David Gottfried

1 August  2013 — UPDATED 13 August 2013: It was inevitable really. David Gottfried, credited as founding the green building council movement in the US and worldwide, has moved on.

Today Gottfried, currently visiting Australia, is more interested in rating a green life than a green building. He calls it a “life balance sheet”.

Gottfried says you can “create a strategic plan for your life and rate yourself in 10 categories”.

“It’s got health, relationships, financial, work, culture and education, giving back, eco footprint and life summing up,” he says.

A perfect score is 100 points. Less than 60 and your life’s not green. You hit Platinum at 90.

“I’ve used it on myself for 12 years. I can graph it into the
10 categories and track my progress.”

Somehow it didn’t make sense to stop the greening at buildings.

So where does Gottfried’s life rate?

We’re meeting in the dramatic setting of the Garden Court of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, an impressive vaulted glass and glitz reminder that here was the centre of California’s fabulous early wealth.

It’s early November 2012 and Greenbuild, the US Green Building Council annual talkfest with 25,000 attendees, has just wound up. It’s Friday and there has been more hoopla and drama and showbiz than most mere mortal delegates to a US convention might be used to. The mood is one of near delirious exhaustion.

But instead of a quick 15-minute chat over coffee, with the promise of a later catch up by Skype, the conversation quickly deepens and evolves. It stretches into hours.

Gottfried is intriguing. Challenging. Revealing. Full of contradictions, dilemmas and internal struggles, and he readily admits to all.

This man didn’t invent green buildings. He credits an architects’ conference more than 20 years ago for his inspiration. He didn’t even invent the green building movement, if you listen to others.

At the Garden Court of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel

Gottfried lays claim to founder of the US Green Building Council, but will happily say others dispute this.

“I put my money in it. I founded the USGBC here in San Francisco. Everyone says I co-founded it but I funded it, and show me another way to prove that.

“So I always tell everyone I was the founder and I refuse to relent because I was only one with no job, and I funded it and I would usually get angry when I had a couple of cheques [to pay] and no one else opened their cheque books.”

It was 1992. He recruited Rick Fedrizzi from Carrier, the airconditioning company, to be founding chairman. There was also Mike Italiano, who Gottfried acknowledges was co-founder.

All up Gottfried says he ploughed US$70,000 of his own money in into the USGBC and later funded the start up of the WorldGBC. USGBC ultimately paid Gottfried back several years later.

In 1998 he met Ché Wall in Mexico, then with building services and environmental engineering consultancy Lincolne Scott. He suggested Wall start a green building council in Australia, which he did in collaboration with Maria Atkinson.

“In April 1998 I helped kick off the Japan Green Building Council in Tokyo and announced my formation of the World Green Building Council publicly.”

He held the first meeting of the WorldGBC in San Francisco in 1999. It now has 100 member countries.

Caroline Noller, who then led GPT’s push into sustainability and now heads The Footprint Company, says that at about the same time the Green Building Challenge was trying to establish a global environmental assessment framework.

“We had a bunch of academics and think tanks and so on working on an environmental assessment framework for buildings: Norway, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, France, Italy and Japan,” Noller says.

“I introduced Maria [Atkinson] to the process in 2000.”

The group eventually morphed into International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment.

So Gottfried may not have been the only person to connect the dots on the potential of a global green building movement but he had the energy and passion to make the dots stick and become a global pattern.

So how did Gottfried come from this work on buildings and a green building movement to the green life balance? And what’s his score?

His first score, in 2000, was not good. “I started at 53; I wasn’t certifiable [you needed 60 for that]. I was miserable. It’s about when I met you [at the Australian Financial Review in Sydney] running around the world burning myself out, creating world GBCs and thinking I was doing something great.

“I was in Spain and had the fifth flu in a year. I’d burnt myself out. I was pounding away at this book trying to be smarter than Amory Lovins. And I looked in the mirror and closed my laptop and said, ‘David, you suck; you’re a fraud; you’re trying to write a book about green and you don’t even know what it is.’

“So I flew home and got a life coach, Dorothy – I love Dorothy – and Dorothy said, ‘You work in green but your life’s not green – you’re not congruent. When are you going to quit? You have too many clients. You want to get married. You’re 40.’ I’d dated 100 girls – dozens of girlfriends, even worse.

“‘There’s something wrong here,’ she said. ‘When are you going to quit or capture what you are trying to attract? The law of attraction… the women you attract don’t fit the profile of what you are trying to attract.’”

