Q&A with Rick Fedrizzi, CEO & Founding Chairman, USGBC
CEO, Green Business Certification Institute
Chairman, International WELL Building Institute
LAW: The original founders of USGBC came together from a wide variety of backgrounds. What caused all of you to collectively build the necessary chemistry to launch the idea and sustain the organization in the early years?
RF: In 1993, David Gottfried, a real estate developer, an environmental attorney, and I combined forces and started the U. S. Green Building Council. Our mission was to foster the incredible market opportunity for green building products, everything under the sun, from drywall, to paint, to energy-efficient lighting and water-efficient plumbing.
The built environment, we realized, was a huge part of our economy, and it had an equally huge impact on the natural environment and human health. We decided to create an organization that raised awareness about and encouraged the growth of what was then the tiny, practically nonexistent, green building industry.
It was a startup environment—fast, messy, improvisational. In fact, we intentionally modeled our vision for USGBC not on well-established environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), but after private sector trade associations and professional organizations like ASHRAE and ASTM. Our idea was simple: bring companies large and small to the table with environmental activists and idealists. We wanted to create a dialogue and see what conversations and innovations that kind of partnership could spark.
In order to build an industry from nothing—not an easy thing—we spent years trying to get both business people and environmentalists in the same room, working together. We held meetings. We made phone calls. We wined and dined and pitched our idea. Like a lot of start-ups, USGBC endured several years of slow, uncertain growth. In time, we began to recruit our founding members. United Technologies Corporation was an obvious choice, and forward-thinking companies like Armstrong, Herman Miller, and Anderson Windows soon joined, too. There were also a handful of the premier environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and Audubon that came aboard early.
We started small, with only 13 members at first. They became our board of directors, and I took on the role of founding chairman. One of our first struggles as an organization was to bridge the gap between the constantly warring factions of business and environmentalism. This was a big problem because we were a mission-based trade association and an environmental nonprofit at the same time. Our whole organization was premised on the idea that real progress—and profits—could be attained through industry and environmental activists working together.
Over the first few years, we corralled a few dozen members. These early adopters realized the market opportunity, and the environmental opportunity, of green building. But the green building industry itself was still in its earliest, most nascent stage. It was relatively unknown, even among real estate developers, who thought we were truly crazy, and folks in the building trades, who were equally perplexed. No one had considered that the umpteen components needed to build a building were a product category that could be radically improved. To put it bluntly, we were a trade association for an industry that didn’t really exist. We needed to change that—but how?
In 1997, we found our answer. That was the year we started to develop LEED.
LAW: You emerged as the face of the green building movement. How were you able to sustain that role throughout all of the changes that occurred over the years?
RF: I may be the avatar for the movement – and there’s some marketing strategy in that. But to turn an idea into a movement means it’s not about any single individual it’s about everybody and their contributions. And it was critical that we kept evolving. At the beginning, we were focused on building one new building better. That was the cornerstone of LEED. But once that cornerstone was dropped into the pond, each ripple outward from that was amazing. New buildings, then interiors, core and shell, then existing buildings. Then building types. Then neighborhoods. Then city scale thinking. Education and credentials for practitioners. New tools like the LEED Dynamic Plaque. Then GBCI and the build towards an ecosystem of tools to complement LEED – WELL, SITES, EDGE, Parksmart. Then infrastructure rating tools like PEER. Then the focus on the people – social equity has always been assumed, but what happens when we call it out with social equity credits? Or focus on resiliency? Or schools? Or health. That’s why USGBC is so much bigger than one person, and why we’ve been so successful.
LAW: Please cite a few of the key movement-building milestones that made the difference and ensured USGBC’s long-term organizational sustainability.
RF: Greenbuild was the first one. We thought we’d invite a few people to gather in Austin in 2002 – a couple of speakers, a couple of networking events – and 4,000 people showed up. Fast forward to today, and we are about to have our 15th Greenbuild, packed with world changing speakers, amazing events and celebrations, and more than 150 educational sessions.
Chapters were another; we had organizations spring up organically in the early days in more than 75 communities, and they were critical to the early uptake of LEED. But today we need a different organizational structure to leverage our more sophisticated volunteers and the community work only they can do, so we’ve integrated more than half the chapters into the overall USGBC community, providing field staff support so our volunteers can shed the administrative details and focus instead on the real work.
Another was the growth internationally. USGBC saw LEED as a US tool, but the global real estate community wanted something that could be used around the world. So the LEED international roundtable came into being and now there are LEED projects in more than 160 countries around the world.
And establishing GBCI as a separate certification and credentialing body was another. It allowed us to lay a strong foundation for deep LEED engagement but also make a platform for a much broader vision – that ecosystem of interrelated tools and initiatives that I talked about.
And the establishment of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC has been our best “tip of spear” for helping people understand why what we do is so important.
I’m sure there are hundreds more!
LAW: What were some of the key lessons that you learned as CEO that helped USGBC to have such a central importance to sustainability first in the United States, then worldwide with WGBC?
1. Make the invisible actionable.
The LEED Dynamic Plaque is an elegant public declaration of a building’s environmental efforts and performance. Located in a lobby or other common space, the plaque displays immediate measurements about a building’s resource use reflecting the outcomes of the LEED system—from energy to waste disposal.
The LEED Dynamic Plaque software platform provides a LEED Performance Score based on original LEED certification and five performance categories that collect data from buildings — energy, water, waste, transportation and human experience.
