Focus on Leadership: Mahesh Ramanujam, CEO of USGBC - Aug/Sep 19

Interview by Kemp Harr

Mahesh Ramanujam served as both chief operating officer and chief innovation officer for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) before taking the reins as president and chief executive officer of the organization and its sister, Green Business Certification, in late 2016.

Raised in Chennai, India, Ramanujam graduated from Annamalai University with a degree in computer engineering, and, before joining USGBC, served as chief operation officer of Emergys Corp. and had tenures at IBM and Lenovo.

Ramanujam believes strongly that “leading a long and healthy life shouldn’t be a privilege but a basic right for everyone” and that green architecture supports this higher quality of life, not just benefiting the individuals inhabiting the building, but, ultimately, raising all boats. This coincides well with the U.S. Green Building Council’s mission, which is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.

Q: What drove you to a career in sustainability?
A:
Growing up in Chennai, India, “sustainability” wasn’t a buzzword in my family, it was a simple fact of life. With an income equivalent to about $50/month, my parents somehow managed to pay for my education entirely and support my brother and me. I feel extremely fortunate to be where I am today. At the same time, I know there were others less fortunate than me. There were children in my neighborhood who went to school just for the free meal provided, and many of them lived in rags. It’s a sad state when starvation leads to education. I am dedicated to working towards improving quality of life for all. I believe a higher living standard is what every person on the planet deserves, and leading a long and healthy life shouldn’t be a privilege but a basic right for everyone, regardless of their circumstance.

Q: What aspect of your role as USGBC CEO are you most passionate about?
A:
I enjoy meeting and connecting with our many members around the world and hearing their stories about how green buildings have made a personal impact on them and their communities. Over the past year, I’ve been travelling extensively and going into communities across the U.S. and around the world to hear directly from folks about how green building and sustainable practices impact their lives-and how we can all work together to build a better future. When I see young people who are passionate about these issues, that is especially inspiring!

Q: How do you balance the environmental aspect of sustainability with the economic and social aspects? How has this changed in recent years, and what do you expect looking ahead?
A:
All three are important, but in recent years, the social aspect has gained more prominence, and I expect that to continue. I predict that health and wellness will fundamentally disrupt green building. Recently, USGBC conducted qualitative and quantitative research across five regions of the U.S that examined people’s perspective on the environment, green building and sustainability. This research has shown us that what people want most are ways of having a better day-to-day experience in their lives. They told us they want cleaner air and less waste; they want to reduce energy use; and they want to conserve water.

Q: How has the heightened awareness of climate change in recent years impacted your cause of minimizing energy usage within the built environment?
A:
All over the world, people are talking about climate change, but we are concerned about making people act on climate change. We have inspired nearly 100,000 registered and certified projects to participate in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Each of these certified projects is implementing energy efficiency measures, and we know these buildings are using less energy than conventional buildings. And for every certification building, there are also buildings that have been built to LEED standards but haven’t necessarily gone through the certification process, and they, too, are using less energy.

However, the stakes have never been higher. It is clear that the effects of climate change are real, and they have real-life consequences on businesses, people and communities. Over the next 25 years, climate change will continue to impact millions of lives. Many cities will become overpopulated. Millions of people and trillions of dollars in assets will be at risk. And our quality of life, as we know it, could be a relic of the past. I believe that every person on the planet deserves a better, more sustainable life.

Q: Where does the U.S. stand today, and how much further do we have to go to either create or convert buildings so that they comply with LEED principles?
A:
The U.S. remains the number one market in the world for LEED and green building and has helped raise the bar for building codes across the country to the extent that some cities and states, like California, surpass the standards set by LEED. But we still have a long way to go. Buildings are responsible for an enormous amount of global energy use, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings in the U.S. are responsible for more than 40% of energy use and roughly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so the building sector has one of the largest potentials for significantly reducing natural resource depletion. But the building sector as a whole is not yet reversing its contribution or showing the necessary improvements to mitigate climate-related risk. As the population grows and building space per capita increases, the relative significance of buildings to climate is only increasing.

Q: What is the number one item to make the most positive impact on reversing climate change with regard to commercial buildings? What’s number two?
A:
The most critical challenge we face is realizing greater market penetration in our existing buildings. Historically, the largest marketshare for green buildings has been in new construction in major metropolitan areas. But new construction also represents only roughly 2% of the global real estate portfolio. Existing buildings are by far the largest market and hold great promise for the greening of our commercial buildings.

Number two would be focusing on the performance of our buildings. If we are going to make progress, it’s important that our buildings continue to demonstrate leadership in sustainability and continuous improvement long after they are constructed and occupied.

Q: What is the biggest single source of waste in the built environment?
A:
One of the biggest sources of waste in buildings is the use of inefficient materials. The energy lost through a building’s walls, roof and windows is the largest single waste of energy in most buildings. As a result, the energy efficiency of a building often depends on the materials that help create its envelope. Using energy-saving products and technologies in building envelopes, such as proper insulation, can help save enough energy annually to power, heat and cool up to 56 million households or run up to 135 million vehicles each year.

Q: What is the USGBC’s opinion on the Green New Deal that’s been proposed?
A:
I am glad an active dialogue has begun on climate change and inequality. These areas we have been working on for over 25 years through LEED and the other major programs within our organization’s mission.