Gottfried closed the business and the office, booked himself a yurt on top of a mountain and started to hike, eat well, relax in a hot tub and meditate.

“I slowed down.”

But being who he is, Gottfried turned the experience into something else and invented his life balance sheet.

It’s a trajectory that has taken 20 years and in many ways mirrors that of the green building movement itself, sometimes disarmingly so. Gottfried has worked his way from the specific to the theoretic.

“There have been immense challenges, the pain of trying to invent a new financial model to support a better environmental world, the wins, the slips backwards, the dilemmas and contradictions of desires for luxury and comfort, and how to reconcile these with the green goals.

There have been two biographies, the first, tellingly, in terms of the struggles that run in parallel with the green movement, is called Green to Greed; the second is called Greening my Life.

Again, like so much about Gottfried, they make for compelling reading, the first especially so.

Finally he’s arrived at a place that asks more questions than it answers, of everything he sees and the people he meets.

The life balance sheet

Where does he rate on his life balance sheet now?

“Eighty-two. I hit a high of 92.”

So why did he slip back?

“Well, it’s not a steady climb. We’re humans, and you’re great and then your back gives out and you’re screwed. You’re great and then you get married, but then you buy a house and you get into debt. You get kids and get kid points but you’re not sleeping and you lose points.

“You love your work and you invest a lot in your home and then the market crashes so you lose a lot of retirement points.

“Sometimes I don’t have anger points and then something pisses me off and I get anger and I get anger points again.

“Sometime I’m in a great loving space with my wife and I think, ‘Oh, yeah, now I know why we got a married… the yin and yang of husband and wife, what attracted me. And then you start trying to change your spouse and you go through three months of fighting and then you lose points.

“It’s not a steady state; it’s a bit of a jagged journey but overall I’m up because I’m conscious and continually push up the mountain.”

He might also be up because he paints – abstracts in brilliant colours. Like everything he does, it’s prolific and really quite good, albeit without the benefit of training. He’s now finished his third solo exhibition and has begun to sell the works.


Gottfried’s current business is around the “regenerative” series of ventures, in consulting and networking, and he is coming to Australia in August in relation to one of these.

He also has now started a Regenerative Academy where he can teach his green life rating system. The first three-day training course is this October in Berkeley, California.

The family

In many ways Gottfried could not help but be a success.

His background is classic, privileged. His father was a highly successful business consultant who celebrated his first $1million annual turnover in fees with a new Patek Philippe watch.

But his mentoring was also rigorous. In strong Jewish tradition, there was a non-negotiable family dinner on Friday nights.

After dinner each of the three Gottfried sons were questioned by their father, reporting on how they fared in the three key life performance indicators – academic, social and sporting. Success in each was mandatory; no tradeoffs permitted. Gottfried and his two brothers dutifully outperformed.

At Stanford University Gottfried blended engineering and business with a special focus on solar energy.

After graduation he joined a family development company run by his cousins in Washington DC. There’s an aching section in his first biography that provides an ungilded insight into the wealth and privilege of that ’80s period.

Entitled From Forsheim to Ferragamos, it details a shopping trip to New York to outfit the newbie graduate for success. The cousins (named as Diane and Jim for the book) are kitted out in Chanel, cashmere, Cartier and Emanuel Ungaro.

First stop Barneys.

“I’d heard of Barneys. Expensive. I had no savings, and my $2000 paychequ was invariably gone by the end of the month. How could I afford to shop at Barneys?

“The salesman was groomed to the point of grotesqueness, his head and face shaved to the bone, save for an arrow-shaped patch below his bottom lip.”

The cousins settle on Versace for Gottfried. He says nothing. “Now let’s get rid of the Republican shoes,” Diane says.

Fortunately for Gottfried, the cousins pay for the suits but Gottfried must pay for the other items.

Gottfried did well in the company and started bringing his own emerging ideas on green buildings into play.

Bill McDonough speaking at Greenbuild 2012

He’d attended an architects conference and was impressed by Bill McDonough, the co-author of Cradle to Cradle, who promotes a positive contribution from each development, not merely a lessening of bad impacts.

Diane was hard to persuade, but she finally relented and let Gottfried incorporate green elements into the company’s projects. It was a lesson in how to shift the power play from within a development company’s business strategy.

Smoking and green buildings

Later came another lesson on more deeply embedded power structures, and it came as a shock.

