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How the Evolving Green Building Movement is Shifting the Way We Live

A Q&A with Mahesh Ramunujam, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, who developed the LEED certification program.

Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forests Photo: Courtesy Stefano Boeri

Earth Day is fast approaching. And while it’s not a cornerstone holiday for most people, it’s a good time to reflect on America’s bourgeoning green movement. In real estate, there are a handful of voices leading the charge for the development of green buildings – and Mahesh Ramunujam, a computer engineering graduate from India’s Annamalai University, is among the most vocal. He is currently the president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), whose mission is to create buildings and communities that work in harmony with nature and provide people with healthy living environments.

Its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program is one of the world’s leading set of standards for both residential and commercial spaces, providing a holistic and metrics-based system that is contributing to the trillion-dollar industry worldwide. Today there are more than 93,000 registered and certified projects across 167 countries and territories, and more than 19.76 billion gross square feet of space participating in LEED.

Mahesh spoke to Robb Report to deliver the industry perspective on this topic – particularly, why the green movement is far from fleeting.

Mahesh Ramanujam portrait

Mahesh Ramanujam portrait  Photo: Courtesy Moshe Zusman Photography Studio

Tell me about the start of the green building movement. 

Environmentally sensitive buildings have been built for centuries, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s when the concept of green building really started to emerge. Back then, more and more builders and developers started incorporating sustainable practices into the design and construction of their buildings. But there was no consistent way to know if these buildings were truly green. We needed common language and guidelines that all stakeholders in the building industry could use to explain what it meant to be “green.” So, the USGBC created the LEED program green building program as a way to measure and define green building.

Nearly two decades later, the New Mexico state government adopted the New Mexico Sustainable Building Tax Credit in 2007, designed to encourage private sector construction to implement efficient and sustainable building practices. The buildings that have been registered or certified at the LEED Silver level or higher are eligible for a tax credit and is based on the amount of occupied square footage and the rating achieved by the building. In 2012 alone, the bill resulted in $107.5 million being contributed to New Mexico’s economy and is projected to save $32.3 million over a 30-year period. In India, many government buildings have chosen to certify as LEED, including central agencies and state governments who have acknowledged and incentivized the program. In 2014, the Netherlands recognized LEED as a rating system eligible for green building tax incentives after Gerrit-Jan Teunissen, a private citizen working in energy and sustainability consulting, petitioned the government.

If you are standing in a LEED-certified building you know that they are doing a few main things: they are using less energy and water, avoiding waste, saving on maintenance costs, improving indoor air quality, offering comfort to their occupants, and creating less environmental burden on their community.

Tell me about the specific requirements that make up LEED-certification.

The benefits of LEED-certified homes are invaluable. They provide living environments with clean indoor air through ventilation, a reduction in toxins, and an increase in overall comfort (satisfaction, happiness, improved health, etc.). A LEED-certification signifies a toxin-free, comfortable home. They are also designed to save critical resources – energy and water – and can lower utility bills each month. They use an estimated 30-60% less energy than a comparable home built to International Energy Conservation Code. In green building, we often focus only on energy efficiency and savings. We know people care about that to a certain degree. But what people really care about is their health and their children’s health.

What types of materials are used to make something eco-friendly?

 In order to build green, products and materials have to undergo a life-cycle assessment (LCA) to assess the carbon and other environmental impacts of the building material over the entire lifespan of the building. From raw material extraction through processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling, LCAs are associated with all stages of the product’s life.

We believe in continuous improvement because LEED needs to evolve along with emerging technologies and the needs of the marketplace. Just this week, we introduced our latest version: LEED v4.1. This is a series of upgrades to the rating system that are designed to improve our standards, encourage leadership, and make our platform more user friendly, more accessible—and most importantly—more collaborative than ever before. The feedback we can gain now from members is critical and because LEED v4.1 is our most inclusive and transparent platform to date, we are going to be able to learn from the community and better serve it as well.

As I travel around the world, I have noticed the expansion of LEED in the residential sector. I am encouraged to see many residential developers embracing LEED as part of their value proposition to demonstrate to their occupants that their residences are more sustainable and healthier living spaces. Think about this: 90 percent of our time is spent indoors and 50 percent of that is in our home. Our connection to our homes is more personal than to our office or any space that we access. All of us want to be healthy and we want our homes to be a healthy environment for our families to live in.

Can you tell me about a project that exemplifies what this movement is all about? 

Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forests are buildings that use hundreds of trees to create an ecosystem. His Vertical Forest in Milan is a geothermally heated, LEED Gold building that uses 900 trees and 20,000 shrubs and flower plants to create a microclimate, filtering pollution, producing oxygen, and removes 11 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. Boeri is taking his vision of a Vertical Forest and now applying it onto an entire city. Focusing on Shijiazhuang, China, one of the most polluted cities in the world, he’s using his data from his work in Milan to turn 556-acres into what he calls a “Forest City.” If the carbon dioxide reduction in Milan is any indication, Boeri’s passion for understanding of the connection between humans and trees could extend the lives of millions of people in China. Imagine the potential if we could take these ideas to cities all over the world?

Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forests in Milan

Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forests in Milan  Photo: Courtesy Stefano Boeri

Though a business lens, why should a company or developer use green building methods versus traditional construction?

Sustainability is no longer an addendum or a supplemental goal. It represents the largest and simplest opportunity for businesses to enhance what we call the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. Green building pursues solutions that represent a healthy and dynamic balance between environmental, social and economic benefits. The goal is to ensure that buildings and communities create value for all stakeholders. For example, an energy-efficient building that saves the owners money but makes the occupants sick is not sustainable, nor is an eco-resort that displaces threatened species or local people. A commitment to the triple bottom line means looking beyond the status quo, and businesses are starting to recognize the vast benefits of doing so.

We are also witnessing consumers asking for more sustainable options beyond the four walls of a building. They are rejecting everything from Styrofoam, BPA, plastic bags, straws and packaging. It’s critical that businesses and companies understand these pressures and adjust to them. If they don’t, they risk being left behind.

From luxury estates and communities and single-family homes to multi-family residential homes and senior housing, from college dormitories to affordable housing and homeless shelters, the LEED rating system is reaching the needs of a broad spectrum of communities. That’s why our vision at USGBC is that buildings will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.

“More than anything else, green building is about people. That’s where the real luxury lies: in improving quality of life and making our society not only more sustainable but more equitable, too.”


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