When new data enters the system, the LEED Dynamic Plaque automatically generates an up-to-the minute LEED Performance Score, featured on the face of the plaque, tied to the familiar LEED certification levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum), so that at that any moment in time, you (and your tenants, customers, visitors, etc.) know exactly how the space is performing.
The score builds over a 12-month period so at the end of 12 months the performance score is the building’s updated LEED score.
The plaque is a visual scoreboard so that owners can compare their building’s current and past performance and can examine the building’s overall performance relative to comparable structures. It is in essence – a FitBit for buildings.
2. Profit can save the planet
In my book Greenthink, I laid out something that our work over the past 25 years has taught me – that environmentalism and profit-based business can do much more than simply coexist. They can work together in sublime, syncopated fashion, building on each other for the benefit of the planet and its people. The most successful environmental organizations today work with business, to show them how much money they can save—and/or make—by transitioning to sustainable business practice.
It is a matter of rising above the divisive mood of politics, learning how to collaborate, and staring down the old-school attitude that profit and environmentalism don’t mix. In fact, business has the potential to succeed in environmentalism in a way that the government hasn’t.
Real change won’t happen in the Paris conference rooms; I think it will happen in business boardrooms. Business is the answer; incentives matter. We have to do it the right way.
3. Benchmark relentlessly.
Our entire metric is around market transformation and we measure in two ways.
First, we measure the outputs —energy saved; water saved; waste reduced; carbon dioxide (CO2) reduced; indoor air quality improved. LEED allows us to capture that
information across buildings that use our rating system. In another example of innovation, we are working on a green building information portal that seeks to
capture similar information across buildings no matter which rating system they use. The innovation is in the aggregation of similar data, and in the ability to use it to identify the prevailing strategies that are making the most impact.
Second, we measure outcomes — student test scores in LEED schools; reduced doctor visits due to respiratory issues for employees in LEED buildings; productivity and fewer accidents in LEED factories, and so on. What are our volunteers and staff doing to advance these metrics? And where are they having the most impact? That is
how we benchmark.
LAW: LEED has fundamentally changed how buildings are built. How did offering professionals the opportunity to become LEED Accredited Professionals hasten the pervasive embrace of USGBC?
RF: When I tell the USGBC creation story, I say that first we needed a rating system, then we needed to teach people how to use it. That commitment to shared knowledge, to arming the troops with the information it needed to create the market transformation we seek – that’s been a huge factor in our success.
Education in the early days was carried out by chapters and LEED faculty at primarily in-person workshops. But how the world has changed. Like so many others today we’ve moved most of our organization now to a web-based platform — education@USGBC, a platform that last year delivered 188,374 hours of education in 91 countries.
And we’ve tapped some of the best minds to be our education partners to create what practitioners need. We offer everything from the basics for those who simply want to advocate for better buildings to deep training across multiple disciplines. And it’s global, and it’s in multiple languages. This assists in global market uptake by training upcoming green building professionals and supporting the more than 200,000 LEED Professional credential holders who come from both the public and private sectors.
LAW: What were the most compelling components of the business case for building a LEED-rated building in your pitch to corporate leaders? Why did early adopters in the private sector buy in?
RF: The example of Ray Anderson is but one such instance.
Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, is the book Ray always referred to as being the “spear in the chest” that helped change his thinking. The fundamental premise was that you could be both an environmentalist and a capitalist, that the two were not mutually exclusive. In the early days, once we started leading with the economic case for green building – saving energy, saving water and saving money – we finally got a chance to tell people HOW to do that, through LEED, and all the things LEED stands for – systems thinking, integrated design, biomimic solutions, it began to make sense to business. LEED also gave us a mechanism to recognize achievement, and that appealed to the marketing sense of businesses looking for a way to stand out in the market. Today green building is an engine of innovation, of economic development, of jobs creation. That’s what businesses are finding now, and that’s the premise of my book, Greenthink. Profit really can save the planet and that’s what people are finding today.
LAW: Tell us about your relationship-building efforts across the aisle with Barack Obama, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Al Gore, Colin Powell, and many local leaders throughout the political spectrum. Why is that effort important to green building’s success?
RF: The green building movement’s pillars of social equity, equal prosperity, and environmental protection and conservation cut across the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats want clean air and clean water. Progressives and conservatives want green spaces and green earnings statements.
What’s usually in contention is how we achieve those things, and as with most things it’s a question of balance. Balance requires both sides speaking up and both sides listening. And it helps to have loud, credible voices to make our case. We’ve worked hard to cultivate a robust advocacy platform that helps us educate our top leadership at the federal, state and local levels. They in turn can be strong voices in support of that balance we seek.
We’ve been fortunate that Greenbuild has provided a platform for these voices that allows us to hear their thinking, have them hear ours, and engage in the kind of dialog that keeps us moving in the right direction.
LAW: Diversity is one of the key elements of your legacy. You supported people like George Bandy and Majora Carter as USGBC Board leaders. Van Jones had one of his earliest moments of national exposure at Greenbuild. You mentored and nurtured Kimberly Lewis. Why did you make the conscious effort at promoting diversity where others have only given it lip service?
RF: These individuals you mention are national leaders advocating for sustainable communities – all communities – and are strong voices for the environment. We have been fortunate to have their talents and energy in our corner. The benefits of green building must be inclusive of everyone, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t have everyone at the table.
We need the best people doing their best work to be part of – and want to be part of – our movement. Diverse voices bring broad networks of talent with them, and we need to constantly nurture those networks and intentionally reach out and encourage everyone’s engagement. Only then can we be true to our mission of bringing the benefits of green building to everyone within this generation.