Robert Watson on the state of sustainable design

We spoke with Robert Watson, founder of the LEED rating system and CEO of EcoTech International, about green building today.


Looking around at the current green building initiatives in the United States, can you give an example of something you think is particularly exciting and something you find problematic?

Well, on some level they’re one and the same thing: the digitalization of building operations. We’re moving from complete opacity to transparency, and from just complete ignorance and whole metering to submetering and systems submetering. A whole layer of intelligence is being overlaid on the standing building stock. It’s obviously starting with the higher-end, larger buildings, but technologies and web-based platforms are being developed that can rapidly go into smaller and simpler buildings.

With that opportunity comes a problem: because of terrible and inaccurate sensor technology, most of the information being fed into those systems is garbage. We’ve got this big-data, big-garbage opportunity or potential tragedy that is going to come to a head in a few years, as soon as the reporting and analytical capacity gets to a level where the garbage input becomes a large-scale problem.

The other issue is that the field of building operations is completely unprepared for this wave of intelligence, this electronic nervous system that’s being very rapidly diffused. You’re going to end up having people paying all this money for these systems that are supposedly giving transparency but then either sit unused or are grotesquely underutilized by people who don’t have time to use them or don’t understand how they work.

We’ve got this big-data, big-garbage opportunity or potential tragedy that is going to come to a head in a few years

So that’s one of the very interesting areas. Eventually everything will right itself, but right now the potential of technology far exceeds its ability to be effectively absorbed in the sector. And again, that’s a tremendous opportunity, but there’s going to be a lot of money and time wasted on things that are underutilized.


You’ve done a lot of work in China. Can you give a quick overview of the state of green building there versus the United States?

Overall, green building is more developed in the US, from codes to voluntary labels, but China has made extraordinarily rapid progress.

The government in China believes that it should be the source of green building pushes. It thinks that the market should respond to the position that the government dictates, as opposed to harnessing market forces to accelerate innovation like we do in the US. That’s just a philosophical issue.

There’s a very large commitment from the central government to improve buildings and construction technology. It’s not as strong at the state level. Ironically, it’s exactly the opposite in the US. Here, there’s certainly some interest in green building in the federal government, which is the world’s largest green developer if you take all the different agencies put together. But housing policy, construction policy, is made at the state level in the United States. So obviously, what happens state by state is going to be much more influential overall than what happens at the federal government level.

Significant innovations are beginning to come out of China

China doesn’t have any incentives with utilities or taxes or anything like that, which is huge. By the same token, they’re much more willing to use mandatory measures to require certain levels of greenness than our government is. That is offset by a lack of enforcement infrastructure, however. And then always in construction in China you have issues of corruption. I certainly can’t say that it never happens here, but I think it’s a lot more prevalent there.

Significant innovations are beginning to come out of China itself. They’re not simply learning from and copying what’s going on in Europe or Australia or the US. The Broad Group in Changsha has developed really innovative HVAC technology. They’ve developed a really amazing modular construction technology that uses precision-built modular components; you’ve probably seen those videos of high-rises going up in matter of a couple of weeks.

LEED still continues to be the largest green standard in China in spite of significant efforts to push out China’s Three Star standard. Which is a very good standard — there’s nothing wrong with it — but one of the big problems was they just didn’t have the infrastructure to evaluate buildings. They had good standards and they had a relatively small but highly qualified group of people, but just not enough to meet demand.

Are there things that the US can learn from China, since they’re newer to this game?

Well, overall they have a much better mass transit infrastructure, although they’ve done almost everything they could do to undermine that by promoting private vehicles. They’ve got a road network that’s perfect for mass transit — big boulevards, large blocks, which are perfect for high-density transport — but it’s the worst possible network you can have for private vehicles. At some point China’s going to start to say, gosh, we have to choose between the 5000-year-old inward-facing courtyard-style development — and, at a much larger scale, the typical development that you see going on — and the private automobile. Because the two just cannot coexist, and the conflicts are just getting worse and worse.

Shanghai street intersection

But I think generally having a denser, more mass-transit oriented development pattern is something we could learn from.

What are you working on now?

I’m developing a platform for optimizing the environmental and economic performance of buildings over their lives. That begins with an energy investment system, which is a software tool that allows project teams to do an economic optimization of thousands of energy-efficiency measures built on top of an energy simulation platform. Depending upon the parameters that the owner or client wants to focus on — return on investment, carbon savings, energy reduction, or something else — this tool will optimize them based on the energy simulation program.

And then when the building is under operation we will do fault-detection automated diagnostics and feed them into the optimized model to true it up with what is actually happening in the building, as opposed to your typical default simulation assumptions. So it ends up being a calibrated operational model that provides an engineering-based forecasting and performance evaluation tool, rather than just guesses based on averages for certain climate zones or zip codes.

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