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Day Three at GreenBuild: John Picard’s Vision of the Future

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur claims to have a plan to solve the climate change crisis

Posted on Oct 8 2011 by Martin Holladay

Have you ever paid $8 for a movie ticket and still had to sit through commercial messages in the theater before they showed the main feature?

Commercial messages are an established part of the American way of doing business, and we’ve all learned how to sit through them when necessary. The same rules apply at a major conference like GreenBuild as at your local Cineplex. Even if you pay $700 for a ticket, you still have to sit through a few ads.

At national conferences, some speakers are invited because they are experts in their field. Others buy their way on stage.

At the opening plenary session of the GreenBuild conference on October 4, 2011, in Toronto, the audience listened politely to a commercial message from David Kohler, the faucet-and-bathtub magnate whose plumbing supply company helped fund the conference. At the closing plenary session, conference attendees listened politely to Scott Case, Director of Markets Development for UL Environment, as Case explained what his company, a conference sponsor, was up to.

However, the oddest speaker by far at GreenBuild’s closing plenary session, John Picard, was hard to categorize. Was this another advertisement from a conference sponsor? Or did the invitation for Picard to speak just represent a monumental example of poor judgment on the part of the conference organizers?

Fedrizzi, Bloomberg, and Picard

From all appearances, Picard is an entrepreneur drumming up interest from investors in his Silicon Valley start-up, Soft Power. From his October 7 speech, it appeared clear that he is a personal friend of USBGC president Rick Fedrizzi, and that they two of them like to hobnob with Republican politicians, especially New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Picard speech was a train wreck — strangely fascinating to watch, all the more so because it occurred on stage before a crowd of thousands. His nervousness had a hint of mania to it. His message, in a nutshell, was the following:

  • We are about to solve the climate change crisis.
  • The solution to the crisis is more technology — specifically, energy monitoring equipment and software that Picard hopes to develop and promote.
  • Picard expects to become very wealthy from his new company.
  • Picard is promising owners of commercial real estate that they, too, will become wealthy if they install his equipment
  • Michael Bloomberg is a genius who will eventually become president of the U.S.
  • Picard is a very important person who is about to change the world, and his vision of the future is one that USGBCUnited States Green Building Council (USGBC). Organization devoted to promoting and certifying green buildings. USGBC created the LEED rating systems. shares.

“I'm out in front”

I took notes continuously during the speech, but I was unable to keep up with Picard’s rapid flow. Picard told us, “The path ahead is a major shift: the shift from analog to digital. I’m out in front catching fire, catching flak. I’m fearless about seeing ideas and all that may be possible. Anything is possible. In a place called the Valley. My career is a series of seminal movements. This is what’s next: the Valley. The Valley is about what is next. Silicon Valley.

“We are now armed with artificial intelligence, advanced simulation systems, advanced visualization tools. We are armed with people: the people who backed Ebay and Amazon. We are building the Facebook of energy. We call it Soft Power.

“This is a game changer. We’re working with Grundfos and David Kohler. The idea is to use the cloud. What’s the cloud? The cloud means loading all the world’s data to one place. We need to scale this up — this new machine. I want to do as much good as I possibly can.

“We have a concept for I-Buildings. We will launch these kinds of things in New York. We can switch the value portfolio of New York up, because the fifth fuel exists there. It’s actionable information. It’s about engaging the tenant. Over half the building cost is fixed. Soft Power is how we get higher utilization of that asset. These buildings will have lower risk. They are auditable because they are mathematically expressed. We can increase the value of your building. New York will be worth 20% more.

“Let me project forward: in 2014, Soft Power goes on line. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg wins the U.S. presidency. In 2020, we reach the peak of Mount Sustainability.

“We will win every bid to build what is right. Facebook is one of the most unifying forces today. We all love life, and soon we will have the power to protect it, to discover what is right. I am the son of an Apollo engineer. And I am the first one who went to the steps of the White House...”

At that point in the proceedings, I broke off taking notes to write an aside — “Megolomania?” — and by the time I was ready to resume taking notes, the crowd was applauding loudly.

My impression is that the USGBC represents a small slice of the green building movement — and a rather strange one.

Last week’s blog: “How to Install Rigid Foam Sheathing.”

