Robert Watson is often hailed as the father of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the nationally recognized gold standard for green buildings. As a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council in the early 1990s, Watson, formerly senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, helped devise the now-popular rating system. But Watson has bigger aspirations yet: he is determined to turn LEED into a worldwide benchmark.

These days the New Yorker is busy bringing his green-building experience to China and India with his recently-founded enterprise, EcoTech International, a consultancy that provides green technology and project development expertise. He believes that market push, combined with government mandates, will spur sustainable development. Plenty caught up with Watson in Hong Kong during his recent business trip to China. 

Plenty: Why do you believe that the market will help drive sustainable development, when most builders still say building green costs more?

Watson: Markets are not stupid forever. Eventually people will realize that not only are green buildings more comfortable and better for the planet, they are also more economical. We're finding that good green buildings now are coming in at the same construction costs as typical buildings. What we can now prove is that green is largely independent of cost. The two are not related. So, the progressive developers, the developers that recognize value, the market leaders — they are the ones who are doing green. And they're proving essentially what we've believed all along — that green is the most cost-effective strategy.

As you're spreading green building know-how to rapidly developing countries such as China and India, how do you go about localizing green design expertise?

It doesn't make sense for people working on a Chinese project to learn American standards and submit a certification package in English. So EcoTech is working with an organization under the Chinese Ministry of Construction to create a localization plan for LEED. That way, Chinese developers and architects can benchmark their program against Chinese norms and standards but with the same performance as LEED.

How are builders in the developing world responding to the green building movement?

Everybody wants the market benefits of green but there is a perception that it is a cost as opposed to an investment. And when the market is young, some things do cost more. When a market is undeveloped, the reality is that inexperience and lack of availability makes prices higher. We're learning the techniques to make it more cost-effective. We expect to see a very significant growth in LEED projects in the next year or two.

What are some of the biggest barriers to introducing LEED or similar rating systems to that part of the world?

There is a lot of fighting with the established business-as-usual practice. When you develop a green building you invest in people and design more than equipment. In Asia, in particular, people will happily spend lots of money on a flashy piece of photovoltaic system but they won't pay an expert designer to really figure out the questions that need to be solved. That is another barrier.

Here in the U.S., LEED is becoming mainstream and expanding to cover homesschoolsbanksbusinessesneighborhood development, etc. Ultimately, how far do you think LEED can go?

LEED is designed to fully reach the top 25 percent of the market in terms of the number of square feet — so a quarter of new buildings will be built to LEED specifications. The rest of the market will catch up eventually as green practices become more mainstream. So as we reach our target 25 percent (currently about 10 percent of new building square footage is LEED certified), LEED will get more stringent so it will be a moving bar. Unless the engine is moving, the train following it won't move, either. So we want to keep raising the bar as the knowledge gets greater and the technology availability gets greater. We want to bring in ever greener and greener buildings.

Most people are not architects or developers, but just about everybody is a user or occupant of buildings. How can the general public get involved in the green building movement in a meaningful way, besides changing the light bulbs?

Look for the LEED label on your homes. If you can't get LEED, get Energy Star homes. Any kind of a certified program from the U.S. Green Building Council or the U.S. EPA will ensure that the environmental issues are being taken care of in your building or your home. And just demand it as a consumer.

Story by Violet Law. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. The story was added to in March 2010.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Father of LEED takes on China and India
Robert Watson aims to make green building standards global.