Inspiration and Motivation

Brendan Owens

chief of engineering, USGBC

A few years ago I was chatting with a new USGBC employee who had just joined us in a senior leadership position. We had just wrapped up a meeting about something or other and this new leader was explaining how excited they were to be working at USGBC. I get to hear that a fair amount— people like to work here and we do inspiring, important work with really fun, smart people. But the next statement they made blindsided me. It was something to the effect of “and I’m so happy to be at this place in such early days—this organization has so much potential.”

I didn’t know what to say. Had they missed the memo that LEED had fundamentally changed the construction industry? In less than a decade! In 150 countries! And 10+ billion square feet!

Sometimes the prideful, automatic reaction is the exact wrong one. The hard truth of it is that we’ve got a long, long, long way to go. In the face of the causal role that the buildings industry plays in global calamities like climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss, drought—the list goes on—it’s fundamentally irresponsible to look backward and think that our job is done. It was a humbling lesson that I’ve tried very hard to carry with me ever since.

This issue of USGBC+ is about past success to be sure, of which these examples are but a few of thousands we could have chosen. But more importantly it’s about how these buildings must be a catalyst for an even more rapid, effective, and inclusive revolution of the built environment.

I have a semi-tortured relationship with at least one of the projects we’ve chosen to highlight. Back when I joined USGBC as staff, we didn’t have very many options in terms of case studies that we could present during trainings about LEED. As such, I have, if the rough calculations I just made are correct, spoken about aspects of the Phillip Merrill Environmental Center almost 350 times in the last 15 years. Needless to say, it got kind of stale. But seeing it here is like visiting with an old friend (a friend who, in hindsight, turns out to have been more of a professor and mentor than drinking buddy) and it brings me joy.

So enjoy these case studies of the transformative work that your colleagues in this movement are responsible for— but don’t enjoy them as memorials to great work. Enjoy them as gauntlet’s thrown directly in your face as a dare to create something better. Draw inspiration from them, but more importantly draw motivation from them and then go and do it better.

USGBC’s best days, in my opinion, are the days when we work to make ourselves obsolete. The idea that we’ll look back on these buildings as artifacts of a bygone era may seem preposterous, but that time will come. We’ll look at them as buildings that used more energy than they produced or polluted rather than cleaned water and that is thrilling to me, and existential for those who come after us. So while we want to—and should celebrate what we’ve achieved, let’s also use it as a place to demarcate where we jumpstart what’s next and the future that we’re counting on you to deliver.


Brendan Owens