Architecture & Design, Focus, and Sustainability

Powerhouse team backs energy reduction plan

Grand Rapids joins cities nationwide by becoming an Emerging 2030 District.

May 1, 2015
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Road to zero
Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, visited Grand Rapids recently to offer his support for the city’s energy-reduction efforts. Photo by Mike Nichols

A new public-private partnership is about to change the way energy is used in Grand Rapids forever.

On the morning of April 24, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, backed by some of the area’s most powerful developers, building owners and operators, and other stakeholders, announced the city of Grand Rapids has been named an Emerging 2030 District by the nonprofit think tank Architecture 2030, making the city part of a growing nationwide effort to reduce energy use in urban areas.

Becoming an energy district, which Heartwell had already laid out as one of his goals in his 2015 State of the City address, means Grand Rapids is now on track to hit targeted reductions of building and district energy use by the year 2030.

The following North American cities also have been named as 2030 Districts: Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto, Stamford and Albuquerque.

“This is looking at greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and it’s saying, ‘We’re going to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from their current levels to a level that is only 50 percent of what the emissions were in 2003, and we’re going to do that by 2030,’” Heartwell said.

In 2030 Districts, participating building owners and operators agree to the following:

  • For existing buildings, a 50 percent reduction in energy use across the district by 2030 compared to a 2003 national benchmark of similar buildings, as well as 50 percent reductions in water use and emissions from transportation.
  • For new buildings and major renovations, an immediate reduction in building energy use by 50 percent compared to the 2003 benchmark, with additional targets getting to net-zero energy use by 2030. New buildings also seek to immediately reduce their water use and transportation emissions by 50 percent when compared to the current district average.

Heartwell is hardly a lone voice for fiscal energy responsibility. The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and the U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan Chapter also facilitated making Grand Rapids a 2030 District.

Furthermore, the Grand Rapids Emerging 2030 District Exploratory Committee is a powerhouse roster and includes the following participants: 616 Development, Rockford Construction, Bazzani Building Co., the city of Grand Rapids, Consumers Energy, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Valley State University, Kent County Department of Public Works, Midwest Energy Group, Progressive AE, Spectrum Health, Van Andel Institute and SMG, manager of DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.

Edward Mazria, the world-famous architect who founded Architecture 2030 in 2002, was on hand to show his support for Grand Rapids.

Mazria, who also served as keynote speaker at the 19th Annual Wege Speaker Series the previous evening, said property owners and property managers are the main players in Emerging 2030 Districts. It’s a voluntary partnership backed up by local governments, businesses and community stakeholders and others entities that have interest in the community to move the district to a series of targets aimed at dropping greenhouse gas emission levels and energy consumption.

“In 2006, we issued a challenge called the 2030 Challenge. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and AIA (the American Institute of Architects), 83,000 members, adopted it on the spot,” he said.

“So what’s happened since then? Seventy percent of the top 20 A/E (architectural and engineering) firms in the country, which is essentially the top in the world, have adopted their targets and are working toward those targets. Fifty-four percent in the latest survey of all architecture firms have adopted their targets.”

In his speech, Mazria pointed out that from 2005-2013, consumers in the United States spent $560 billion less than they were projected to spend on energy for the building sector. Oddly enough, it’s the same amount passed by Congress to bail the country out of the recession.

“The savings from 2013 all the way to 2030 that we will not pay if we just do the business as usual is $4.61 trillion, and if we fully incorporate the better technology … we save another $1.83 trillion.”

The story of America’s journey toward energy reduction begins in the early 1900s, when conditions for urban workers were pretty miserable, Mazria said. Coal — dirty and toxic — was fueling the Industrial Revolution. Most workers lived in coal districts and resided in neighborhoods in close proximity to the factories where they worked, living and raising their families in a soot-covered world with little available sunlight and plenty of disease.

“The average lifespan for people living in those areas and cities was about 35 years,” he said. “Conditions were crowded. It was pretty unbearable.”

The first International Congress of Modern Architecture was held in 1928 and included social justice-based principles that would separate the workers’ residences from the unhealthy factories and otherwise improve their living conditions, and also do more to make the working environment less unhealthy. The architectural world was built out according to those principles, Mazria said.

Modernism was based on coal, oil and glass, later on. And it was great for a period of time, he said. But the movement that led to using a lot of glass in buildings to solve a social justice problem had now created an environmental problem instead: fossil fuel emissions.

“Now, fast forwarding to 2015, we have a big problem, one that every scientific organization is telling us we need to get under control because the projections are not very good,” he said. “Do we really want to prove them wrong when the entire planet is at stake?”

Today, the world’s population sits at 7.2 billion and is expected to rise to 8.3 billion by 2030, an increase of 1.1 billion people. By 2030, the world’s urban population is expected to increase by that same number: 1.1 billion people — which means most of the additional population is going to be living in cities, Mazria said.

There is expected to be 900 billion square feet of new construction and tear down/rebuilt buildings in almost all urban areas worldwide, Mazria said. That’s about 60 percent of the current building stock of the world, he said — “the equivalent between now and 2030 of building a New York City every 35 days.”

Over the next few decades, approximately 38 percent of those new developments will take place in China, 15 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in India, 9 percent in Latin America and 9 percent in the Middle East. And 75 percent of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions comes from cities, he said.

“We have an opportunity in the next few decades to essentially rebuild the world, and if we get it right, we make a huge difference. If we don’t we get it right, we lock in energy consumption and emissions for 80 to 120 years,” Mazria said.

“Eighty years is the average lifespan of a building and 120 years is the lifespan of the infrastructure that’s built around all of it. Right now is a pivotal moment globally to get this issue right.”

More than 100 nations have now called for zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050, as has the head of the World Bank. Pope Francis is expected to make a statement about it soon, Mazria said.

Becoming green is a stepped process that relies on information and technology but also common sense, he said. Solar energy is delivered free to every square foot in the U.S., and unlike coal, it doesn’t require digging or transportation, or lead to black lung disease or cave-ins, he said.

Too many think the problem is, “How do you burn carbon out of coal?” when solar energy provides a much more sustainable form of energy than coal and oil, Mazria said. The question now needs to be reframed, he said, because fossil fuel and solar energy now cost about the same, and projections are pointing to the fact that solar and other green forms of energy will soon be cheaper and more popular.

“In 2001, 81 percent of all new energy was coal, gas, nuclear and oil; 19 percent was (green energy). In 2013, 58 percent of all new energy built in the world was (green) and only 42 percent was coal, gas, nuclear and oil,” he said.

“The writing is on the wall. It’s like going from landlines to cell phones, and it’s not stopping.”

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