The Eco-Wizard

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.


Picard’s life is about disproving the one remaining argument against environmentalism--that it costs too much. Most often, his path snakes through optical fibers: Picard is convinced that the digital technology we refer to as virtual reality is the key to saving the beloved old real reality. These days, Picard gets paid to dream up ways to prove this, by companies who hope to turn his ideas into products that we crave, regardless of whether we care that they also relieve environmental stress.

Picard claims the world he envisions is readily available tomorrow. It’s a world where your door recognizes you and unlocks; where thinking furniture molds instantly to the ergonomic whims of your body and continually tweaks the lighting and ambient temperature for your optimum comfort; where intelligent carpet uploads the newspaper through your shoes and into your glasses; where the toilet seat checks your vital signs each morning and messages your cardiologist if something seems amiss. It’s a realm where even guns aren’t stupid: No crook can fire a stolen weapon--nor children accidentally shoot themselves--because the trigger responds only to the finger of its licensed owner.

Most of all, it’s the Internet, which John Picard believes is where we will soon do most of our errands, our shopping, even our work. Besides energy and materials, another precious resource it will conserve, he promises, is our time. “This technology will let people work where and when they want, instead of having to shove their kids into day care and go plow away for eight hours a day. It’s the purest form of freedom we’ve ever seen.”

Even for mainline Net-surfing addicts, that’s hard to swallow. As GTE’s Dave Sorg, one of Picard’s digital cronies, admits, even with today’s swift modems, “You spend as much time waiting for something to download as you do using it.” But Picard sees this infant technology, racing through generations faster than mutating fruit flies, heading toward a not-too-distant day when computerized access to almost everything will be as “frictionless as our reflexes.”

Can it be true? Picard has already convinced many powerful players in this town that he is privy to the secret that some businessmen would consider trading their firstborn to know: what the future will look like. And he’s getting paid hundreds of thousands to spread the word. With his guidance, for instance, the city of Beverly Hills will soon offer affluent consumers anywhere in the world real-time, online video shopping in Rodeo Drive stores, via the Internet.

But how many of us will really be able to afford this computerized future? And is a future dependent on silicon-based fiber one that, deep in our carbon-based hearts, we’ll like very much?



John Picard’s technical education began at 12, tearing apart old toasters and lawn mowers in an Orange County dump to see why they stopped working and touring Apollo rocket test sites with his father, an electrical engineer on contract to NASA. One night, Wernher von Braun, father of the U.S. space program, came over for dinner, and young John heard a story about John Glenn. “Seconds before liftoff, with Glenn strapped into that rocket we built for him and man’s best efforts all focused on that moment, and you know what he said to himself? ‘Oh, my God! I’m sitting on a pile of low bids!’ ”

In his 20s, Picard began to grasp how that story accounted for much of what’s gone wrong with the world. By then he had left Orange Coast College to work for a contracting firm and bought himself one of the first IBM personal computers, on which he designed a program that showed, to the penny, the accumulated cost of every step of a construction job. The program saved significantly by streamlining task-scheduling, and Picard next used it to analyze the cost-efficiency of buildings. Soon, he was in business for himself, specializing in energy-efficient renovations of extravagant estates, such as Mary Pickford’s, Harold Lloyd’s, and that of Hollywood magnate Marvin Davis, a palace whose utility bills topped $20,000 per month.

Picard quickly realized that his fabulously wealthy clients with their four-inch copper sprinkler lines weren’t so unique. Strolling through office buildings, he started noticing absurd inefficiencies--electric fixtures where windows and skylights could relieve energy budgets and the pallid, sullen cast of employees’ faces, or sealed glazing that required costly cooling in lieu of free ventilation. (Years later, when the new Clinton administration invited members of his eco-Dream Team to Washington for a project called “The Greening of the White House,” Picard reported to Vice President Al Gore that just one trip to the restroom showed him where his tax money went: The radiator and air conditioner were both on, and someone had cracked the window.)

Driving his Porsche into the Santa Monica Mountains one day in the late 1980s, Picard looked down at Los Angeles at 2 a.m. and marveled at the energy his sleeping city squandered. Buildings were typically erected with no regard for the sun’s path, soaking up so much solar radiation that air conditioners had to churn half the night. Quality and consciousness had been scuttled by a construction industry built on a pile of low bids, resulting in an epidemic of buildings barely within code (“that’s one step above illegal,” Picard reminds clients). Not only did most L.A. buildings compel outlandish utility bills, every structure and parking lot in the city was designed to drain into the ocean, a pungent fact Picard was reminded of whenever he surfed.

