Rob Watson on the Real Impact of Green Buildings

Rob Watson on the Real Impact of Green Buildings

Recently at the Greenbuild Expo in Boston, Greener World Media released the 2008 Green Building Impact Report. The report is the first to answer the question, what is the environmental impact of the LEED Green Building Rating System? Remarkably, no study had ever measured the environmental improvements LEED has made to land, water, air and climate, and the productivity improvements for those who toil inside those buildings.

the report was written by Rob Watson, executive editor of, and president of Eco-Tech International, who served as LEED's national steering committee chairman between 1994 and 2005.

At Greenbuild, I spoke with Rob about the report, and about the state of Green Buildings.

Joel Makower: We're sitting here several yards from the floor of the Greenbuild conference and it seems quite a spectacle to me -- 30,000 or so people and I don't even know how many hundreds of exhibits. You've been at this since day one. When you look at this, what does this look like to you?

Rob Watson: It look like hope. The 150 people on a grassy knoll below the Rockies was a wonderful "kumbaya" experience, but the scale, scope, and speed of transformation that's necessary really requires this level. In fact, I'm hoping that in Phoenix we get 50,000 people because really everybody has to be a green builder now, whether it's in their personal life or whether they're building a 100 story building.

JM: So Phoenix is where the 2009 conference is gonna be. What's that reference to the 150 people in the Rockies?

RW: Well, when we were a very young organization, we had a couple of meetings at the Big Sky Resort in Big Sky, Montana, and so it was sort of the early stalwarts. And we were treated to some very special events, like Ray Anderson of Interface gave his first spear-in-the-chest speech, and that was a very moving thing to be in front of, watching this incredible man sort of bear his soul. And we went on hikes together, and it was just a very different experience. And sadly, with this number of people, we can't quite have that same outdoor experience, but I think we hold a little bit of that inside us as we walk around.

JM: That's great. So I look in the halls -- go down the aisles and there are 27 aisles, each one seeming to be a mile long. I'm sure it wasn't, but it just felt that way. And I see a tremendous number, obviously, of companies and products, but also of claims. I sort of wonder about, you know, using claims that outside of this room -- you know, things like natural, non-toxic, sustainable, green -- would probably be under attack from, say, some of your colleagues, former colleagues at the NRDC or Greenpeace or any number of other groups who are sort of looking at, you know, "How do we get beyond some of these generic claims?" Do you -- does that concern you when you look at this?

RW: Yes and no. You know, there's a little bit of the Lake Woebegone effect where, you know, we're all above average, everybody's an environmentalist, and I think the market is fairly ruthless in its discipline of false claims. And my guess is that professionals talking to each other, bad experiences publicized -- I mean this is, after all, the age of the Internet and news gets around very fast. I also expect that there will be advances in the way materials and products are evaluated, more comprehensively over more lifecycle on more factors. And as lifecycle assessment matures and becomes closer to the comprehensive analysis that we hope it to be that, you know, these kinds of lenses will be applied to products and services, and allow us to have much better information to make our decisions.

JM: So maybe you're echoing the words of -- I think it was Hunter Lovins who said -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that green-washing is good, and the more of it the better. That just means companies are engaged, and that begins a conversation that then sorts out in the marketplace about who's really good and who's not.

RW: Well, certainly -- you know, Hunter is a dear friend and I have profound respect, and I think the fact that everybody is an environmentalist is a good sign. I think that we will need to exercise skepticism and put, you know, a hard eye and a focused lens on these claims and on these products and really kick the tires and test them out in the field, and let people know, in the companies and outside, whether things are working or not.

JM: Mm-hmm. So let's talk about the Green Building Impact Report, which really answered, for the first time, in tangible and measurable ways, "Is green building moving the needle? What impact is it having on your water, resources, etc.?" Why had that never been done before?

RW: For -- well, it basically violates Miss Piggy's third law, which is "Never eat more than you can lift." You have 65 different environmental measures, each of which has, in some cases, a fairly difficult unit of measurement.

JM: So the 65 measures refer to 65 aspects of LEED?

RW: That's correct, the 65 LEED credits. And so probably 50 of them have different measurement bases -- tons of soil removed, vehicle miles traveled -- and so we had to go through each one and figure out, you know, what are we measuring on? Can we get that measurement? Do we have any basis in reality to make this calculation or are there reasonable assumptions that we can make to substitute? And so it was just -- it was a very arduous process going through, not only figuring out all the market data for all the various LEED products and what impact are they making -- each one, you know, LEED EB versus LEED, CS, CI, and C. But each of the different credits in each one had a different impact, so it was fairly arduous exercise.

