Actually, at that point in 1976, there were only a few architects who had any solar knowledge or experience. So, in the months leading up to his start at Oregon, Mazria returned to New Mexico and immersed himself in solar studies and research with Ray Harrigan, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. Mazria credits Harrigan with helping him distill and decipher volumes of technical data and translate it into a more understandable language so that he and his students at Oregon could apply it to their studies. This set the stage for further research that would enlighten his practice and his profession for years to come; it also was the period when Mazria’s social awareness, architectural direction, and environmental consciousness began to coalesce.
If there’s one trait that ties the beginnings of Mazria’s career through to his current mission, it’s his ability to look at complex data and recognize patterns. Mazria arrived in Oregon with a suitcase stuffed with computer punch-cards programmed to model the energy performance of a single direct-gain passive solar room. Working with his research and teaching assistant Steve Baker and their students, Mazria began two years of research using this basic computer program to model passive solar design elements for buildings, modifying it to simulate different climate and solar energy conditions and latitudes.
“Steve was a computer whiz, and every night he would take another batch of punch cards to the computer center and run the program for a different set of conditions,” says Mazria. “And every day we’d take the print-outs and tape them to the wall. It wasn’t long before the walls were completely covered, and we could start to see the performance patterns emerge.” Those patterns became the language of passive solar design and resulted in widely accepted and easy-to-apply recommendations for building orientation, glazed wall areas, shading, and thermal mass design still used today.
Mazria presented the results at the 2nd National Passive Solar Conference in 1978 and was, at first, met with skepticism by the audience. In attendance was pioneering solar research scientist Douglas Balcomb, Ph.D., from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “I remember following Doug onto the stage to present our passive solar design principles,” says Mazria. “At the time research was still being conducted using test boxes with thermal sensors, so people were somewhat skeptical that we could have come so far so fast. But by the end of the presentation everyone including Balcomb realized that we really did know what we were talking about.”
This was still very early in the solar energy movement of the ’70s, so the timing of Mazria’s research couldn’t have been better. After returning to Albuquerque in 1978, Mazria published The Passive Solar Energy Book (Rodale Press, 1979), which thrust him into the national spotlight. “This was the first book that put solar building design information into a language people could use,” says Mazria, “and it was the first time since Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language that the pattern language format was put to use in this way.”
It was time for Mazria to practice what he had been preaching.
Mazria established his architectural practice in Albuquerque in 1978 and began work on his Master of Architecture degree at the University of New Mexico, and in 1985 he joined the vibrant solar energy community in Santa Fe, where he still lives and works. His architectural work combined the elements of his design philosophies with the science of his technical research. As his practice evolved, attracting increasingly interesting and challenging projects, so did his research. His buildings reflected strong ties to New Mexico’s climate and landscape; respect for its traditional architectural forms, styles, and materials; and enlightened integration of technical solutions based on the simple elegance of passive solar design elements.
The more he learned from his buildings, the more he applied the knowledge to his practice and spread the word among others so that the growing circle of solar designers could compare notes and advance their efforts as a whole. It was an intense period of design, research, analysis, writing, and cross-pollination at conferences and workshops across the country where Mazria was always a featured speaker.
In addition to his practice, Mazria collaborated with Doug Balcomb and pioneer solar developers Wayne and Susan Nichols to form Passive Solar Associates, a sort of solar super-group that toured nationally training thousands of architects, builders, and public officials in two-day design and technical workshops.
Back in the studio, each project presented its own challenges and solutions—and yielded its own lessons. There were passive solar homes, museums, schools, community centers, and botanical gardens. And there were some noteworthy firsts, such as the Mt. Airy Public Library in North Carolina, which he designed in 1983 and is widely known due to its achieving an 80% reduction in energy demand through its daylighting and passive design features. “This was the first institutional building designed for almost 100% daylighting,” Mazria says. “All of its energy savings were achieved just through design.”