Renovating mansions paid handsomely, but, like runoff to the bay, fun was leaking out. One day, to his surprise, he found himself all choked up over a public service announcement on MTV about rain forest destruction, weeping like an orbiting shuttle astronaut over the slashed-and-burned Amazon. Without realizing it, his flair for stalking energy waste had turned him into an environmentalist. At Boulder’s 1989 Environmental Film Festival, he met biologist Sam LaBudde, the hero of documentaries on rescuing dolphins from Mexican tuna nets. “I want to join you,” Picard told him.

“Stay in construction,” LaBudde replied. “Teach your industry how to serve the future.”

Picard built a solar-oriented eco-home for Santa Monica recycling pioneer Gary Petersen, using nontoxic caulking and recycled insulation. It led to more work for progressive-chic luminaries, but Picard soon decided that the idea of energy-efficient, nine-bedroom private dwellings was an architectural oxymoron. Even Petersen’s thoughtfully conceived house, in order to conform to Pacific Palisades norms, had employed wood frame construction that to Picard now symbolized doomed rain forests.


Any lingering objections Picard’s neighbors had about the house he built for himself--which, he jokes, “looks like the box the house across the street came in”--were resolved by the Northridge earthquake. His growing obsession to find reusable building material had led him back to the junkyards of his youth, where he had an epiphany: Old cars and appliances were routinely melted back into steel, a material so common people rarely realized it was mostly recycled. He figures now that he saved at least 100 trees by using steel studs, floor joists and beams to build the most seismic-resistant residence in the L.A. basin. In the quake’s aftermath, kids on his block rode out the aftershocks in his sturdy living room while--since his electricity flowed uninterrupted from rooftop solar photovoltaic cells instead of downed power lines--eating a hot breakfast and watching cartoons.

Steel-frame construction doesn’t have to look any different, but to emphasize his place from surrounding conventional stucco homes, Picard finished the exterior with galvanized steel sheeting, which probably made it the city’s most fireproof dwelling. “Plus,” he adds, “it never needs to be painted and can be completely disassembled with a 1/4-inch Makita screw gun.”

It would take a computer to keep track of all the environmentally benign materials and gizmos inside, and indeed, such a computer exists, in the office for Picard’s consulting firm, E2. The firm’s Web site,, includes a free, vast product guide that lists the cleanest tools and materials Picard found to build his house, and hundreds more that have come available since, such as porous pavement that lets runoff water percolate back into the earth and solar-powered lawn mowers. An entire section of the site describes his ultra-efficient appliances: low-water, bleach-free washing machines; low-energy centrifugal clothes dryers that reclaim water for houseplants; ozone-safe refrigerators and air conditioners; filters that make water purer than Evian; and temperature controls that sense occupancy and adjust the climate accordingly, room by room, every three seconds.

Outside are hookups for powering natural gas and electric vehicles (after successfully modifying a Range Rover to run on natural gas, Picard advised on similar conversions for Ed Begley Jr., Priscilla Presley and Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Anna, until he tired of that, too). Topping off his house is a roof of recycled rubber that both insulates and reflects heat. The floors conceal radiant heat tubes; the doors are made of recycled highway signs.

From his bed--which, like the dresser and night table, is built of wood recycled from demolished houses--Picard’s remote control can close the long drapes in the cavernous living room below his sleeping loft, as a 15-foot screen silently drops from the ceiling. This is a favorite of his 3-year-old daughter, who visits frequently, because she’s learned to turn it into a giant television set via Picard’s $8,000 digital light-processing projector. Picard can also call up the Internet on this same screen or, through a camera lens built into his IBM Aptiva, fill it with a split image of his own face and that of whomever he’s video-conferencing with.

Thus far, however, there aren’t many people with whom he can do that: The bane of John Picard’s existence is that he’s always impatiently waiting for the future to catch up. One person so equipped is Interface’s Anderson. Picard can dial him up in his Atlanta office, and there’s Anderson’s pleasant, graying executive image warping a bit as he leans to squint into the PC’s wide-angled eye. The audio is still a bit jerky, delaying a beat as though bouncing off the moon, but both agree this is cheaper, faster and uses less jet fuel than transporting Picard’s husky frame all the way to Atlanta for a meeting. If it’s not as intimate as occupying the same space and breathing the same air, it still provides more human contact than disembodied phone voices or e-mail blinking on a screen.