Q: Perhaps more than most other cultures, Americans are often accused of having a disposable mentality. With your global perspective, should we be more focused on lifecycle than initial cost and maintenance profile?
A:
When I first came to America, I was stunned by the focus on human comfort from a consumer perspective, be it a to-go cup of coffee or the convenience of a drive-thru. At the time, simple comforts like these were largely missing from developing countries. It was clear to me that investment was both near-term (money) as well as long-term (comfort). My argument will always be that we should, first and foremost, be focused on making things comfortable for humans, while caring for the environment, rather than making it simply about cost and maintenance.

Q: Do you give credence to the concept of biophilia in the built environment? Does creating a carpet that looks like a riverbed qualify, or do you have to install a real wood floor (tree) or wool carpet (animal hair) to qualify?

A:
Nature can provide important emotional, spiritual and health benefits. Biophilic design is used to increase a building occupant’s connection to nature through the use of natural daylight and water features; visual connections with nature and natural systems; and things like changes in temperature, humidity and airflow that mimic natural environments. The concept has credence because it can reduce stress, enhance creativity and cognitive function and improve health and wellness. People might not necessarily connect a carpet that looks like a riverbed to nature more than a real wood floor, but both are important sources of direct and indirect nature in biophilic design.

Q: The flooring industry has seen a dramatic rise in the use of polished concrete as an interior wear surface. Is this a good thing?
A:
Polished concrete flooring supports LEED certification and has green triple-bottom-line implications. It is extremely durable, low maintenance, cost effective and efficient, and enjoys a long lifecycle and helps improve indoor air quality.

Q: What can manufacturers in the flooring business do to help your organization achieve its goals?
A:
One thing manufacturers can do is conduct Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) and issue Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for their products. Architects and other building professionals face a myriad of choices when selecting materials for their buildings, and LCAs and EPDs remove the guesswork for them. They allow [specifiers] to make early design decisions to reduce environmental impact and help them understand the energy use and other environmental impacts associated with all lifecycle phases of the material-from raw material procurement, to manufacturing, to construction, to operation and decommissioning. Manufacturers can also continue to contextualize and speak about their products in terms of human experience.

Q: In your opinion, what is the greenest type of flooring?
A:
The greenest type of flooring is that which takes a holistic and integrated approach to multiple attributes, including low-emitting and healthy materials, emissions profile and its impact on indoor environmental quality (IEQ), embodied carbon, durability, and recyclability and renewability of the materials.
 
Q: Beyond cost, what is the greatest barrier to the greening of the built environment?
A:
Changing mindsets. People still focus on the business case for green building, but we know that the most important reason for building green is ensuring higher quality of life. People don’t make the connection that we need them to: better buildings equal better lives. In order to make green building a mainstream concept, we need to solve this paradigm. This is why USGBC announced its new Living Standard campaign. The goal of the campaign is to focus on what matters most within our buildings: human beings. We aim to change perceptions and inspire action to create a community that collectively tells the story of why every person on the planet deserves a universal living standard and through personal stories show the tangible and positive impacts that green buildings have on health and quality of life.

Q: How important are restorative and regenerative environmental strategies to the green building movement?
A:
This is where the future of green building is headed. By 2050, the total global floor area of all buildings is expected to double to more than 400 billion square meters. And each new building will last for multiple generations. That means the choices we make today are locked in for the foreseeable future, so we have to make the right decisions and keep setting our sights higher. ?At USGBC, we have intensified our efforts to support and advance global collaboration to decarbonize buildings, grids and communities by investing our resources and leveraging our tools and technology towards a positive vision. The next phase of our efforts will be LEED Positive, where buildings are actually generating more energy than they use and removing more carbon than they produce.

Q: Can you explain the fundamental difference between LEED v4.1 and earlier iterations? In terms of environmental sustainability, how exactly is it more effective?
A:
Last March, we introduced a series of updates designed to improve our LEED standards, encourage leadership and make our platform more user friendly, more accessible-and most importantly-more collaborative than ever before. LEED v4.1 is USGBC’s most comprehensive, accessible and effective LEED system to date. One of the big steps we agreed on when working on LEED v4.1 was to not only raise our energy reference standard to ASHRAE 90.1 2016, but to also add a carbon metric for the first time to the rating systems for new and existing buildings to directly measure the building’s climate impact as dictated by both the grid it is part of as well as the efficiency of the building, onsite generation and storage. It is also the first time we’ve been able to connect performance-oriented strategies with outcomes.

Q: Now that you’re soliciting proposals for the next version of LEED, what sorts of changes do you expect to see? What most needs to be addressed and overhauled?
A:
I expect the changes to continue to raise the bar on the market, and to ensure that LEED is not only a de facto leadership standard but also a living standard. To do that, we need to directly connect human experience to LEED strategies and goals. And we have to help the market leap-frog its current state so that we can deliver on our regenerative and positive vision because standing still means we will fall behind.

Q: What do you do to relax when you aren’t focused on work?
A:
I like to meditate.

Q: Who are your mentors?
A:
People who I have not met but who have inspired my career are Steve Jobs, Jim Collins and Peter Drucker. Of course, I have had the fantastic opportunity to work closely with Rick Fedrizzi over the last ten years, from whom I continue to learn so much. My friend Scot Horst also taught me about the power and impact of LEED. And my brother George Bandy, from whom I learned humility.

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