The average person spends 90 percent of his or her time indoors, LEED founder and sustainability guru Rob Watson told an audience in Atlanta this week, yet few of us spend much time thinking about how these high-tech habitats work — until they don't.
"People still don't appreciate how important buildings are," Watson said Wednesday at the 16th annual Greenprints conference, where he delivered the keynote address. "We need to help people figure out that buildings are not just an appendage. They are our skin."
Watson has been a sustainability rock star since the 1990s, when he created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for the U.S. Green Building Council, now the gold standard for quantifying almost any building's environmental virtues. Dubbed the "father of LEED," he went on to found the EcoTech International Group, where he serves as chairman, CEO and chief scientist. He's no longer with the USGBC, but he's still the father of LEED everywhere he goes — and in Atlanta this week, he offered a mixed appraisal of the movement he helped launch 20 years ago.
"We did a pretty good job staying ahead of the overall collapse in the real estate market," he told Greenprints attendees. "There has not been enough of a shift [from new construction] to existing buildings, but the center of gravity is shifting."
LEED focused on new construction when it began, Watson added, because that was easier. But the focus now is shifting toward infill development, which is inherently a more economical, eco-friendly approach. "LEED is getting more location-efficient," he said. "And that means a very large decrease in commuter miles." The rating system has already whittled away roughly 6 billion U.S. commuter miles since its inception, and Watson projects it will have helped workers travel 70 billion fewer miles by 2030.
On top of that, information technology is making buildings smarter, whether they're built from scratch or nestled into old warehouses. "I.T. is opening up a world of transparent, efficient buildings," Watson said. "It lets us telecommute, and it allows more transparency in a building's performance." That transparency could in turn benefit LEED itself, he added, since the two most important ways to ensure success are having "good data going in" and then "showing that what you did worked" as you intended. "Those two things underlie the entire confidence and learning curve of these investments," he said.
And not only can next-generation buildings keep commuters out of traffic jams and self-report their own energy consumption, but they can also help businesses do more with less space. "Most commercial buildings are grossly underutilized," he said. "On average, 25 percent of floor area is being used at any one time. We're shrinking the amount of floor area per person that needs to be maintained."
LEED is also changing in other ways: The rating system is on the cusp of an upgrade to version 4, an overhaul designed to increase its technical rigor, streamline its services and incorporate new market sectors, among other tweaks. This will be the first such upgrade since 2009, and according to Watson, it's part of a gradual paradigm shift beyond the concept of "green" buildings as a niche market.
"Hopefully we're on our way to eliminating 'green' as a modifier," he said. "There are good buildings, and there are bad buildings." Good buildings save energy, water, time and effort, he explained — but perhaps most importantly to their occupants, they save money. "This is not a fad," Watson added. "The bottom line of green is black."
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