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The Eco-Wizard

John Picard Believes We Can Save the Planet Through Recycling and Digital Technology. And With Such Deep-Pocketed Clients as DreamWorks, the Gap and GTE, Just About Everything He Touches Turns to Green.

January 11, 1998|Alan Weisman | Contributing editor Alan Weisman's next book, "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," will be published this spring by Chelsea Green

Over plates of pasta in Cafe Piccolo in Redondo Beach, two members of the so-called Environmental Dream Team are plotting to temporarily commandeer the Grand Wailea Resort on the island of Maui. The occasion, an annual sales meeting of Atlanta-based Interface Inc., one of the world's largest carpet manufacturers, seems an unlikely target for insurrection, especially since these men have the enthusiastic cooperation of the hotel.

The man doing most of the talking is John Picard. His dinner partner, Amory Lovins, mainly nods encouragingly. Lovins is a Harvard- and Oxford-trained physicist, a MacArthur Fellow, author of 24 books, co-director of Colorado's prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute research center and energy policy advisor to several heads of state. Picard is a college dropout, a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer and one of the hottest eco-consultants in Los Angeles--because he combines environmentalism, business acumen, architectural design and the Internet in a way that makes both sense and money.

Picard's clients include chain retailers, public utilities and Playa Vista--the explosively controversial development of the Ballona Creek wetlands on Santa Monica Bay. They're not exactly a group that evokes images of pristine ecology, but then neither does carpet manufacturing, which is what's bankrolling this green make-over of one of Hawaii's most lavish resorts, if only for a week. The plans for the Grand Wailea include extinguishing the air-conditioning and opening windows; shutting down ornate fountains that gulp electricity derived

From costly imported diesel; changing bedsheets every three days instead of daily, and cutting back from four bath and three hand towels to two apiece (nearly halving the hotel's daily laundry load of 15,000 towels); substituting the housekeepers' usual arsenal of caustic bathroom chemicals with sugar-based cleansers safe enough to drink; suspending pesticide use on the grounds; preparing banquets with locally grown foods instead of the usual 90% mainland imports; composting restaurant wastes; and making guests pack their garbage home with them.

Picard, who makes a living by seeing possibilities in the smallest detail, hasn't missed any here, down to the strings holding the name badges: "Are they natural or nylon? Do they itch?" he wants to know. "We're killing ourselves trying to get it right, but it's going to be so cool!"

The host of this affair is Interface's CEO, Ray Anderson, coiner of the name "Dream Team" for his newly discovered pantheon of eco-gurus. But it was John Picard who, in 1994, seduced Anderson into committing his hugely successful corporation to the extraordinary, expensive goals of using only recycled materials and eliminating the use of fossil fuels by the century's end. Picard did so by convincing him that the future is closer than it seems and that companies still doing business the old, wasteful way will become as endangered as the species they've helped obliterate.

During Anderson's eco-conversion, Picard fed him books by other eco-Dream Teamers such as Lovins; University of Virginia Architecture Dean William A. McDonough, who advises the President's Council on Sustainable Development; legendary former Sierra Club director David Brower; and Paul Hawken, founder of natural food giant Erewhon Trading Co. and author of the best-selling "The Ecology of Commerce." John Picard himself hasn't written anything; he earned his place in such illustrious company by ramming ideas into action.

The most celebrated example is the house he built himself in 1991 on Greene Avenue in Marina del Rey. Often called by progressive designers the most environmentally evolved structure in Los Angeles, it brought him immediate renown and, beginning with a $100-million make-over of Sony Studios, lucrative work all over town. Picard, 40, had enjoyed a precociously successful construction career before his environmental rebirth. Now he's trying to convince clients like The Gap, Pacific Enterprises, Compaq, Williams Sonoma-Pottery Barn, Herman Miller Inc. and GTE to unbuild. "With few exceptions, we don't need more commercial buildings," he says. "Especially office buildings. It's not only bad for the planet, but bad for business to build them."

This is a risky premise, undercutting both his professional identity as a contractor and the fundamental tenet of capitalism known as "growth." It has also earned him the wrath of entire in-house corporate architectural divisions. But John Picard is banking on two things: his certainty that Western civilization's only chance for a sustainable future is to persuade big business--what Hawken calls "the only entity with the resources to implement such an undertaking"--that green will reap greater riches than greed, and his faith that technology, which largely got us into this dirty mess, has provided an eleventh-hour pathway out.

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