The LEED program arguably has been the building industry’s single-most powerful driver of change in the past several decades, and its success can be traced back to one man. As the creator of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1992 and the World Green Building Council 10 years later, David Gottfried literally altered the course of human history—specifically, by ensuring that it continues. Currently CEO of Regenerative Ventures, Gottfried has a new book out this month, Explosion Green, which details the inception of the green building movement in the US and abroad. We sat down with the man who started it all to discuss what’s next.
gb&d: You describe your tour of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Washington, DC, offices as your “first sighting of a green building.” What made you receptive to that moment?
David Gottfried: First, I would say my studies at Stanford as an engineer and particularly this guy Gil Masters, who was my mentor. We studied the Earth and the sun and energy. So I had that underpinning, as well as [being] a backpacker who loves Yosemite. I was already primed to spark. At a deeper level, since I was already a professional in the building industry, I was looking for greater meaning and purpose and a bigger light and spark to my work, other than do a good job and make money. This provided a transformation agenda. I think I was raised to look for that, and I hadn’t found it in my career yet.
gb&d: How do you square the fact that business success is defined by growth while sustainability is about not using more than we need?
Gottfried: Growth is at the heart of capitalism. We need to look at the definition of growth, and we need to redefine it. And then we need to reward profit on growth but on that new definition. In my book, there’s an equation called The Full Equation. It says R equals P minus I minus W. So R, the Resultant, equals the Product, minus Inputs and Waste. So R equals P when I and W go to zero. I goes to zero when there’s no cash, no energy, no physical materials, and no time—those are all inputs—and no waste: no landfill waste, no pollution, no health waste, which would be toxins and endocrine disrupters. That’s the kind of growth we need.
gb&d: This idea of equivalencies between all the different rating systems—establishing criteria for what equals what—seems like a huge step forward.
Gottfried: There was an initiative a few years ago of LEED, GreenStar, and BREEAM to start working together to look at that. Scott Horst, who’s head of LEED at USGBC, was part of it. I was in Israel a few months ago, which was really fun for me, and they have their own rating tool. Intel [has] a big presence there, and they had done the Israeli standard and also LEED, and they had done equivalencies themselves.
You know who’s done the best work here is Ray Cole at University of British Columbia. Even ten years ago, he had a chart of twelve rating systems. The rating systems were at the top of an Excel spreadsheet, and on the bottom left were all the environmental categories. But it’s not that easy to map it.
gb&d: Tell me about the work of the World Green Building Council.
Gottfried: Mostly what we’ve done is create a road map for what a Green Building Council (GBC) is. There’s an eight-step road map of how you play with us and create a GBC that the World GBC will recognize. That road map is pretty great; it’s things like you have to be a nonprofit, you have to be open for membership, you need to have bylaws, you need to have a budget.
gb&d: And you’ve got over 100 GBCs at this point?
Gottfried: Yeah, so that alone is huge. But that’s just getting them to organize and join our group. The key once you do that is creating a network. Some countries are tiny and have different social values and conditions, and they might have illiteracy, and poverty, and no clean water, and war, so they bring a different agenda to the coalition.
gb&d: Have you seen an emphasis on, say, water due to water scarcity stories being shared in other parts of the world?
Gottfried: Sure. Australia had the best knowledge on how to turn around drought conditions in terms of saving water.
gb&d: What did they do?
Gottfried: In the Gold Coast area they almost ran out of water—in Brisbane, even Sydney. In three years, they turned it around. And not that they got more rain. They outlawed watering your lawn and washing your car. They mandated rainwater capture. I think they even required some greywater features, capturing your sink and shower water and using that for the toilet.
gb&d: It’s incredible how many municipalities in the US still don’t allow you to use greywater versus this example in Australia, where it’s illegal not to do it.
Gottfried: It’s ridiculous.
gb&d: I was struck by the Weight Watchers analogy you use in the book, writing that we need to invite the “couch potato” buildings, the ones that don’t seem easy or worthwhile to improve, to get in the game.
Gottfried: I think we’ve barely scratched the surface on existing homes. Utilities are getting at the bigger buildings that have higher loads in their service territories, but with existing homes, there’s almost nothing. I’ve never gotten a bill or notice saying, “You’re a water hog. Let us come to your home and help.” That should exist. And they should be incentivized by the PUCs and the legislature to be proactive, especially now.
It really pisses me off. Our ancestors understood they had to capture the water or they would die. We think you can just piss it away. That’s the biggest problem: the human brain. That’s my latest work. I’ve got a new initiative called Regen Brain. I’m studying neuroscience to try to understand why our survival wiring from a million years ago is killing us today, and how to create new survival wiring, using plasticity and creating new neural networks in the brain so that we’re not killing ourselves.
gb&d: How else can we incentivize greening existing homes?
Gottfried: I really think we need this “green corps” that just shows up at your home, makes it energy efficient and water efficient, finances the first cost, and the savings pay for it. Or they ramp up and amortize it through your bill, just like we have power purchase agreements to put solar on your roof. If you want solar, you just click the box, and you pay for it over 17 years through the utility bill. They put a smart meter on my house—they should put solar on the roof. And I just check the damn box.
gb&d: Are there any cities you think would consider something like this?
Gottfried: Maybe it starts in cities like Berkeley and Santa Monica, which are progressive and have an appetite for it. I suggested this to Mayor [Tom] Bates in Berkeley eight years ago. Take 100 million dollars of our own retirement money, put solar on every roof, and give us a ten percent return every year. And I could figure it out; I just have a little too much going on. That’s why I wrote it in the book—I hope others will do it.
gb&d: You’re known for living a fairly healthy lifestyle. Are you and your wife still vegan?
Gottfried: The vegan didn’t stick, but we have a very healthy diet. She’s an integrated medicine physician and writing a diet book right now called The Body Cure. We’re pretty much gluten free, almost no sugar, and I got off of caffeine. I’m actually 11 days into a cleanse—a detox really—so I haven’t had alcohol. But I don’t want to be perfect. I’d like to be 90 percent good. Well, 95 percent. We’re in the Bay Area, and I don’t want to give up red wine.