The GHB Interview: Mahesh Ramanujam

Ramanujam joined USGBC in 2009 as senior vice president of technology, and was named COO in September 2011. In December 2012, he was also named president of GBCI. In 2015, when Fedrizzi announced his plans to leave USGBC toward the end of 2016, the USGBC Board of Directors named Ramanujam as incoming CEO.

  1. What were some of your industry highlights with USGBC in 2017?

2017 was a busy but extremely rewarding year for us at USGBC, and marked the first year for me as President and CEO. This year, we celebrated some very exciting milestones and continued to affirm that all around the world, LEED works. In 2000, USGBC created the LEED rating system, launching the trillion-dollar global green building industry and spurring explosive growth in energy-efficient green buildings across the globe. Today, I’m excited to be able to say that LEED is a full scale global movement with more than 92,000 registered and certified projects, totaling more than 19.5 billion square feet, across 167 countries and territories.

In an effort to accelerate city leadership and market transformation, last year we launched two new certification programs – LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities. These programs provide cities and communities with a framework for measuring, managing and improving the performance of their economy, environment and their people. They are all-encompassing programs aimed at improving the quality of life of citizens across the world. They encompass sustainability and much more—quality of life, health, prosperity, equity, education, resilience, infrastructure and energy—and help a city demonstrate its commitment to its citizens. We’re proud to say that already, Washington, D.C., Arlington County and Phoenix have earned certification under the new LEED for Cities rating system at the Platinum level, which is the highest level possible.

This year, we also expanded our Greenbuild platform to include conferences in China and India, in addition to our annual Greenbuild conference held in the United States. Thousands of builders, developers, thought leaders, sustainability experts and more convened in Shanghai, Mumbai and Boston to discuss technologies and advancements that make it easier to build healthy and sustainable buildings. These new events served as a platform for green building knowledge and shared expertise across continents, while scaling the breadth and reach of global market transformation for the built environment.

We continued to fully implement the newest version of the LEED rating system, LEED v4, which significantly raises the bar on our buildings’ performance and sets a new benchmark for sustainability. LEED v4 is the most robust version of LEED ever, demanding stronger energy performance, better materials, increased water efficiency and accounting for human experience. As of December 2017, there are nearly 3,500 projects across 100 countries participating in LEED v4.

Finally, we launched a new technology platform, Arc, which will revolutionize the way buildings, communities and cities are designed, constructed and operated. Arc is designed to take LEED and the global green building movement to the next level through the shared use of technology, feedback and recognition of excellence. Through the Arc platform, all buildings can improve and work toward LEED certification. Arc allows any project—whether a single building, community or even a city—to enter the platform, make improvements and benchmark against itself and projects around it. LEED-certified buildings can use Arc to improve and benchmark against other certified buildings around them, and existing buildings that have not yet certified can also use the platform to make incremental sustainability improvements to eventually achieve LEED certification.

  1. Building codes are changing. For example, by 2020 all homes in CA will need to meet ZNE standards. How do you feel about this? Where do you think these changes in building codes are taking the industry?

Over the last 17 years since its release in 2000, LEED has served as a rating system, a market development and marketing tool and a third-party verification system. It has also become a policy development tool—government leaders have embraced and mandated LEED. In the U.S., many cities and government agencies require that every new building be built to LEED. More than 400 municipalities, 32 states and 14 federal agencies reference LEED as a best-practice for achieving their sustainability goals for buildings.

Many state and city leaders have begun to adopt green building criteria as part of building code in response to the demand for sustainable and high performance buildings in their communities. We launched LEED seventeen years ago so that the world’s businesses would have a tool that would deliver the immediate and measurable results they need to provide what is good for the environment, but also good for the bottom line. Our experience with LEED has only taught us that leaders across all sectors, including government at all levels, understand that sustainability works.

At the same time, they also understand that they will do well by doing good. There is increased evidence that shows that purpose driven models are indeed also good business and governance models for the long term. Consumers are equally asking for a more sustainable and equitable future for all, and are increasingly making their spending choices on that basis. So, it is no surprise that building codes around the country reflect the direction of the market, and that states like California, which has a history of leadership in sustainability, are making strides toward net zero.

  1. Green was once more of a niche market, but it’s quickly gaining momentum. What do you credit the rise in the green residential sector?

At USGBC, we have a strong vision of a sustainable built environment within a generation and are transforming the places, communities and cities where we work, learn, play and, most importantly, live. This vision is simple—that buildings, communities and cities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation. We believe that every building should be a green building – and especially homes – and that everyone in the world should have access to green buildings and green homes.