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Oct 8, 2011 9:34 AM ET

Interesting Take
by Sean @ SLS

While I was not there for this speech, I was at one of his 3 weeks ago at Green Building Focus & granted they where probably different - but the one I attended was an interesting look back at the past, the present & future. While he did talk allot about his projects, (aren't we all megalomaniacs to some extent) he covered many issues & his take on them. While maybe a little lean on things learned that one can take away from, there was some in there & it beats some other seminars I have been to.

Now as for the comment on slices & strangeness - oh how true for many of these organizations conferenceses. I mean I have even heard of this crazy group that meets in a crawl space for wine & discussions... (shoot, now I am never going to be invited to BSC) - 3rd one down (day 1) has my take on Picard's speech. One reason recommendingding others try to check it out online is echoed by your point on the speed he goes through this.

Oct 8, 2011 9:52 AM ET

Edited Oct 8, 2011 9:52 AM ET.

Response to Sean
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your link and for sharing your impressions of another Picard speech. I'm glad that you found his presentation enlightening.

Every speech is different, of course. There were at least three issues apparent at the speech I attended: a lack of coherence; an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a certainty that technology will save us.

My version of green building differs from that of Picard, and apparently, from that of the USGBC.

Oct 8, 2011 10:55 AM ET

One more response to Sean
by Martin Holladay

You're right that there is nothing wrong with representing a small slice of a movement. And it's quite possible then techno-skeptics like me represent a smaller slice of the movement than techno-boosters like Picard.

Oct 8, 2011 1:15 PM ET

Martin, it seems the jist of
by David Meiland

Martin, it seems the jist of your piece is "this guy is nuts", rather than telling us his ideas and why you don't agree with them. It may be that he didn't really have any ideas.

Oct 8, 2011 5:21 PM ET

Edited Oct 10, 2011 4:22 PM ET.

Response to David
by Martin Holladay

I'm sorry if my blog was unclear.

Although I wasn't able to type as fast as Picard was speaking, I was listening carefully. He never gave a coherent explanation of his proposed technology, but my impression was that he hopes to sell energy-monitoring equipment and related software designed for large commercial and multi-unit buildings.

Personally, I don't think that such software is likely to result in enough reductions of carbon emissions to bring us "to the top of Mount Sustainability" (to use Picard's phrase) by 2020. I think that the vision he painted of a future where our carbon problems are all solved by that date is grandiose and unlikely.

Oct 8, 2011 7:40 PM ET

by Mike Steffen

From reading your posts about all three days of the conference, it is clear that - despite ample opportunities - you did not stop by the Kool-Aid booth at the trade show.

I attended GreenBuild four years ago and was repulsed at the commercial excess on display, not only at the trade show where you would expect it, but during the keynotes, etc. I can only imagine it has grown since then. It is a shame that conferences such as Buildings XI (ASHRAE) and BEST (NIBS) do not get the same support and attendance. The substance is there and one doesn't feel abused by the commercial overlay while attending to learn about the latest in green building ideas, techniques and research.

Oct 9, 2011 6:53 AM ET

Edited Oct 9, 2011 5:47 PM ET.

Response to Mike Steffen
by Martin Holladay

So I guess I'm not the only one to notice a few commercial excesses the the GreenBuild conference. And you're right -- I evidently missed the Kool-Aid booth.

I've never had a chance to attend a BEST conference, but I've been to the "Buildings + Roman Numeral" conference three times. (The most recent one, Buildings XI, was held in December 2010.) It's a great conference -- quite different in tone from the one I just attended in Toronto.

Oct 9, 2011 9:11 AM ET

Response to Martin
by Sean @ SLS

First, thanks for the response Martin. Hmmm, based off your response & Mike's - I am glad I didn’t make it to this conference, if that is the norm for them. I know you have written numerous blog site reviews, maybe you should consider getting a group tgether and doing a condensed version of different conferences & overall takes from them - 4 USGBC Kool Aid Drinkers, techno heavy but....

On the lines of software & other solutions, I find it interesting that hardly anyone brings up the point about how much energy is wasted measuring & monitoring all these different systems. For example, motion detectors and smart lighting system consume electricity 24x7, the monitoring programs that require a PC, laptop, or server(s) running 24x7, etc...

