2020 year in review: A letter from the USGBC and GBCI President and CEO

Published on: 
16 Dec 2020
Author: 
Mahesh Ramanujam

Dear friends and members of the USGBC community,

From Diwali to Hanukkah, from Christmas to Kwanzaa and more, December is a time when many of us celebrate light, in all its forms and meanings. And next week, together we will all experience the winter solstice. After nightfall on the 21st, we’ll have more light than the day before.

While the solstice is always a welcome reminder of brighter days to come, this year, the light—and the chance to harness it for as long as possible—takes on a deeper significance for us.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that over the last several days—amidst all these symbols of light—that we have witnessed the first administerings of the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.K. and the United States.

A physician, Michelle Chester, administered it to Sandra Lindsay, an ICU nurse in New York City, on Monday. Both Black women. Both heroes. Both representative of an early, but emerging brightness at the end of the tunnel. And both examples of the promise of a safer, healthier future on the horizon.

This past year has been a dark one, dominated by far too much grief and death. Like many of you, I have lost friends and family members—a devastating and previously unimaginable experience.

We’ve all witnessed the combined impact of a pandemic, a demand for long overdue racial justice and equity in our society, and the ever-imminent threat of climate change.

And we know that none of these are abstract problems. Food insecurity, poverty, severe weather and a deadly respiratory virus are all laying bare a failing infrastructure and an extraordinary vacuum in global leadership.

But these intersectional crises are also illuminating countless ways that our green building industry can play an integral role in delivering solutions.

In other words—even in this darkness, I am full of hope.

Though 2020 has presented many challenges, it has also proven our resilience. With the support and direction of the Board, and through the hard work of USGBC’s staff, we’ve become a stronger organization, poised to accomplish great things next year and beyond.

In just a few weeks, America will swear in a new president, and the change of government presents new opportunities. We are set to move into the new year with a stronger position on both financial and ideological fronts. We have a vision that meets this moment—and I believe our community is uniquely positioned to turn a glimmer of light into a blazing torch—one that will carry on the 21st century promise of LEED to build a better living standard and a healthier world for all.

2020 year in review

At the start of this year, we committed to transforming LEED and all our programs to support sustainability, health and wellness, resilience, and equity as the foundational pillars for a second generation of USGBC.

We had big plans for 2020: accelerating the adoption of LEED v4.1 and LEED Zero, conducting more than 100 Town Hall events, launching the Living Standard campaign globally, balloting LEED v4.1, evolving our LEED Positive vision and much more.

But for all of our forethought and optimism, there was no way to know exactly what 2020 had in store for us.

For better or worse, we went from buildings being taken for granted to finally becoming a focal point in the discussion and implementation of what a post-COVID-19 world—a better, healthier world—could look like.

We can see clearly the critical importance of our industry on the world stage. While the pandemic has closed doors for many, our industry is experiencing a bittersweet period of opportunity. Building owners must now attract and retain their tenants upon reentry by demonstrating that their spaces are sustainable and healthy.

We know that the easiest way to accomplish this is through LEED—which means we are poised to help expand existing building certifications like never before, bring people together under the common banner of health and humanity, and help build a future that works for everyone.

People first

When the world came to a standstill, my foremost priority was to protect our people.

Even before the vast majority of lockdowns, I made the decision to transition our staff and events to remote solutions. I was intent on setting an example for anticipating people’s needs with compassion and consideration. With a once-in-a-lifetime disruption approaching, I knew our team would need a deeper and more substantial understanding of the day-to-day obstacles ahead.

From school cancellation to supporting our families, from childcare to elder care, it was important to me that USGBC’s staff felt a sustained sense of security and support. As anxiety prevailed during the early days of the pandemic, staff were encouraged to prioritize themselves and their families, and were assured of their job security, offered full benefits and granted flexibility to manage their time and place of work.

