Rob Watson, the founding father of the LEED rating system, discusses the modern world’s environmentally-unfriendly direction with Oliver Ephgrave
Dubbed as “one of the best environmental minds in America” by a columnist for The New York Times, Rob Watson’s aura of confidence and authority makes for a rather intimidating interview. Yet thankfully the founder of the LEED rating system is more than happy to divulge his strong views on buildings and the environment, a subject that has defined his career.
With talk of the “violence and implacability” of nature, Watson’s comments veer from doom-laden predictions to witty one-liners. “Green certification programmes are like martial arts. At the end of the day they are pretty much the same,” he says, with a wry smile.
Yet behind this humour is a sense of pride in creating the most successful rating system of the pack. “LEED really is an international standard like no other,” he states. “There are over 800 million m2 of built area in the certification programme. There are projects that are either registered or certified in 120 different countries. It’s amazing to me that a system created in America actually has buildings in Yemen, and other places that I would not imagine them to be in.”
Chicago-born Watson was LEED founding chairman until 2006, after spearheading the launch of the rating system by the US Green Building Council in 1993. In 2007 he launched EcoTech International Group (ETI) to take advantage of green building technologies and services in China, Russia, India and the United States.
Prior to setting up ETI, Watson was a scientist with the US Natural Resources Defense Council for 20 years, and this background accounts for his authoritative words on nature’s laws.
Watson demonstrates his scientific knowhow when asked whether photovoltaics are underutilised. He replies: “People ask me about nuclear power and I’m a fan. Fusion is my favourite. The nice thing is that we already have the perfect fusion reactor, and it’s a safe distance from the planet.
The sun provides 2000 times more energy than all human uses combined. In other words, 15 minutes of sunlight on land is equal to a year’s worth of human energy consumption.”
He continues: “There’s no energy crisis on this planet. The crisis lies in the economic system. Something that is objectively superior from a species survival perspective is somehow more expensive than something that is demonstrably harmful to our continued existence on the planet. That is just stupid. At some point we will somehow change the way we think. Remember that there is nothing inherent in the way we value things – this is a choice that we can change.
“We need to align our economic system with the laws of the planet which are chemistry, biology and physics. Unless human law is aligned with natural law, we are doomed. There isn’t a single policy out there, under the antiquated Adam Smith model, that will save us.”
Watson believes that a combination of “regulatory push with market pull” is the most effective way to promote change. He adds: “ You can probably get three times the impact by coordination between public and private sector efforts than either purely raising the price [of energy] and letting the market respond or forcing people through regulations. The synergy between the two is very important. Most countries do one or the other reasonably well.”
When asked to pinpoint the most green-orientated built environments, Watson states: “Europe clearly has the best buildings in the world in terms of energy consumption. But many of them still allow smoking, so from a human health perspective they are not so great.
California has a fairly coordinated set of energy regulations and incentive programmes. Even though prices have gone up, the bills and the energy use per capita have stayed more or less the same for almost 20 years. I would say that was a pretty good success.”
He says that more developers would jump on the bandwagon if they understood that green buildings are cost effective in the long term. “The problem is we have an 18th century economic concept that is completely unsuited for understanding and appreciating how green buildings are in fact cost effective.
“The reality is that it’s possible to build any building in the world cheaper. But price is not the only thing people are concerned about – they’re also looking for return on investment. Honestly, with green, you get out way more than what you put in. Green may not be the cheapest by square metre, but certainly it has the highest return on investment.”
Watson stresses the marketability of a green building. “I think if people understood that they could make more money, then they would easily invest what’s necessary. Nobody spends $5,000 on a Rolex watch because it tells better time. You need to understand the market which you are building in. My feeling is that if you can’t make more money with a green building then you need a new marketing department.”
Cost issues only arise if green is simply an add-on, he asserts. “If you design a brown branch and hang green ornaments on it, it’s naturally going to cost more. Designing a green branch does not cost any more than a brown branch but you have to start at the beginning with green in mind.
Technology is often used to overcome bad design decisions like big glass boxes in the hottest region in the world. If you want to make those big glass boxes more efficient you have to spend a lot of money on better windows and better equipment, etc.”
As some parting words of wisdom for designers in the Middle East, he highlights the inherent sustainability of the vernacular architecture in dealing with the heat. “The indigenous architecture has more mass, with deep and narrow plans, and people were comfortable without excess energy for centuries before the modern day.
There’s a lot of wisdom in those practices that can be updated and modernised to create sustainable architecture, both economically and environmentally.”