I know when I did IT security for a while, we were very conscious of what programs or monitoring we placed on each server - it had nothing to do with the power used, but the space required & how much it would / could slow the server responses down by utilizing more CPU & Memory resources. Bringing this back to energy efficiency - the more those 3 resources are used increases not only the power used, but also the heat generated which can be pretty significant.

Oct 10, 2011 1:09 AM ET

Picard @ Green Building Focus
by Mike Collignon

I attended the Green Building Focus Conference that Sean mentioned. I had never heard of Picard before, but sat through his presentation. The impression I got was that he likes to claim he was the first at.. well, everything. 1st LEED hotel, 1st to green the White House, 1st LEED home in CA, designed largest home in the world, etc., etc.

I wanted to ask if there was anything that he wasn't first at doing. Like inventing fire or paper.

In all seriousness, the more he spoke, the more it made me question his credibility. As a speaker, that's not what you want for an audience takeaway.

GreenBuild has had some very notable speakers in the past. The choice of Picard, along with the no-show of Bloomberg, makes me think this was an incredibly poor year. Whether that was attributable to show management or the location's lack of a draw, I wouldn't know.

My guess is the show will improve when it goes to SF in 13 months.

Oct 10, 2011 5:13 AM ET

Edited Oct 10, 2011 11:00 AM ET.

Second response to Sean
by Martin Holladay

You wrote, "Maybe you should consider getting a group together and doing a condensed version of different conferences & overall takes from them."

In fact, GBA has provided many conference reports in the past. Here's a selection:

Carl Seville's Jan. 2009 report from the International Builders' Show

One of Martin Holladay's reports from the Jan. 2009 International Builders' Show

Another one of Martin Holladay's reports from the Jan. 2009 International Builders' Show

Still another report from the Jan. 2009 International Builders' Show

Yet another report from the Jan. 2009 International Builders' Show

Peter Yost's Feb. 2009 report on the Affordable Comfort conference

Daniel Morrison's report from the March 2009 NESEA conference

Carl Seville's report from the April 2009 Affordable Comfort conference

Richard Defendorf's announcement of the May 2009 National Green Building Conference

Richard Defendorf's announcement of the Sept. 2009 Healthy Buildings International Conference

Carl Seville's Nov. 2009 report from the GreenBuild conference

Alex Wilson's Nov. 2009 report from the GreenBuild conference

Carl Seville's Jan. 2010 report from the International Builders' Show

Richard Defendorf's Jan. 2010 report from the International Builders' Show

Carl Seville's April 2010 report from the Affordable Comfort conference

Rob Wotzak's announcement of the May 2010 National Green Building Conference

Carl Seville's May 2010 report from the National Green Building Conference

Richard Defendorf's Nov. 2010 announcement of the Colorado Energy Star Summit

Carl Seville's Nov. 2010 report from the GreenBuild conference

Carl Seville's Jan. 2011 report from the International Builders' Show

Martin Holladay's report from the March 2011 NESEA conference

Martin Holladay's report from the March 2011 Passive House Northwest conference

Carl Seville's March 2011 report from the Greenprints conference

Carl Seville's April 2011 report from the ACI National Home Performance Conference

Oct 10, 2011 10:39 AM ET

Good recap
by Carl Seville

Thanks for the articles about this year's conference, Martin. I didn't make it this year, and it was nice to get another cynic's perspective on it. It sounds like the rampant commercialism reached new heights this year, in previous years they managed to keep it somewhat in check at least during the keynotes. Somehow you missed my recap of the 2010 conference in your list - ( While I found the closing plenary cogent and interesting, it did have a very high Kool-Aid quotient in it. At one point, I felt like I was in church or synagogue with people hushing me from several directions when I was trying to talk to some friends.

Oct 10, 2011 10:46 AM ET

Edited Oct 10, 2011 10:49 AM ET.

Response to my fellow cynic and Kool-Aid avoider
by Martin Holladay

Sorry to have neglected your reports from the 2009 and 2010 GreenBuild conferences. I've corrected the omissions; links to both reports are now included in my earlier comment.

I know I come off as a cynic -- but I'm actually an optimist and an enthusiastic proponent of green building. But I'm turned off when I see signs that a movement is being corrupted by large sums of money -- and that certainly appears to be the case with the USGBC.