JM: So -- and also what's the baseline? What would the business-as-usual case be without these LEED products?

RW: Exactly. Well, and so in many cases we took baselines that are referenced in the LEED standards, 'cause LEED is not an absolute standard, it's a relative standard 'cause that's really the only -- we have no idea what sustainability in fact looks like, so there's no absolute benchmark we can shoot for. But in many cases, as you pointed out, you know, we had to create a baseline, and so that was a time-consuming process as well.

JM: So Miss Piggy's law notwithstanding -- and maybe now that you've done this she needs to come up with a new one -- but how much of the picture do you feel you were able to describe? First of all, this just covered US buildings –

RW: I think this is an initial sketch. I think next year we will want to do our -- we will want to have more certified projects in our database. We had 750 this year; we would want to at least double that. We want to look at the international picture. We want to look at homes. There are a lot of things that were not filled in in this sketch, but I think it really gave us a good frame of reference for A, how far we've come, but also how far we've gone. You know, we are just in the lowest foothills climbing Mt. Sustainability, and it looks like a long way down from where you are, but when you turn around and look at the peak there is a much more arduous climb left to go.

JM: What surprised you most in the findings?

RW: Once you added up all the energy, you know, how small it was compared to the national scope 'cause the building level impacts are fairly impressive and even the raw numbers are fairly impressive. But then you start matching them to the tidal wave of energy that we use everyday, and it's humbling. It's sort of like, you know, to a midget even a ripple looks like a tsunami, so it was a fairly humbling experience.

JM: Right. So in that metaphor, are we the midget or the ripple or -- (Laughter)

RW: Well, the -- LEED is -- you know, green building movement is the midget, the energy savings are the ripple and, you know -- so we are trying to get a real tsunami going, and I think we're capable of it. We've got the proven basis and the economics behind us now; we just have to change the way people think.

JM: Talk a little bit about what is going on in the developing world around LEED kind of standards. Are the Chinese, the Indians -- are they beginning to build with all the massive building -- I heard some statistic that some -- is it one out of every ten or one out of every four buildings that's being built in the world is being built in China? I'm sure you know what that is. But are they starting to adapt these standards?

RW: Well, there's more building going on in China than anywhere else in the world, almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined. But I heard some very interesting and encouraging news. Jones Lang LaSalle, people who had been doing research on this issue, found that in the central business districts of Beijing and Shanghai over half of the class A buildings going in were registered for LEED certification, and several of which were nearing the completion stage and were in line for certification. So that was a very encouraging finding from my perspective, and I expect that, you know, as green picks up and we translate LEED into Chinese, that this will accelerate.

JM: And what's the impact or implications of that for US builders? Is that going to create some economies of scale on some of the products that might bring the prices down, make them more affordable? Or are they not connected that way?

RW: Well, you know, clearly China prices are really important. A lot of the best technologies are still available from the West. Hopefully we will see greater uptake and some innovation in China that can then flow the other way and, you know, stimulate further invention in the US. I really think that the US sustainability and innovation engine needs to stay ahead. We're never, in the West, going to be able to compete with the developing world in producing last year's technology more cheaply. Our comparative advantage is developing and creating next year's technology and keeping that 12 to 18 month lead that we can get. But, you know, given the flat world and communication and just, you know, the level of interaction, IP really -- and innovation has a 12 to 18 month shelf life, which is green is a really good thing. So I hope that that flywheel spins ever faster and we really churn innovation through.

JM: And we'll start to see next year in the Green Building Impact Report maybe how some of that's playing out from an environmental perspective.

RW: Well, that would be probably too depressing, but I think, you know, we will focus on the -- sort of the aggregate values. I'm not sure whether we're ready to see how little difference we're making yet, but I think it will be encouraging by itself. But if we do do a comparison, it will be a fairly breathtaking realization that we've got a lot way to go.

JM: Well, and we'll show -- be able to show in subsequent years how far we've come, too.

RW: Exactly, exactly.

JM: So as Greenbuild 2008 winds to a close, any sort of thoughts on the state of the industry or what you wish had happened this year, or just final thoughts?

RW: It's just -- I think the -- in spite of everything, the overall vibe I get is hope and determination, a belief that we can go farther, we must go farther than we've gone, that green and that green building and innovation is really -- it's whole, it's all part and parcel of kind of the hope for the future that I think, you know, we've dared to hope for again. And so I think that we will continue to see growth, or certainly less slowing in growth, in green and that this is a good thing for our kids and our grandkids.

JM: Rob Watson, thanks so much.

RW: Thank you, Joel.