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Up Close with Rob Watson, LEED Founder

Chicago Sustainability

After physically collapsing in the wilderness during a Boy Scouts’ 50-miler in California, a young Rob Watson vowed to never let such lack of preparation happen to him again. (To be fair though, we don't think we've walked 50 miles in the last month.)

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Applying that lesson to sustainable development, the father of LEED outlined the fast-converging headwinds and tailwinds that real estate needs to prepare for. To name a few: water stress, a flight to cities (by 2050, 6.3 billion of 9.5 billion people globally will live in urban areas), e-commerce booming through the roof ($1.25 trillion in 2013 and more than half of global sales by 2020), and the new world of sharing (UberX, Airbnb, etc). Rob's model has been transforming the industry since the mid '90s, but the ECON Group CEO says we have only scratched the surface. (He's snapped with NGKF executive managing director Geoff Kasselman at NGKF's national industrial summit last week.)

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Rob started LEED with the goal to create something he couldn’t pass, he jokes, and something like the nutritional facts on a cereal box for green buildings. Many perceived sustainable developments to be expensive and underperforming, but we now know LEED existing buildings can save $0.90/SF annually in operational costs, and the top-line benefits are numerous. (Above, the organic garden at the 272k SF LEED Platinum Green Exchange building in Logan Square.) Green buildings improve everything from employee productivity to occupancy to asset value to rental rates, Rob says. That makes the business case clear: The building’s easier to sell and lease, easier to operate with a higher market value, and a better product that boosts brand value for tenants.

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Today about 1.7M SF of real estate is getting LEED certified each day across 160 countries, Rob says, and the USGBC continues to create more specialized criteria for industrial. (Look for more eco-industrial parks with residential and retail on campus, Rob says; they’re already happening in Asia.) But we won’t succeed with technology alone—it’s also about relationships, transparency, and delivering on promises (or lust and trust, as Rob’s 102-year-old grandma once said). His keys to green building success: Start early, discard old thinking, set a firm green goal, set a reasonable budget, and don’t compromise on that goal or budget.