Oct 10, 2011 11:43 AM ET

large sums of money
by mike eliason

Don't have to stop with the vendors...

Green Building's Tristan Roberts claimed there were ~150,000 LEED APs that had passed the exam as of 2010. With exam costs running from $300 (members) to $450 - and none of this includes training materials. this means the USGBC/GBCI has garnered at least $45M (minus testing center fees) from successful examinations. Taking into account the pass/fail rate of ~30-34% and that number approaches $135M.

But one day they might require actual energy efficiency... You know, since it's in their acronym.

Oct 10, 2011 11:48 AM ET

Response to Mike Eliason
by Martin Holladay

Here's some more math: There were 23,000 people at the Toronto conference. If each conference-goer paid $700 for their ticket, the conference grossed $16 million from those fees. But of course they collected more, since every business who wanted a booth on the trade-show floor had to pay for the booth.

Oct 10, 2011 4:01 PM ET

First last and in between...
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

First last and in between... money rules most, of what most, of us do, think, and ... well eat and of course... build.

So glad I did not plunk down $700 to see Picard when I can see him in action on youtube for quite a bit less.

Oct 10, 2011 5:10 PM ET

Response to Martin, others
by Mike Collignon

Keep one thing in mind: As with all shows, the total number (in this case 23k) includes everyone.

Exhibitors pay $X / sq. ft. to exhibit, but are also given a certain allotment of badges to use for their employees/customers/etc. The employees aren't paying $700 on top of the money paid for the exhibit space, unless they also want to attend the sessions.

Admittedly, some do attend various educational and non-educational events. But I would wager that >51% don't.

I'll have to do some digging, but I know I can find some pretty solid numbers for USGBC's revenues.

Finally, I'll throw my assessment of the 2011 IBS into the list of show reviews:

Oct 10, 2011 9:31 PM ET

by Dan Kolbert

How were the tote bags?

Oct 11, 2011 4:44 AM ET

Response to Dan
by Martin Holladay

The tote bags were smaller than average, which was a good thing. The biggest problem with the swag was the cheap ball-point pen and pad of notepaper included in each bag. Multiplied by 23,000, they represented a lot of waste that ended up in the landfill.

Oct 11, 2011 1:50 PM ET

Edited Oct 11, 2011 3:08 PM ET.

2009 Greenbuild/USGBC revenues
by Mike Collignon

Here are some facts about the 2009 Greenbuild in Phoenix:

Revenues - $9,385,832
Expenses - $8,441,286

Profit - $944,546

For all USGBC events (and the registration fees that go with those), the total revenue was $10,844,791. Believe it or not, that's less than the amount USGBC collected for member dues, LEED certifications or GBCI management fees. And, if you combine their publication sales & royalty fees, then that would also rank higher than the event revenues.

Perhaps the most telling financial items of all:

1. From 2008 to 2009, total USGBC revenues went up $20.5 million. Expenses went up $15.1 million.

2. In 2008, USGBC profited >$8.5 million. In 2009, they profited >$14 million.

Oct 11, 2011 2:18 PM ET

Response to Mike Collignon
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for sharing those numbers.

Oct 12, 2011 5:06 PM ET

USGBC Revenues
by Jesse Thompson

USGBC sure does stockpile a lot of cash for a non-profit:
Go to finances section. CEO makes over $500k / year.

Change in unrestricted net assets 2007 %


Membership Dues $ 9,082,716 20%
Education $ 13,617,175 29%
Registration & Certification $ 11,195,462 24%
Conferences and meetings $ 8,435,561 18%
Grants & Sponsorship $ 2,126,120 5%
Investment Income $ 978,264 2%
Other $ 1,006,396 2%
In-Kind contribution $ 0
Total revenue $ 46,441,694


Program services
Registration and Certification $ 8,247,751 23%
Education $ 5,645,799 16%
Conference $ 6,615,801 18%
Total program services $ 20,509,351
Supporting services
General and administrative $ 9,988,312 28%
Fund Development $ 225,421 1%
Public Advocacy $ 100,000 <1%
Membership development $ 5,049,306 14%
Total supporting services $ 15,363,039

Total Expenses $ 35,833,449
Change in unrestricted net assets $ 10,569,304

Net assets, beginning of year $ 10,330,968
Net assets, end of year $ 20,900,272

Oct 12, 2011 9:06 PM ET

Response to Jesse Thompson
by Martin Holladay

The CEO you are talking about -- the one who is evidently earning over $500,000 promoting LEED certification -- is Rick Fedrizzi.

