Ché Wall

27 November 2012 – Last week’s  Greenbuild Conference in San Francisco was a milestone, overtly political, confrontational and in many ways a call to arms, says Ché Wall in this article.

Last week’s  Greenbuild Conference in San Francisco was a milestone, not just because it was the conference’s 10th anniversary, nor because it was the 10th anniversary of the World Green Building Council, but because it was the year that the USGBC got its mojo back. And boy did it get it back! The opening plenary was overtly political, confrontational and in many ways a call to arms.

It hit the mark and was both inspirational and challenging, thereby recognising the inherent paradox faced by any organisation that promotes transformation and change. You can’t possibly please all the people all the time and fulfil your mission.

I attended the first Greenbuild  conference in Austin, Texas in 2002.  The Green Building Council of Australia had just been established and I was there with fellow founder Maria Atkinson and  directors Richard Sebo and Craig Heaton. We were there to listen and learn.  The learning was as much about what not to do as what to do.

In creating the Green Building Council of Australia, we were fortunate to gain candid insight into the successes and frustrations of  the USGBC at that time.

This informed the foundations of the GBCA in its early days: a hardwired sunset on director terms; a high-level board experienced in governance and leadership; no industry association membership and a leadership position on product toxicity – the issues that the USGBC were finding challenging due to increasing success, size and inertia.

In 2002 the USGBC was in its ninth year. It was sensitive to rocking the boat and was focused on the success of its rating tool, LEED. At that time, any changes to LEED required a very long process of engagement  and, to my eyes, it was in danger of being held back by the very same rules that were created to ensure its integrity.

This  influenced  our decision to  produce our own tool for the Australian market,  known as Green Star. The GBCA was agile and, as if to prove the point, we got the Green Star v1.0 office pilot to market in three months!

This was an amazing achievement helped by a framework established by the UK’s BREEAM tool, coupled with local technical content developed by a steering committee and working group that both knew the market and understood what was required to change the way we do things.

This approach generated its critics. The traditional green groups who liked to occasionally talk property policy protested that the GBCA lacked a “social mandate”. At the other end of the spectrum, the vinyl industry lobby went into full attack mode when the PVC avoidance credits appeared in the pilot tool.

Australia was the first to put its head above the parapets

and give credit for PVC avoidance.

While the tool was for the Australian property industry  we received cease and desist letters from the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and I found myself subject to  the tactics of  the Vinyl Council Australia which focused on discrediting our fledgling organisation and its directors rather than addressing the issues.

The learning from the USGBC was clear – do not get embroiled in an expensive scientific argument where you have to justify your position, instead rely on the precautionary principle. Much support was given by the Healthy Building Network in the US. Their generous sharing of precedents was pivotal in informing the GCBA’s position.

The GBCA was creating waves. This is something that can make some quite nervous but as my non-executive chair at Lincolne Scott at the time reminded me, if you’re not making waves you’re not going anywhere.

I have missed maybe three Greenbuilds in the last 10 years. In the first five years my attendance was required due to my role with the World Green Building Council. Since then it has been almost exclusively to maintain friendships and networks rather than with any expectation of education.

However, this year’s opening plenary at Greenbuild was something special. 

The USGBC seems to have just ramped it up 10 notches.  It could be the optimism generated by another four year term for President Obama, but it is surely not coincidental that the USGBC is now under attack from the American Chemistry Council because of the latest version of its rating tool, LEED.

Currently in release for comment, LEED V4 not only takes a position on toxics that Green Star v1.0 would be proud of, it moves way beyond.

It is also more stringent generally to the point that the green building industry is divided down the middle, with one half concerned their buildings will not score as high, and the other seeing this as the tool they have been demanding for years. The result is that the USGBC is making waves again. No actually, that’s an understatement, the USGBC is currently bombing in the deep end and creating a huge splash.

It seems the USGBC has asked itself the question of whether it wants to become a rather poorly performing trade association or get back to the business transforming markets. The attacks and threat by the chemical lobby have given it reason to regroup, and recent articles criticising LEED and its apparent lack of social mandate have served as a reminder of exactly how powerful the USGBC and LEED can be in transformation.

It would be the most delicious irony if their efforts prompted the renaissance of the USGBC as a disruptive change agent.

Rick Fedrizzi, founding chair and CEO of the USGBC, spoke to a cheering crowd about the need for transparency and bluntly labelled as wrong and fear-mongering the opponents to the proposed chemical disclosure and avoidance credits in LEED v4.

It was a call to arms that cited the women’s suffragette movement,

the worker rights movement, the civil rights movement,

gay rights and marriage equality.

As Rick said: “If we’re going to take up the mantle of a movement that wants to change the world, we need to learn from the ones that already have. It’s the reason they earned their place in the history books. It’s the reason they changed – and are still changing – the world. They were Right… Absolutely RIGHT!”

Greenbuild 2012 plenary

This was not the USGBC of old and when the new mantra of “We Are Right” appeared on the screen  in letters five metres high,  it was clear this had nothing to do with misplaced arrogance,  but a sense that they had recaptured their moral and ethical purpose.

An article in this month’s F@st Company magazine, entitled  “Secrets of the generation flux leader” , talks about the failure of conventional business models and how reinvention on the fly is the critical factor to success.

It talks about attitude, not demography and the need to embrace paradox and diversity to find opportunity in today’s chaos. Based on his performance at Greenbuild,

Rick Fedrizzi is clearly in this small club of leaders

that can bring agility of thought and action to a large organisation to ensure its

continued relevance and leadership.

It is clear that the USGBC is now back at the forefront of global efforts for market transformation, setting the benchmark  against which others can be judged. Does this mean I endorse LEED over Green Star in Australia? Of course not as I still believe LEED is not fit for purpose in Australia’s environmental context. Will I be renewing my membership to the USGBC? Absolutely.

I believe the GBCA can learn a lot from the recapturing of spirit for progressive transformation that is serving the USGBC so well and I hope that the GBCA will provide similar calls to arms that  those in the Australian industry deserve.

Ché Wall was also chair of GBCA Technical Steering Committee for the creation of Green Star.