The GreenBiz Interview

Engineering USGBC's 'Amazon' goals: Mahesh Ramanujam

Mahesh Ramanujam
U.S. Green Building Council President & CEO Mahesh Ramanujam

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating is the brand to beat for any business seeking a sustainability showpiece in its headquarters or offices. The force behind the Greenbuild events is at a crossroads, entering its 24th year with Mahesh Ramanujam as the new president and CEO.

He's both a fresh face and an insider, transitioning from the COO role while continuing to head up Green Business Certification Inc., which administers LEED. Ramanujam draws on his history in engineering and software for tools and inspiration to improve the great indoors and lower carbon emissions on a planetary scale. There are already 82,000 commercial projects around the world involved in LEED ratings.

A glimpse of the USGBC's future horizons came with last year's introduction of LEED for Cities and the arc platform, which is designed to streamline data collection among a myriad of sustainability labels. The nonprofit rose to include over 12,000 institutional members under founding CEO Rick Fedrizzi, who left in the fall for the International WELL Building Institute. 

Elsa Wenzel: How will your leadership differ from Rick Fedrizzi's?

Ramanujam: The gift to me is that I watched him play, I watched him lead, and I watched him deliver the vision of market transformation as an achievable construct. Rick was a founder and set our mission. I want to be the Amazon that takes this to scale at an accelerated pace 

And most importantly, to lead from my core competencies, which are technology, strategy and the data analytics capabilities on top of my business experience.

Wenzel: You talked a little bit about data analytics, but what are some other big frontiers that you'd like to tackle?

Ramanujam: Clearly, data and technology [are] what we will lead with. Transparency drives good data, which drives good decisions.

The second part of the conversation is about looking at the vision of a sustainable future for all. I come from India, so I can relate to the subject of poverty, doing more with less, resourcefulness, what happens if you drive environmental degradation, what poverty looks like. The big issues are always on my mind.

The fundamental needs of a human being are not being addressed because of massive resource degradation. The next big frontier we need to focus on is income inequality and poverty. The poor are just going to get poorer if we’re going to plunder the wealth of planet as we are doing right now.

It's no longer enough that we clock 100,000 buildings of LEED. We also need to look at the downtowns, the homelessness, the people on the street.

Wenzel: What roles might the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play in this?

Ramanujam:  The SDGs are a fantastic framework for the world to follow. Three years ago, we didn't have a full overlap, but today we have a toolkit within Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) that talks about smart and sustainable sites, the bottom of the pyramid, health and wellness.

We have a full stack of deliverables, tools and rating systems that very well intersect into the SDGs. We are excited to give people the tools in the marketplace to drive implementation.

Wenzel: Where is the Paris Agreement playing a role?

Ramanujam: China participated in the Paris Agreement. We've done a lot of good work in China in the last five years.

Secondly, we are driving our own grading system, from buildings to communities to cities. We are trying to give the mayors who signed the Paris Agreement a new tool to the arc platform.

The third framework is that we are finally connected to performance. Outcomes do matter.

Wenzel: LEED has had such phenomenal growth. What's the biggest challenge with LEED from here?

Ramanujam: The challenge that we face with existing buildings is that we've never allowed LEED to be a system that could be partially implemented, be it only energy, be it only water, be it only waste. That was done for a good reason, because we didn't want the market to go to the lowest common denominator.

When I look back at what we have achieved in the existing building space in the past 10 years, our progress is unacceptable and unsatisfactory. We cannot drive a solution for existing buildings with the same lens as we have been doing with new construction.

On an existing building, the business case needs to be robust, direct and based on the context of the economic conditions. That is why we brought in the concept of Arc, a full-stack solution. At the top, it covers LEED and beyond. But then below, it goes deeper, and it says take the most basic step in improving your building.

Wenzel: How do you see the work of the USGBC changing ahead of the new [Trump] administration?

Ramanujam: I understand there is a lot of anguish in the market. But when we look at our mission, sustainability is bottom line.

My view is very simple: You need marketing, you need customer service, you need technology, you need product development, you need engineering in a company as a core competency. Sustainability is one such thing.

Mammoth companies like Dow Chemical, UTC or Lenovo are looking at sustainability … being a responsible organization that uses resources in an optimal way. Most importantly, they want to inspire a marketplace through their leadership.

So, from that perspective we need to have a little bit more faith in the current government. All of these people are business people. If you come back and talk to them about climate change, they may be skeptics, but they may come back and argue with you with a business case.

The call for the moment from me to the movement is get the data right, get transparent, put the business case in the front, don't be timid to hold information back. Be bold, be disruptive and make the case — green makes perfect business sense.

Wenzel: How will you know if USGBC gets it right in the next five, 10 years?

Ramanujam: Because we got it right for the last 23 years, right? I'm not saying it arrogantly, but with all humility. Every morning I get up thinking, "Are we going to be relevant?"

But then, “manage for failure" is our mantra. What it means is come back, focus on doing small experiments, and if it makes sense, go to the next level. Even the worst mistake we make will be a stepping-stone for somebody else.

Wenzel: Has Greenbuild's growth leveled off or even declined slightly?

Ramanujam: From a business point of view, yes ... Real estate is a cautious industry, then on top of it the community is cautious, because we're trying to move them through these pyramids. 

We announced the vision of arc in 2012. [By 2016] even Apple's product development cycle has slowed down. Still, we need to shorten our development and deployment cycle and we also need to get agile.

Wenzel: Can you talk a bit about the rising emphasis on health and wellness in buildings? How is data is starting to play a bigger role in growing awareness of that?

Ramanujam: From a LEED point of view, health and wellness has always been there. The narrative is, how does it affect your productivity and happiness? How does it affect your occupants?

A lot of people are claiming they have the data, but that data is very weak. It doesn't prove any correlations yet. It has to be understood from three spectrums: One, the quality of data coming to you; second, the capability to process the data and be able to draw the right conclusions. The third is important: Everybody is ignoring the privacy dimension.

Wenzel: You talked at the beginning about wanting to be the Amazon, but take things to scale at an accelerated pace.

Ramanujam: We are a global organization, present in 162 countries and territories. We are a global standard, global framework, global consistency, global quality management. But you have to regionalize it and localize it because all ideas get implemented at the local level.

So with that strategy in place, we actually put the foundations for streamlining the organization in Washington, D.C. Our "warehouse" in D.C. has deliverable goods for all the clients around the world. It's a powerful concept. It's unheard of for the size of our organization.

What we realized very quickly was that local means language, culture, people, engagement and community. Most importantly, connection to the real work in the context and the same time zone as people and policymakers. We have expanded our vision for the GBCI to open offices in seven to eight regions around the world. Starting with India, then China, Japan, Middle East, Europe, Brazil, Mexico. And, sometime this year, in Africa.

We want to decentralize USGBC and GBCI … so that we can build warehouses in those locations — and I'm using the Amazon terminology; it's not a warehouse, it's an organization — which will go deeper into connecting with people. The methodology will be controlled from the command center in the United States to the regional centers to be able to deploy our plan. 

Wenzel: That sounds exciting. Where in Africa?

Ramanujam: We are not there yet. I'm talking about [Northern Africa]. Maybe Kenya, maybe Nigeria. But the biggest concern with Africa is the national security threat.

Wenzel: Where do you draw your own inspiration from historical leaders or organizations that have really accelerated change on a scale like this?

Ramanujam:  Number one, my inspiration always from Apple. Steve Jobs is [an] inspiration. 

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