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01.25.2010
Q+A> David Gottfried
The USGBC co-founder talks about living with LEED, his sustainable home, and his latest green ventures
David Gottfried
Courtesy Gottfried

If there were a ratings system for green innovators, David Gottfried would rank platinum. Gottfried co-founded the U.S. Green Building Council and founded the World Green Building Council, both of which have probably done more to reduce the carbon-guzzling effects of building than any other organizations on the planet. Their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system for sustainable construction is the industry standard in the U.S. and is being used in 117 countries. Now a very much in-demand speaker, Gottfried, who founded the consulting firm WorldBuild in 1997, is still active with the USGBC and WorldGBC. He continues to immerse himself in the movement as a sustainable building consultant to such corporate giants as SCA/Tork and Carrier. Joanne Furio caught up with the Oakland-based innovator to discuss the status of the movement he helped to found and the next generation of green innovations.

The Architect’s Newspaper: People who haven’t heard you speak or read your first book, Greed to Green, may not know that you started out as a developer. Or as you put it, “one of the enemy,” who “carted off buildings to the dump and replaced them with new ones, sometimes the same size and shape.” When did you switch sides?

David Gottfried: I studied engineering at Stanford under Gil Masters—he lit my fire. Then at the beginning of the green movement, in ’91 and ’92, I went to the national meetings of the AIA and went to every single thing they had that was green. That rekindled that light, seeing that we could make green buildings more efficient in terms of energy, water, waste, as well as indoor environmental quality.

Having been on the other side, you understand how developers think. Has their thinking changed, given the widespread popularity of the green movement?

Absolutely. If you’re designing and developing a new building that is not green, you’re negligent. To achieve LEED Gold or Silver is not that hard. If you own an existing building or portfolio of buildings, you should green that portfolio by tracking your water, waste, and air quality and start improving incrementally. The LEED Existing Building Operating Maintenance rating system is a good guide.

Is there a danger as architects and builders rush to build green. I’m thinking of the tendency to tear out instead of reuse.

Reuse is a very high green priority and contains significant embodied energy. The key is first to tighten up the envelope—your windows, insulation in the floor and ceiling—having a mechanical system that’s super efficient and highly rated appliances that are Energy Star. If what you have is not energy efficient in any of those areas, it might be worth deconstructing and recycling.

Are there other ratings programs you think highly of?

In California we have GreenPoint Rated for homes that Build it Green operates. That’s a good home standard. They have a retrofit guideline for homes, as well as new construction. I used the retrofit guide on my home.

Your Oakland home is LEED Platinum–certified after an extensive renovation. Was that an inspiration for your second book, Greening My Life, due this year?

It wasn’t an inspiration, but it’s part of it. There’s a whole chapter on the house. It’s a memoir, very comprehensive, and goes beyond green buildings into relationships, health, family, work, money, being a dad, spirituality, and stewardship. The book is a sequel to Greed to Green.

Amazingly, you share that 1,500-square-foot home with a wife and two daughters.

Less square footage is really the greatest green building strategy. But I did add a small shed in back where I work. We don’t have one square inch that is wasted.

Through your green building consulting firm, WorldBuild, you advise companies on the creation of new green products. Tell us about one that’s available now.

There’s Hycrete, which is a chemical compound that makes concrete waterproof. It allows you to get rid of the membrane for the roof and get a huge savings. It’s being sold all over the world now.

What about other new products that you worked on that are not out yet?

Calera, one of my favorites, is sequestering carbon in concrete by making an aggregate that they can use as a replacement for Portland cement. It’s fascinating because it’s going to be the first building material that sequesters carbon like a tree. They’ll bring it to market by 2011. Soladigm is making an electrochromatic window that can go from clear to black with a computer signal and that will have major energy savings. It will keep the heat out of buildings. They have a pilot production line running, but are not selling yet. Serious Materials will be introducing EcoRock, a dry wall that doesn’t use gypsum, but instead uses a very high-recycled content, which will have a significant carbon savings. That’s due within a year. They also make QuietRock drywall and Serious Windows, which are super-efficient.

Your newest online venture, Regenerative Network, is launching in April. How will that work?

It’s a green building product marketplace, where we screen green building manufacturers and figure out the best ones in each sector and create a network around them. And then we bring the network to leading green portfolio owners like Microsoft, Google, Disney, and the State of California. It will be a private network with membership fees. We’re going to take it to China, India, and the Middle East.

Are you seeing ancient building techniques being rediscovered because they’re sustainable?

Yes. Integrity Block is making concrete block using techniques from studying adobe and rammed earth structures. We used to do great natural ventilation and shading without mechanical systems. I was in Japan in a 600-year-old building for the shogunate that had no lighting system, no mechanical systems. It was 102 outside, and I sat in that place and it was cool and day lit and gorgeous and still standing with local materials. And I thought, ‘Why am I here in Japan giving lectures on green building?’ When I spoke I told the audience to go study their own buildings.

So much for all of our emphasis on technology…

Everyone always thinks modern technology will save us. But sometimes low-tech or no-tech is great. Ultimately, it’s about people, and technology is a tool.

When you addressed Lightfair in Las Vegas in 2008, you told the audience to live with their own eulogies in mind. What would be yours?

It would be about the people I’ve touched and the seeds I’ve planted and the forests that have grown as a result of my work. I’m proud of the global green-building movement and its contribution to earth. But in no way do I think we’ve arrived. We’ve just started, and we’re still far from sustainable.

Joanne Furio