Go Green Expo: John Picard Interview on the Upside of the Downturn

Designer, builder, entrepreneur, and sustainability expert, John Picard has been committed to the environment since he went off the grid 20 years ago. Founder of the US Green Building Council and a member of Clinton's green team at the White House, he supervised the eco-reconstruction of the Greensburg, Kansas, and advises countless companies, from Absolut to Xbox, on strategies to improve productivity with environmental energy-efficient systems. Picard speaks at this weekend's Go Green Expo in Los Angeles, Jan. 22-24, along with Ed Begley Jr., Mariel Hemingway, and Paul Pelosi, Jr. We got to talk with him about his panel's topic: "Build Green, Grow Profits." Speaking of apps for buildings, carbon "nutritional" labels and fuel cells at McDonalds, he could not sound more enthusiastic about a green future happening now:
RC: After two decades in the green building business, why aren't we there yet?

There's been a lot of talk but not a lot of traction or comprehensive action. A company might green one store - to get some publicity - without considering the environmental impact of its other 1,000 stores. Because it cost more, it doesn't realize the strategic advantage of doing the right thing. But in the last couple years, I see a reversal. Sustainability in the workplace, industry, real estate, and business world is happening. You're going to see fuel cells power McDonalds and Subways. We can't afford to do things the same way - to take something from the planet and make something for the marketplace. Our fathers engineered the world on a low bid. They couldn't afford to have any consciousness of the wastestream or lifecycle.

As the son of an Apollo engineer who got us to the moon, I know what it's like to accomplish the impossible. I saw my father bend history. I see my job like a million moon shots, to inspire people to make an emotional and cultural shift. My campaign is to prove that sustainability has a strategic advantage, that it's naturally engineerable, and has never been cheaper to do. It's creating an economy around high performance and returns. This is starting to happen with green building. People are understanding that we can't spend the earth's principle anymore and burn away the future.

RC: What happened to cause that reversal?

Now that the climate situation has become more than evident, it's driving a change. Carbon will hit the balance sheet soon. Most companies have decided to be in front of the carbon issue in a proactive role, not reactive to it. That's really important. The insurance business, for instance, is developing instruments to benefit those who are trying to do the right thing. If you push the carbon button on the earth to locate where carbon is coming from, it's the buildings. I've long been retrofitting existing buildings, cutting the cost of operating budgets by 50 percent. It's pretty easy to do, considering how badly they were designed. We inherited a lot of crap. It's a function of doing well by doing good, as we said at Interface. And now it's a function of profits.

RC: How do you make energy-efficient buildings also financially efficient to build?

Now we're moving into some very sophisticated platforms with the convergence of the Internet and energy. I think it's just the beginning of my career. Envision a building acting like an iPhone. What's exciting are the millions of applications that make it more functional. Why can't I do that with a building that costs millions to build and to run? USGBC's new measurements will carry a carbon creation and a carbon reduction rating, like the surgeon general's warning.

Look at the collective power of the iPhone and communications. Information can keep us accountable about carbon. Carbon is like fat or calories or sugar. You can see on packaged food how badly you're going to eat. How about a virtual nutritional label on the side of a building? Now when you sign a lease, you don't know if you're buying into a coal-burning power plant or that the single-pane windows leak half the energy. Those are unacceptable deficiencies. Soon, they won't be able to hide from the choice of the wrong lighting and not know it.

RC: Why are we at a tipping point now?

The bad economy gives sustainability a level playing field. Normally real estate doesn't put money into buildings they take it out. They don't think life-cycle--they think near-term profit. The current situation is making developers think twice about sitting on their thumbs. Carbon is like bad weather on top of a bad economy. Since they can't squeeze any value out of buildings, they're asking for a creative solution. So now I've got 50 million feet of building space in New York City with a platform to refine real estate. It will be valued more on its operational costs and efficiencies.

2010 is the year that sustainability is financially engineered. The driving force will be the capital markets not just the regulatory campaigns. There is so much waste and inefficiency in the world to be mined and converted. It's going to be a storm - like the Internet. Who's building the disassembly plant? There are profitable companies mining metals from e-waste. Ten pounds of magnesium, gold and semi-precious metals in a junked car is worth more than 1,000 pounds of recycled steel.

RC: With less building, where are the green jobs in this bad economy?

We're overbuilt. But I'm projecting a comeback. We're going to recalibrate and reset, and lease less space. From my perspective, we're not in a crisis--it's a transition. The model is an eco-Ben and Jerry's, doing well from the bottom up. I'm taking the new innovative solution technologies coming out of the Silicon Valley and packaging them to the real estate world. There will be a bump in green jobs with sustainable performance-driven design. It's a green engineering revolution. There are multiple benefits of digging out of this mess, of taking the country in the right direction. That's the next appropriate step - not taking us to the moon - but engineering us to the earth.

More on green building:
A LEED of One's Own: New Green Building Certification in the Works
Waste Solutions Play Key Role In Green Building
US Buildings Account for 40% of Energy and Materials Use

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Environmental Certifications | Green Building | Housing Industry