5 Takeaways from Barack Obama’s Keynote at Greenbuild 2019

Nov. 20, 2019

Former President Barack Obama appeared before Greenbuild 2019 attendees to discuss all things sustainability—from the Paris Climate Accords, to building tighter and more thoughtful spaces, to how his household has banned plastic bottles.

On Nov. 20, former President Barack Obama appeared before hundreds of Greenbuild International Conference and Expo attendees to discuss an issue often tackled by his administration (and his family): the climate crisis.

At the green building conference and expo, Obama chatted on stage in a packed exhibition hall with U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) CEO and president Mahesh Ramanujam—who revealed that the conference had patiently tried to book him for the last seven years. “I hope I’m worth the wait,” Obama quipped.

During the event, topics that Obama covered included negotiating the Paris Climate Accords, his personal experiences with sustainability growing up in Hawaii and his time with environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

Photo: Former President Barack Obama appeared before Greenbuild attendees to discuss sustainability. Credit: Oscar & Associates

Below are five noteworthy takeaways from Obama’s keynote.

1. Sustainability and affordability should be in the same conversation.

On a local level, consider the costs of your sustainability goals and who bears those costs.

“In places like California, the way building codes have been constructed, there’s almost no low-income housing in certain metropolitan areas,” Obama says. “So teachers and police officers and others cannot live in those metropolitan areas because of building codes that are so onerous that it makes construction of affordable housing almost impossible.”

Over time, those populations are going to “push back,” he explains. “They’re going to think anything related to creating sustainable building codes somehow is adding to our cost, making life more expensive.”

2. The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago is aiming for a competitive LEED certification.

With construction expected to begin in 2020, the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago will be an environmentally conscious structure. And the former president, for who the building is named, says it will aim for a competitive LEED v4 Platinum certification. That includes, he adds, making sure the building is as energy-efficient as possible—despite the city’s often-harsh climate.

Photo credit: Credit: Oscar & Associates

3. When designing sustainably, building owners, architects and designers need to listen to what their clients want.

“You need to know first what it is that people are looking for,” Obama says. “What’s true for a paying client is also true for a taxpayer or a constituent or anybody else. Part of what makes an architect really terrific is if they actually care about your opinion—and the same is true for neighborhoods [and] cities.”

He explains that, in those roles, you have to “pay attention to where people are at right now, what’s important to them and then figure out how you shape a sustainable agenda around any of those concerns.”


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4. We should question the idea that “more is better.”

“One of the reasons that, despite huge increases in energy-efficient technology, we still have such a big carbon footprint is that our [buildings] have gotten so much bigger,” Obama says. “How much space do we need?”

The former president adds that architects, designers, building owners, etc. need to question the idea that more is always better—and redefine what it means when we say “a beautiful house” or “an office that works.”

Obama demonstrated this idea by lamenting the vast spaces that often made up the presidential suites at the hotels where he stayed while in office. Although they usually offer the best view, that doesn’t excuse the vast amount of space and energy they consume, he said, joking: “I just want to get to bed.”

[Related: 4 Ways Your Roof Can Earn LEED Certification Credits]

5. He’s optimistic about the efforts of young activists.

Obama has spent time with 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg and admires her intensity when it comes to solving the climate crisis. “She is a cool kid—intense, which is her power,” he said, adding that that intensity has spurred a movement among young people.

“That brings attention to a problem in a way that no U.N. paper can, no story in the New York Times can,” he said. “It’s visceral, visual. Those young people, by the way, change the minds of their parents in powerful ways. That kind of grassroots movement, particularly among young people, is something that is always going to be key.”

Obama added that his own daughter, Sasha, has changed his mind on plastic water bottles.

“[Both of my daughters] read about plastic bottles everywhere polluting the ocean,” he said. “So, Sasha decides we can’t have plastic bottles in the house.” The audience cheered.

It’s all about turning that energy into action, he concluded.

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About the Author

Sarah Kloepple | Associate Editor

Sarah joined the BUILDINGS team as an associate editor in August 2018. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, where her focus was magazine writing. She's written and edited for numerous publications in her hometown of St. Louis.

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