Gottfried had been asked to form the green building sub-committee of the American Society of Testing and Materials, which created standards for buildings in the US.

He was determined that green-rated buildings

Rick Fedrizzi at Greenbuild 2012

would be smoke free. But he was intensely frustrated by the refusal of three members of the society to agree. He later learnt they were funded by the Tobacco Institute.


Gottfried eventually left the family business, created his own development and consultancy business and then realised that green buildings could be commercialised as a movement.

But it was far from an easy ride.

“We had 40 members in the first years. But it wasn’t enough money. We had staff and no money to pay them.

“Big firms paid US$10,000 a year for dues.

“And founding big companies paid an initiation of $15,000 and we had in five big firms but we were broke pretty fast and then about 18 months later I quit as CEO. I said, ‘I don’t want to fund it and have the board to tell me what to do. That’s a lousy model.’ I didn’t have equity. I quit and said, ‘You’re not listening to me’.”

So what was the bugbear?

“They weren’t helping me raise money. So they could tell me how to run it and not help me raise money, so I quit. But then I came back and incubated it again because I couldn’t leave. I loved it.”

“I served 15 years and three years ago I retired myself – I thought that was enough.”

On the WorldGBC he was “termed out” thanks to a clause inserted by Ché Wall into the by-laws that “after six years as board member, you’re out. So a year or two ago they retired me.”

He is still available to help. “I help give awards. I invent things that are missing – missing models or rating tools.”

The USGBC now has an annual award in his name, the global entrepreneur award.

Accountants could have some of the big answers

Rating tools and measurement are important, Gottfried says.

One thing that will help decipher the conundrum of how to live on this planet, says Gottfried, is the ability to measure externalities.

So accountants could be the answer? Or a big part of the answer?

Absolutely, Gottfried says. “It’s happening. Have you met Jean Rogers?”

Rogers, who hails from Arup with 10 years as a principal, is on the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board.

The SASB, says Gottfried, “is the USGBC for accounting”.

“It’s setting sustainable accounting and it will create triple bottom line transparency.

“Jean is going to nail it. She came out of the building industry and she has a PhD.”

He’s on the advisory board and so is Deloitte & Touche, UBS and the Harvard Business School.

Major financial supporters are the Bloomberg Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

On what is a green life and why it’s time to wake up

What David Gottfried is most passionate about these days is deeper than green buildings. Like the movement itself, his concern has spread from the specifics of buildings, to the wider implications of a greener life and our place on this planet.

His questions now are: “What is a green life? And why are we here? What’s the spirit of green, and what is stewardship?

Gottfried says he wants to bring back the “e” in “human”.

“That’s where my mind is at. I try to plant seeds for growth.”

His thinking and reading reach deep into his Jewish background and culture, and into wide philosophical reading.

Somewhere in this reading Gottfried noticed that before the word human, about 600 years ago, there was “humane”.

His quest now, he says is to bring back the “e” into the word “human”.

Connecting the dots and the battle with ego

As someone who’s been more on the side of science than art, at least until recently, Gottfried says he’s come from a more linear way of thinking, but he now likes to “connect the dots”.

He also likes to wake people up, he says. And it comes out in his painting.

“My brain is so horizontal. I’m not normal.

“I’m trained in industrial engineering, I studied solar and business and accounting, I was a photographer printing in my own dark room, I’ve been a real estate developer. I helped invent the green building movement. Then I write memoirs and two years ago became a modern art painter. And I’m a gardener.”

And he goes from doing IRRs (internal rates of return) to lying around on the floor with his kids “playing like I’m a five year old”.

Gottfried also struggles with his own ego, he says, and he fights it regularly. Sometimes he loses the battle.

“I have ego; sometimes it’s big, but I’m reading Eckhart Tolle for the fifth time [a spiritual author] and Brené Brown [who writes about human emotions and attributes such as vulnerability, courage and authenticity shame] , because I’m taking on my own ego; It’s a weakness.”

The waitress comes to take our order for lunch. Gottfried ignores the menu and asks for a burger – no bun – wrapped in lettuce, with fries.

For a year he was a vegan, he explains, inspired by Ché Wall, but Gottfried found he needed meat.

Diet is important to him. So many people have it wrong, he says.

“I’m tired actually. I might do all this and look like the busiest guy in the world. I’m not tired of everything. I can paint all night long. I can have a fine conversation with a good friend.”

What he wants is to be “congruent”, “not hustling across the room to get the deal. Better to be looking for a friend who can give you a good hug.”