Despite the financial uncertainty and market volatility we faced, I was more determined than ever to demonstrate my unconditional support to our staff, and the management team and I were in constant touch with them throughout the year. And thanks to the support of our Board of Directors, our members and our partners, I’m proud that we did not lay off, furlough or reduce pay for a single staff member this year—particularly when the majority of nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C., are working hard just to survive.

Pause and adapt

In our 27 years of existence, our organization has never faced, nor could it anticipate, disruption at the scale presented by COVID-19. But while the pandemic has tested the grit of our organization and our people, we have gotten through it together—and we can now reflect on a year of tremendous resilience.

Despite the growing pressure to immediately react to the circumstances, we realized it was a critical moment for our organization’s future—a moment to pause and take a measured approach to adapt to the emerging crisis.

Our management team acted swiftly to ensure we could prepare our employees for remote working. We transitioned more than 800 USGBC, GBCI and community events to virtual programming. We also moved our credential programs and their exams to an online platform, offered flexibility and extended support to project teams; offered membership extensions, discounts and payment flexibility; launched a survey to gather recovery ideas and information on our members’ priorities for a federal stimulus package; and offered a variety of resources to help our community manage this crisis.

I am particularly proud of the leadership shown by our members like Johnson & Johnson, LEED projects like TCF Center in Detroit and professionals for their frontline support of their communities during the pandemic.

While the past nine months seem surreal, I am inspired and humbled by the sacrifices and hard work of our community and staff. And I am so grateful for their dedication to adapting to this challenging new reality.

Even amidst the pandemic, nothing could slow our goal to further expand USGBC and LEED around the world, while still maintaining a strong connection to our local grassroots networks in the U.S. and abroad. We convened nearly 4,000 community leaders through 36 CEO-hosted Town Halls, educated over 20,000 people through more than 800 community events and continued the positive collaboration with our grassroots leaders to establish one integrated community that is more prepared than ever to support our next generation vision. We expanded our Living Standard campaign to become USGBC’s pivotal grassroots initiative to inspire and share best practices and stories across our communities. And throughout the year, we showcased leaders who were advancing LEED.

Thanks to the relentless effort of our staff and our partner, Informa Connect, we delivered the full scope of Greenbuild in a virtual setting during the months of September, October and November. We also quickly converted Greenbuild Europe and Mexico into a virtual, on-demand educational model.

All of this is a testament to our leadership strategy, our detailed effort to help position our staff and support them in adjusting to a post-COVID-19 era. In recent months, a whole new generation of leaders have emerged—and I know that each and every one of them are ready for the challenges ahead.

An improved strategy for the new normal

While the entire world raced to share their perspectives on a pandemic that was still widely unknown, USGBC took a moment to pause and think deeply about how this unprecedented moment would impact our industry. To be the best partner possible, we listened to hundreds of members and subject matter experts, and consulted our staff and volunteers to arrive at a solution that not only supported COVID-19 recovery efforts, but also preserved our decades of work with LEED. This was a powerful moment at USGBC, as everyone came together quickly to confront this pandemic together.

In May, a mere eight weeks after the pandemic ground much of America to a halt, we launched a new strategy to meet the moment with a reimagined vision—one in which healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy.

And although we have been talking about the inextricable link between planetary, environmental and human health since USGBC’s inception, COVID-19 has accelerated a greater awareness and understanding around this linkage. Health has always been in the DNA of USGBC, and it is, of course, one of the four pillars of the second generation of our work. But amid the pandemic, we knew it needed to become the heart of a much larger conversation—one that would allow us to accelerate on all fronts, to lead the market and to ignite the unprecedented expansion of our advocacy around the world.

Healthy People in Health Places Equals a Healthy Economy was not just another traditional strategy or snappy slogan. It was a guiding principle for the organization—a way to emphasize the aspects of USGBC that solidify our relevance and vitality to this moment and beyond. And it was a bold new initiative to ensure that green buildings would be part of a lasting, human health-centric solution. I am proud to have lined up the entire organization and our community behind this vision to unify our movement to speak with one voice.