They discuss good news, like the latest “eco-metric” report from Interface’s multimillion-dollar City of Industry subsidiary, Bentley Mills: an accounting of what they make and take from the ecosystem. Their twin goals are reaching energy and material sustainability. On the energy front, there’s a solar-powered tufter proposed for their broadloom carpets. Hopes on the material side are based on the nearly indestructible nature of nylon, a petroleum product. The object is to stop drilling for the stuff at the wellhead and instead draw from two existing sources.

The first is municipal dumps: Industry figures suggest that nearly 2% of all landfill waste is composed of rolls of used carpet that will take nature about 20,000 years to digest. The second source derives from an idea Picard took from the writings of eco-architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart, an idea that Picard and his associates believe could fundamentally change capitalism as we know it.

After Picard presided over the $100-million greening of Sony Studios, Southern California Gas Co. asked him to help build the Environmental Resource Center, a showcase of energy conservation and resource alternatives to demonstrate to businesses that the growing litany of environmental and air-quality regulations in the L.A. basin didn’t require them to move their manufacturing elsewhere. Except for the glaring absence of photovoltaic solar panels--”after all, we are a utility company,” a company spokeswoman sheepishly admits--the center, located in Downey, is replete with cost-saving innovations: Guns confiscated by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and a decommissioned submarine were melted down for steel reinforcing bars. Sixty percent of materials from the building razed to make way for this one were reused. Pulverized PVC gas pipes became mosaic walkways. Old, shredded U.S. currency was recycled into bulletin boards. The parquet flooring of the lobby is wood Picard rescued from a Banana Republic warehouse destroyed in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

But the most mundane element--industrial carpeting--was the most revolutionary. “We’re not buying any,” he told Interface’s sales representatives, who were under the impression they had the ERC contract. That was correct, Picard told them, but the deal wasn’t to purchase anything. In an agreement that may revolutionize the way business in durable goods is done, Interface leases carpeting to the ERC for as long as the building stands. Over time, Interface exchanges worn or stained sections with fresh modular carpet tiles and recycles the old ones. The ERC gets a service that guarantees color, texture, acoustics, cleanliness and is spared owning something that will eventually need replacing. Meanwhile, Interface gets a profitable perpetual lease, a replenishable source of nylon molecules and saves tons of carpeting from the landfill.

“It’s an opportunity to do well by doing good,” says Anderson, whose company’s revenues have increased $300 million annually since he met Picard. “It just involves a shift in how we think.”

Especially, he’s learned how banks think: Convincing them to finance an evergreen lease of a product with indeterminate salvage value sometimes proves daunting. “We save money by conserving resources,” Anderson tells them patiently, pinpointing the one incentive that could catalyze a change-resistant society that acts as if resources are limitless. “Customers are saved the liabilities of ownership. People don’t really want title to carpeting; they want beauty. They don’t want a refrigerator; they want cold beer.”


Or, they don’t want expensive air conditioners, but cold air. Picard has recently negotiated an evergreen lease between Carrier Corp., a manufacturer of CFC-free cooling, and a new hotel on the old Sands site in Las Vegas. Another is in the new DreamWorks animation studio in Glendale. Interface now has carpeting evergreen leases with the city of San Diego, Sony Pictures and The Gap. Picard considers such arrangements to have bigger implications than anything else he’s done. But it’s not enough.


John Picard can almost taste the future he visualizes, in which service is conveyed ever more effortlessly, gobbling less energy and fewer resources. He has seen this future in MIT’s Media Lab, where two men wearing “smart” Nikes can exchange business cards merely by shaking hands. At UCLA’s Center for Digital Innovation, he’s seen an ancient Roman forum reconstructed digitally in 3-D; the technology would allow an archeologist to walk among the ruins, wearing “smart” goggles through which he sees the virtual past superimposed on today’s reality. Picard becomes breathless thinking about doing the same in a clear-cut forest, of bringing a congressman to his knees by virtually resurrecting the old growth splendor.

At the same UCLA laboratory, a 3-D personal computer program that already digitally mirrors downtown Los Angeles with eerie perfection will eventually let us speed through traffic-free streets, pausing to click on stores to see merchandise, on restaurants to browse the menus and make reservations, or on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to catch a preview and buy opera tickets. It will all be available on the Internet soon; Picard warns clients like the Gap, several of whose outlets he’s environmentally tuned, that they have to be ready.

The future, he assures them, will still include some actual retail spaces, crafted of earth-friendly materials, with everything from the purified air to the cash register evergreen-leased and with dressing rooms that scan and size you while intelligent carpet tiles take your shoe size. But the real breakthrough will be the digital no-store--”the one that’s open 24 hours a day via anything capable of receiving a signal.”