At Greenbuild, Gottfried loved the contribution of Twitter founder Biz Stone, who seemed to be very much himself and enjoying the session, in casual clothes, not designed to impress, saying that the future of marketing was philanthropy.

“You have $4 million, you give $3 million to an orphanage and $1 million to promote it”, Stone told the audience.

Gottfried likes the candour. We need it, he says, “because we’re all trying to fit into a broken model”.

“We’re broken, some of us. We’re greenies in toxic bodies. We‘re eating gluten and sugar, and a lot of us are angry and stressed, and have high cortisol.”

What he wants is to question the green building movement on congruence.

“What do they eat? How do they treat their kids?  How far do they commute to work? How big is their ego? How much do they give to the school? Are they available?

“Maybe they’re brilliant but it’s an isolated brilliance.  Everyone gives [the star] a standing ovation and the wife divorces him because he never came home.”

Is it possible to be balanced and achieve great things? Save the world?

“Narcissism is embedded in a lot of the brilliance,” Gottfried says.

“I’m trying to take that on myself. Maybe we’re not fixed. Have I done enough if I still have a pulse?

“I’ve left the GBC before and they got broken and I came back and helped.”

“I keep it quiet because businesses often drop, too, and the public doesn’t know. Everyone puts their best face on.”

Gottfried would like to “move into the new modality of business by making a tonne of money by helping the Earth and its people”.

And yes it could be by his new prolific art.

On women and capitalism and why men need to get out of the way

Gottfried’s wife Sara’s work is as a doctor specialising in women’s hormones and the impact of a more stressful life on metabolism, libido and mood. She’s now a New York Times best-selling author of The Hormone Cure and writing her next two books.

He says there’s an epidemic of hormone imbalance in women from 25 to 60 years of age, shown in fad diets, cortisol, oestrogen imbalance, thyroid problems and anxiety from the stress of modern life.

“We’re not meant to live like that.”

Gottfried thinks the disconnect of men is deeper.

He has his own hormones measured several times a year and  Sara reviews the data.

“I think men should get out of the way and let women lead. I think we’ve showed what our ego and reptilian brain can do. When we get angry we want to harm. And women don’t do that.

So it’s men that need the liberating?

Yes. And that’s why he paints – it’s part of the yearning for nurturing.

The world needs a more feminine model, he says.

But doesn’t he agree that women’s influence is growing?

Yes, “but it’s growing in the male model and it’s wrong”.

Women’s levels of testosterone are rising, he says, but the world needs more oestrogen, “not rockets and bombs”.

Some more truth in relationships would help, he says.

Typically, he says, a conversation goes like this:

“How are you?


“What’s going on?


“What are you doing?

‘I had this client and this client.’

“And maybe that’s true, but say, ‘How are you?’, and I say, ‘Well, I feel kind of depressed.’ You don’t hear that.

“Or, ‘Great, I just took a two-hour nap’ Or, ‘I just spent the morning taking graffiti off the library’ or ‘serving spaghetti at my kid’s school’. Or, ‘I took all of my IP [intellectual property] and posted it on the web and gave it away.’”

Gottfried gains a lot of comfort and insight from the Jewish “Talmudic way” that humans have come from “something bigger and there is divine spirit. And this place is our home and at the moment the only home.”

It’s time to wake up, he says.

“Sustainability is based on having a future and capitalism is based on making money, and they need to merge.”


Key inspiration for Gottfried has come from his friend and mentor David Brower. When he died 13 years ago at age 88, there were 2000 people at his funeral, called a life-celebration.

Gottfried listened hard to the eulogies for the hallmarks of a life worth living. Brower was humble, open and honest, Gottfried says.

“And I just don’t think most of our leaders are like that.”

“Judaism teaches, ‘Give to the earth.’”

As a religion it’s essentially “2000 years of commentary on how to live a better life”.

Yom Kippur, for instance, the day of atonement, is about forgiveness, but it requires that the day before you go to the people you have hurt and ask for forgiveness.

“You can’t just go to the temple and say God please forgive me for those sins.”

The best speaker he’s seen at Greenbuild was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man with the “most beautiful soul and sparkling eyes you ever saw in your life”.

“And that,” says Gottfried, “is what the green building movement is about.”

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  1. Thank you Tina, and thank you David for so eloquently sharing such personal insights and resonant truths about the quest that we all face to create our own life balance, and how this personal balance is the foundation of success to all wider sustainability initiatives.