Oct 13, 2011 10:34 AM ET

Edited Oct 13, 2011 11:19 AM ET.

Pales in comparison to...
by Mike Collignon

The CEO of NAHB, who earned almost 3 times that, in 2009. That, despite taking a net operating loss of over $11.8 million.

In fact, in 2009 USGBC had $12 million more in revenues than NAHB, though a lot of that difference can be attributed to a huge loss in investment income on NAHB's part. (Seems like they might need better financial planners.)

One last thing: In comparing their two shows, IBS brought in over $37.8 million in revenues. Combined with other shows & conferences, NAHB's 2009 total event revenue topped $41.5 million.

Oct 14, 2011 6:19 PM ET

by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

I think your last line says it all, Martin: "My impression is that the USGBC represents a small slice of the green building movement — and a rather strange one."

Oct 17, 2011 2:11 PM ET

Thanks for sharing
by Marcus de la fleur

Martin, thanks God for your critical listening and observation skills - and for describing it as is and not sugar coated.

It has been very disappointing to follow the USGBC direction and development over the past few years, and I am glad that more and more people are seeing through the smoke screen.

Hopefully a good dose of constructive criticism will get the USGBC's attention and put them back on a track where they become again a true and impartial asset for the green building community.

Oct 17, 2011 2:15 PM ET

Edited Oct 17, 2011 2:34 PM ET.

Response to Marcus
by Martin Holladay

Thanks very much for the feedback. I appreciate it.

Unfortunately, I don't really share your optimistic belief that it is possible for the USGBC to get "back on track." I recently came across a seven-year old report on GreenBuild 2004 that noted, "Some industry professionals, for example, believe that the organization [USGBC] has become too commercial. They claim that individual product manufacturers are too visible, and that GreenBuild has become one large advertisement."

This trend has certainly not slowed or reversed in the seven years since those words were written.

Oct 18, 2011 2:32 PM ET

I agree, Martin
by Mike Collignon

Without making a blatant pitch for my organization, I'll just say one has to look no further than their dues structure to see that it's currently impossible for them to get "back on track".

Oct 25, 2011 12:54 PM ET

Corporate Bureaucracy In Sheeps Clothing!!
by Edward Palma

Martin thanks for the "reality check". It does not surprise me that the USGBC or NAHB is all about the money because we live in a corporately controlled capitalistic society. From the initial fees to become credentialed, through the continuing credential maintenance fees it is a constant contribution to their black hole of profit. it is interesting that they label themselves as a non-profit and glean the benefits of a non-profit, yet they post profits that rival some of our major corporations. They do not operate from a philosophy of benevolence or sheer generosity as they promote the ethics and practices of Green Building. That would mean that they would consider offering there certification benefits and personal career accreditation to all, for the ideal of promoting the movement and ultimately the healing of our sick planet. The stark reality is that they are nothing more than a corporate bureaucracy that seeks and obviously successfully obtains massive profits. The only thing that separates them from the other corporations including those that pollute for profit is the product that they sell. Many of us who have participated now see through the "smoke and mirrors" that they operate under yet we need the credentials. I do not see that this will change in the future as they have now figured out how to get applicants to contribute twice to become an AP with specialty. What once was a one step process is now a two step dance. I do not begrudge them profit to operate, but the "fat cat" salary motive to pay "do nothing" insulated bureaucrats, coupled with squeezing every last dollar out of people does not fit the ethics of the cause. It is a choice to achieve accreditation through the USGBC and NAHB, and I chose to participate. On the other hand I also chose not to be a member of either organization. My comments may sound like a complaint to some, but in reality it is only an acceptance of the obvious. As the saying goes "you have to pay to play". In contrast though the playing field needs to be leveled. EJ Palma, LEED Associate, CGP, SUNBUILDERS, Branford CT, USA

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