On December 19, 2007, President Bush signed into law a sweeping energy bill that, among other things, handed down the stiffest green-building standards in U.S. government history. It was heralded in the popular press as a momentous leap forward: “From Bulbs to Cars, This Bill Will Change Your Life,” the Houston Chronicle crowed. “More than we’ve ever done,” effused a Democratic senator to Newsweek.com. And from the New York Times: “Its passage is one of the largest steps on energy the nation has taken since the oil crises of the 1970s.” Going by the articles, you’d think Bush approved the environmental equivalent of universal health care.
So why hasn’t Ed Mazria—the New Mexico architect who propelled the bill’s green-building regulations to the fore—declared victory? Five years ago Mazria floated the seemingly incredible notion that the nation’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter isn’t transportation or industry; it’s the building sector. Before long, he and a cohort of fellow architects were hawking statistics on Capitol Hill. The legislation that resulted requires federal facilities to eliminate carbon emissions by 2030, regulates home appliances, and offers some financial incentives for sustainable design. (Not even Al Gore can claim such rapid headway.) Still, Mazria says, these provisions represent a sliver of what could have been. Bowing to political pressure, congressional leaders scotched key language that would have slashed dependence on fossil fuels, though they managed to improve energy conservation in public and private buildings. “The building sector is the 800-pound gorilla in the closet you have to deal with,” Mazria says. “We’re moving quickly, but we still have a long way to go.” The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, as it was optimistically dubbed, was in-deed the nation’s largest step on energy since the 1970s and the largest step on green building ever. Maybe that was part of the problem.
The bill was a political football from the outset. Introduced in January 2007, after Democrats swept the House, it was a thin attempt to address national energy consumption, a sort of postelection victory dance in which Speaker Nancy Pelosi made good on vows to hammer through six bills during her party’s first 100 hours in power. Though more symbolic gesture than feasible legislation, the bill gathered momentum, drawing out lobbyists that spanned dozens of industries, from oil to solar, all claiming a stake.
Architecture was no exception. A few years earlier Mazria, who is 67 and an elder statesman of the sustainable-design movement, had made the startling discovery that the U.S. building sector is responsible for 76 percent of national electricity consumption, 48 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, and about 10 percent of worldwide greenhouse gases—the rough equivalent of emissions from all sectors in France, Japan, Canada, and Great Britain combined. Mazria quickly set about publicizing architecture’s epic contribution to global warming. In 2004 he offered to speak at the American Institute of Architects’ convention, but they declined. The following year his nonprofit advocacy group issued the 2030 Challenge, which calls on new and renovated buildings to eliminate fossil-fuel emissions by 2030. That December the 80,000-plus-member AIA adopted the challenge, and less than two years later, it was on the lips of D.C.’s top Democratic brass. Meanwhile, the AIA deployed some 800 architects to meet with members of Congress, who took heed. In March, Hillary Clinton became the first public official to insert the 2030 Challenge into a federal bill. Only later did things get complicated.
By fall, the House and Senate had passed radically different energy bills. The House wanted to raise fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks; the Senate wanted power plants to generate renewable energy. No reconciliation was in sight. Three months and some 300 meetings passed before the houses grudgingly reached an agreement.
What the bill didn’t include is a classic tale of failed political will. Its broad reach may have forced the sort of compromises that defang many progressive agendas. “There was a lot of reluctance among Republicans to play ball because they didn’t want Democrats to score a victory on climate change,” says Thomas Bergan, AIA program manager for federal legislative affairs. “What can I say? Politics is ugly. It’s like watching sausage get made.”
As for the building industry, one scratched provision would have set a benchmark for all public, private, commercial, and residential structures to meet targets of the 2030 Challenge. Though nonbinding, it would have required regions to at least consider strengthening building codes or offer excuses why they couldn’t. Senator Pete Domenici (a Republican from New Mexico), who boasted the Senate’s worst environmental record in 2006 ac-cording to Republicans for Environmental Protection, reportedly nixed the provision early on because it seemed too difficult to implement. Another proposal sought to mandate that at least 15 percent of utility companies’ energy be renewable, whether solar, wind, or biomass. This, coupled with a tax package to lift oil and gas subsidies to fund billions of dollars in tax breaks on alternative energies and energy efficiency, would have helped shrink U.S. dependence on fossil fuel. The building sector would have been a chief beneficiary. Instead, Senate Republicans, truckling to big-business lobbies, threatened to filibuster. Bush said he would veto. The situation grew so dire that four Democratic presidential candidates—including Clinton—flew to D.C. to cast votes, before returning to the campaign trail for an afternoon debate. Democrats still came in one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority. In the assault on climate change, the axing of these provisions was a triumph of politics over prudence.
By Mazria’s measure, the bill does a few things right on the architectural front. Most significantly, federal buildings, which represent 1 percent of national energy consumption, are required to slice emissions 50 percent now and 100 percent by 2030. If the goals are met, it would mean a saving of 2.5 million tons annually—no small dent. (Though one senior Senate staffer admits the targets could be tough to meet and “may have to be adjusted in the future.”) Nevertheless, Mazria sees larger benefits on the horizon. “It puts the weight of the federal government behind the standards,” he says. “It sets the wheels in motion to begin to establish conservation standards for the whole country.” Other provisions offer financial perks or take aim at the homestead: there are new efficiency standards for electronic appliances, greater access to small business loans for firms committed to energy reduction, and a phasing out of most incandescent bulbs in the next ten years. These are minor dividends, though. Thus far, the biggest upshot has been a burgeoning countermovement among aesthetes, who lament the imminent death of warm lighting.
Mazria and his allies say the fight isn’t over. “Once we get through the election and have a new president and a new Congress, we’ll reassess what’s possible,” Senator Bingaman says. But perhaps awaiting harmony on the Hill is the wrong tack. Building codes vary from one locality to the next, as dictated by geography, natural resources, and political resolve. The onus to tamp down on emissions, then, falls at least in part to regional legislators. “A lot of states are starting to realize we need to do this on our own and not look to the federal government,” says Kirsten Ritchie, a sustainable-design director at Gensler. Illinois and New Mexico have taken the lead, adopting the 2030 Challenge for future state-run facilities. California, meanwhile, is charging to become the first state in the union to require all new buildings and renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and Mazria expects other states to follow, picking up where the federal bill left off. “This is huge,” Mazria says. “California is one of the largest states in the union. What happens in California reverberates across the rest of the country.”