Why? Because LEED-certified homes benefit the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. They are not only better for the environment; LEED-certified homes enhance the health and wellbeing of their occupants, providing clean indoor air and incorporating safe building materials to ensure comfort and safety. They are designed to save critical resources – energy and water – and can lower utility bills each month. And in many markets, certified green homes are now selling quicker and for more money than comparable non-green homes, and apartments in LEED buildings are leasing up quicker and for higher rates as well. According to a 2016 report based on the Washington, D.C. market, high-performing single family and multi-family homes with green features sell for 3.5 percent more than those without green features.

Ultimately, the rise in green building in the residential sector is driven by market demand. According to a study on green labels in the California housing market, the construction of new single family green homes grew from 2 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2013, representing a potential $36 billion market opportunity. In 2018, the green single-family housing market is estimated to represent about 40 percent of the market in the U.S., and 84 percent of all residential construction will have sustainable features.

Economically, green homes make sense. Nationwide, the typical household spends about $2,150 on residential energy bills each year, but LEED-certified homes are designed to use about 30 to 60 percent less energy than their conventional counterparts. Green homes can be built for the same cost as—and sometimes less than—conventional homes. Average upfront costs of 2.4 percent are quickly recouped, as a homeowner will save money for the duration of a green home’s lifespan.

  1. How does USGBC work with builders and other professionals in the home building industry, to advocate for sustainability and energy efficiency?

The global green building movement is a community of 13 million strong who all have one thing in common—a steadfast belief that the green building movement has the power to change our world definitively for the better. For the past 20 years, the heart and soul of this movement have been USGBC’s nearly 12,000 member companies and their employees, our 22,000 community members and our more than 201,000 LEED credential holders who have been our boots on the ground as we continually develop tools and resources to make green residential projects more available and obtainable.

At USGBC, we work toward our mission of market transformation for the built environment through our LEED green building program, robust educational offeringsan international network of local community leaders, the Greenbuild conference and expo platform, the Center for Green Schools and advocacy in support of public policy that encourages and enables green buildings and communities.

  1. What will USGBC focus on for 2018? 

At USGBC, we have a vision that buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation. In 2018, USGBC will continue to focus on elevating what we expect from our buildings, communities and cities. With a relentless focus on building performance, we will showcase the power of data and benchmarking to drive innovation and continuous improvement. We know that when we measure our progress, we can better manage our processes and programs to achieve superior results.

We also know that in order to realize a sustainable future for all, the next generation of green building must focus on the development of smart cities and communities. Our cities must adopt smart city and smart grid policies, implement technologies that improve the performance of their communities and cities, and continue to incorporate concepts like wellness and sustainable sites into city planning and development.

As President & CEO, I also pledge to continue to further modernize and enhance USGBC and GBCI’s capabilities, while striving every day to bring more people into our global movement, to widen our sphere of influence and to innovate beyond our wildest dreams. With great optimism for the future, I have outlined a 2020 vision for USGBC, which combines USGBC’s collective, community-wide creativity and spirit of innovation and our wide range of resources to provide best-in-class products, services and programs to the global green building industry. All with the goal of further sustainable building practices across the world with purpose-driven speed. As part of this vision of 2020, USGBC’s primary focus over the next four years will be to further the use of LEED in the global marketplace, offer best-in-class sustainability education, remain the global thought leader on green building and serve as the global convener for the green building movement.

In the residential sphere, we will focus our efforts on making the LEED residential program as streamlined and accessible as possible; reaching out to underserved and lower-income communities to ensure that green homes are not beyond the reach of those most in need. We will continue to work to level the playing field and expand access to sustainable, healthy, green buildings and all of the benefits that come with them. Working with leaders across sectors, we are seeking to expand our reach significantly. In the next five years, we will aim for 20 percent growth in our regional reach, 20 percent growth in our reach across sectors, and 20 percent growth in our product offerings and availability. Overall, we will aim for 20 percent growth in targeted markets — especially those that are underserved or disadvantaged.

For us, growth is about more than reaching new heights in high-performance building design and development. Growth is about making sure everyone has a seat at the table. Our success will be measured by our ability to broaden the scope of our work and to better meet the needs of communities of all kinds, including communities of students and youth.

In 2018, Greenbuild will continue to grow with shows in Europe, Mexico, China, India and Chicago, welcoming audiences from emerging and expanding green building markets. One of the chief tenets of our vision is that our work be accessible to all, and that benefit everyone. Above all, green buildings are about people and USGBC is dedicated to shifting paradigms around social equity as it relates to the built environment. Through platforms like Greenbuild, we deliver our message of inclusivity and impact at the local, regional and global levels.

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