“The Internet is the new real estate. It will be more profitable to send 15,000 computers to Tierra del Fuego than to build more $2-million glass-and-steel outlets,” he tells Gap executives, striding around their offices. “Think millions of points of sale, think instant stores in countries that don’t have them. Think of someone logging onto the Web at midnight, sending a digital avatar of himself to try on virtual clothes in a 3-D digital store that exactly mimics a real store, one where he clicks on a pair of jeans and it tells how they’re made and gives washing instructions. Or it adds that tonight’s midnight special is a pair of jeans bundled with a half-price T-shirt, or a digital voucher for a latte at Starbucks.”

But not everyone believes that malls are an endangered species. “Shopping is one of America’s favorite forms of recreation. It’s doubtful that the Internet will replace retail stores,” says Mary Dearing, a vice president for the department store division of Dayton Hudson Corp.


But Picard has bet that he can increase Gap sales 15% over three years without building another store; he says he’s saved it an estimated $16 million in energy costs in four years. But thus far, the Gap has incorporated only bits of his vision into their Web site. Gap’s digital marketing director, Chris Yaryan, acknowledges that Picard, with his hand-held radio e-mailer and robotic phone receptionist that remembers your name and number and patches you through to him on one of three cell phones, “is the techno-geek we’re trying to reach, the guy running from plane to plane without time to go to a store.” But the problem, Yaryan explains, is bandwidth--most people’s computers are still too slow to take advantage of such sophisticated Web sites.

This frustrates Picard because he knows that the technology to run full bandwidth into every home already exists. GTE and the Creative Artists Agency have a pilot project that is upgrading Picard’s phone line and those of 30 CAA clients--including Danny DeVito, Tom Hanks and Demi Moore--to ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscription Links), through which data zips 25 times faster than through today’s 56,600-baud modems. The idea is that video and text clips of, for instance, a film in progress could be e-mailed simultaneously to several people anywhere, who could edit them and share their versions in a group video-conference, all in the comfort of home.

ADSL lines, which use existing copper-based phone cables, could soon be generally available for as little as $40 per month. But even faster connectivity based on optical fibers is also at hand. It would be affordable for any new community with the foresight to install a fiber-optic grid, and it would give residents fully interactive, stereo-video access to work, entertainment, conferencing, school, health services, banking and commerce, from home or office.

Which is exactly what Picard has in mind for the beleaguered Playa Vista development, where, after years of war by outraged locals and environmentalists, a new developer, Maguire Thomas Partners, promised a low-density, sustainable alternative. John Picard was hired to help make it happen.

With the well-heeled participation of its most famous, though unconfirmed, occupant--Dream-Works--Picard sees Playa Vista as a prototype for how to live and work in the next century, where residents live within a 10-minute stroll of their jobs, where construction embodies consummate environmental standards, where nature is not mangled but enshrined.

Picard’s role includes consulting on the fiber-based digital network that will give employees in DreamWorks’ proposed futuristic film studio what he calls “full tele-presence” wherever they are. Besides working at home, things like getting a baby sitter, picking up mail, or paying bills would be as easy as touching a screen. As would dealing with an emergency: “Imagine you’re having a heart attack,” he says, “and four specialists from UCLA or Cedars-Sinai or anywhere in the world are simultaneously online, advising the attending physician.”


Whether such elite attention would be widely available when billions of people are online, as he also envisions, is open to doubt. Yet that’s why he sees Playa Vista as the ideal laboratory for Los Angeles and the world; if and when project negotiations are resolved, it has the potential to be the perfect model.

“Think about it: If everyone paid their electric bills online, that would save $14 million in paper and postage both ways, per year. We use that money to clean the beach. Since these last 1,000 acres are destined to be developed anyway, we should make this the last 1,000 acres done right.”

The digital age that John Picard hopes can siphon our voracious excesses safely into virtual realms that need virtually no resources is already with us. He warns clients of the perils of remaining “digitally homeless” in this brimming new world--even though, as Harper’s Index reported last year, it’s a world where two-thirds of the population still has never placed a phone call, much less gone online. Even those of us who do so find it harder to identify with avatars on a screen than, say, with characters in a novel. Picard, however, believes that we’ve only begun to commune with this technology.

“Why,” he wonders, “can’t the Internet change us the way reading once did? How do we know it doesn’t have musical and poetic possibilities? We have deep problems to solve, and I want to challenge our reality with it and see if we can’t improve. At the very least, we won’t travel as needlessly, we’ll quit nailing trees to each other as much, and maybe carve ourselves more time and space to find out who we are.”