We’ve already seen the early and promising results of this integration. The LEED Steering Committee and our staff delivered seven pilot credits to support re-entry into our spaces. Today, through implementation of these pilot credits, GBCI is helping projects around the world prepare their spaces for a post-COVID-19 world. GBCI is also supporting projects in implementing the WELL Health-Safety Rating. And LEED continues to grow, with now over 106,000 registered and certified commercial projects in 181 countries and territories. Even during a pandemic, we had 4,277 new LEED registrations and 3,250 certifications this year. LEED and LEED Zero were included in various federal and state legislative bills. And our outreach efforts continued to demonstrate how LEED can help our stakeholders.

With all these accomplishments and our renewed vision, I have no doubt that USGBC will be a leading voice going into the post-pandemic phase, ready to engage with the incoming Biden administration, and with LEED Positive at the helm, raise the living standard for all.

A sustainable future is meaningless if it is not an equitable one

Though I’ll never understand the pain that comes with being Black in America, I also know I’ll never forget the overwhelming sadness I felt after the murder of George Floyd.

To hear the words “I can’t breathe,” amidst a pandemic that has made all of us afraid of losing the life force of breath, was devastating. And just as horrifying is the fact that, for Black men and women, that fear is far more likely to become a reality.

The cruelty of the infamous 8 minutes and 46 seconds has not only made me appreciate that I am still breathing, but it will always serve as a haunting and necessary reminder that I can do much more to address the inequities, discrimination and abuses in our society. We must all do more.

This is why we decided to accelerate the development of our USGBC Equity program. We organized equity summits with people from both inside and outside our community to ensure that our future strategy would be as inclusive as possible. These listening sessions allowed us to launch USGBC All In, which includes a draft equity strategy to help people, organizations, buildings, communities and cities advance equity in their day-to-day practices.

As a first step, we announced that USGBC and GBCI will provide funding for professionals from underserved and underrepresented communities to earn their LEED AP, LEED Green Associate, Sustainable Excellence Associate or Sustainability Excellence Professional credential.

A stronger balance sheet for survival and growth

Thanks to the leadership of our Board of Directors and our finance team, for more than a decade we have actively managed our finances, investments and opportunities. While our strong balance sheet allowed us to survive the 2008 recession, invest in the establishment of an orphanage in Haiti, launch the Center for Green Schools, develop LEED v4 and LEED v4.1, transform our chapters to a unified USGBC community and adapt to coexisting with more than 10 rating systems, it significantly affected our profitability and reduced our reserves.

This is why we have been singularly focused over the past four years on improving our year-on-year profitability. This long-term approach to financial management, our fiscal discipline and a set of swift actions we took to manage our costs allowed us to respond to the crisis while further bolstering our balance sheet. Our finance team did a stellar job in managing opportunities, expenses and profitability, while supporting the due diligence for the sale of GRESB to Summit Partners. They also continued a decade-long tradition of passing USGBC and GBCI’s independent financial audit without any recommendations.

2021 will be a prosperous year

At USGBC, we’ve always believed that the greatest investment we can make is in each other. And we that means making sure that our experience with each other is transformational, not transactional.

With every program, initiative or certification we implement, we must first consider whether it will be tangibly, measurably, helpful to us. Is it accessible beyond the expertise of the people in our field? Is it something that you can learn from, feel inspired by, highlight, replicate and help others adopt in the long run?

The impact of the global COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. It revealed a dark picture of the global economy, of our consideration for others and of our all too often substandard ways of life.

Remaining resilient—both in business and life—will require every industry and individual to adapt at a pace we might never have thought possible. But what lies ahead is also a responsibility for us to design a brighter and more resilient future.

And perhaps no other community is better equipped to deliver this much-needed light.

I mean this from the bottom of my heart: I am more hopeful than ever, because we have the right people and the right tools to make a difference. I trust in you and in our abilities to make that difference.

I wish you all a great time of celebration of light and hope during this holiday season.

Thank you for your leadership, partnership and friendship.

In gratitude and in your service,

Mahesh Ramanujam signature