a goal-setting charrette.  Mazria entered the first team’s room and perched quietly on a stool, chin in hand, listening, absorbing. With his relaxed, professorial air (he spent years teaching at the University of Oregon), he offered project-specific advice — in the hot, dry Phoenix climate, are you considering natural ventilation?  In response to the team’s use of Ecotect Weather Tool, which employs climate-specific data to generate their building’s optimal orientation, Mazria cautioned them about taking generalized recommendations “too literally.”  Instead, he said, “You can still do different things,” adding, “You can bring in daylight from the roof. You can break the structure into smaller parts.”  Like an enthusiastic student, this veteran architect took visible pleasure in the design process as he watched his suggestions adapt and change in the hands of the DLR staff.

Working with another DLR group, which had concluded their initial charrette quickly and were already debating such specifics as energy-saving strategies, Mazria began to question assumptions, though he mostly refrained from commenting,  explaining his reticence later. He said he recognized that the group was already committed to their decisions, so they’d have trouble adapting his suggestions easily. The experience, he said, “confirms what I thought about how architects work,” meaning that the first 3D image may be developed from incomplete information. To  help remedy this basic flaw in the process, Mazria’s non-profit organization is developing tools to increase the starting vocabulary of solutions that designers can draw from, and encourage them to commit to efficiency and energy reduction at the earliest stage, when they have the most creative control.

In addition to taking specific advice about the fictional school, DLR team members were curious to hear how Mazria conveys his passion for sustainable building to clients, since an owner’s budget and risk tolerance often determine whether a certain technology or material makes the final cut. His answer was slightly pat: In 35 years of practice, he said, “No client has ever asked me to design an inefficient building.” He challenged designers to be more assertive and to make energy efficiency their status quo, adjusting other variables as necessary to stay within budget without compromising on the ultimate goal to reduce waste.

Few set a more sincere example of the designer-as-advocate persona than Mazria. His assertive approach is undoubtedly a necessary weapon for the massive change we need in response to climate change. Still, I suspect, there’s some disconnect between 2030-as-vision and practicing designers’ faith in its practical application. One exchange, in particular, stands out in my mind: a team member, conceding to add a specific solar shading technology to his group’s design, muttered half-jokingly, “well … cost is no object [in this assignment], so we’ll go for it.”

Ultimately, however, this exercise with Mazria was about the process of analyzing a site and devising the most elegant solution to formal, functional, and environmental realities. DLR’s upper management expressed hope that this experience will help turn the 60 participants – all previously well-versed in sustainable design – into catalysts at their 22 home offices; that each local team will be able to push the envelope further in the direction of the firm’s 2030 commitments and, ideally, to win both colleagues and clients to their side in the process.

Julia Levitt, Julia.v.levitt@gmail.com,  a Seattle-based journalist specializing in building and design topics, is the former managing editor for the nonprofit media organization Worldchanging.com . She is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Real Estate at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.

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