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Autodesk Helps Create A Vision In Green

By Albert Bozzo
Thursday, 8 Nov 2007 | 7:29 AM ET

When it comes to going green, some companies happen to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, it helps if the CEO has his heart -- and mind -- in the right place, as well.

TakeCarl Bass and Autodesk, for example

Bass, who became CEO in May 2006, is a strong believer in sustainable design and construction. He previously served as chief technology officer of the company's AECAD group, which is responsible for the design and development of key software products used in the construction process.

The company's AutoCad and Revit software are widely used by engineering and design firms. Autodesk's subsequent 3-D technology has enhanced modeling and visualization. It's products are instrumental in design and engineering efforts to both conserve and maximize energy via the analysis of such factors as materials, heating/cooling and daylight.

In 2006, Autodesk introduced a green index to measure the adoption of sustainable design techniques by architects and has been involved with the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo. (The event this year runs Nov. 7-9 in Chicago.)

Let’s start on the personal side. Clearly this means a lot to you.

It’s a funny thing. This whole topic of energy efficiency, sustainability and the green movement started in the ‘70s. We were kind of raised on this. It was an issue that when I was growing up was very important. It seemed to go dormant for 30 years and then suddenly the rest of the world has woken up to it.

There seemed to be a wake up call 12 months or so ago. Al Gore really had something to say. I’m glad he found a voice and people listened to it.

And how did the personal side converge with business?

One place I started to think about this was ... I was at a conference several years ago … and everybody was talking about it. A 100 people stood up and gave one-minute answers.

What I though was most interesting was that almost all the suggestions were what I would consider after the fact thinking, like how do you put photovoltaic cells on the outside of a building when the better question to ask what is what are the energy needs of that building. It is a question you should ask much earlier in the process.

I went back to the folks at work and said this is going to become a really important issue. And I knew two things had to happen. We had to be better as a company ourselves. We were still doing things that were irresponsible. For instance, you’d show up at a meeting with 300 plastic water bottles -- with water shipped from Fiji. So, one was just this idea to clean up our own act and the second thing was that we were in this unique position to affect much more than what we touched by giving our customers these tools for their design and engineering decisions. I’ve never seen a single issue so galvanize a workforce.

So how did that work in terms of changes to the software?

Up until now, energy consumption was never part of the equation. All of a sudden we recognized that our customers came back and said we need to be thinking about that. Two years ago or so, it was one or two projects ... now its most projects ... they are talking about energy, that people are saying we need these tools.

People are expecting a boom in sustainable construction. Is there a sufficient level of understanding about what is needed?

Right now the level of understanding is not as deep as it will be two, three years from now but it deals with the complexity of the green movement. It’s like when you go to the supermarket and they ask you. Paper or plastic? What’s the right answer? One’s more biodegradable, the other's more recyclable?

So things are still in flux then?

I think we are going to go through explosive growth and people are going to make lots of mistakes along the way.

But there's been an acceptable level of achievement thus far?

If you start with the idea that we can take buildings and reduce the amount of energy they consume that is a good thing. The answer will be different in various parts of the world.

I look at our job as "how do we provide tools so they can analyze this decision" as opposed to the past when they were blind.

Is green construction, building, a good example for other industries?

I think it is a real good one. People often go to transportation as the first thing because cars and planes are the most visible symptom of the problem, but 70 percent of the energy we use in the US is consumed in buildings. Also, a lot of it is discretionary like turning on or turning off a light.

Are all the parties in the green building movement working well together?

I think this is one area where people are working for the greater good, where people are not using things for a competitive advantage. It has an unusual feeling.

I think the thing there’s an understanding that we can actually change stuff. I am uncharacteristically optimistic about this. Like when we got rid of the fluorocarbons in the aerosol cans. We can make a huge difference in our energy consumption.

What about a project like the Pearl River tower in China. Do you see it as a shiny symbol of sustainability?

I think it is great. We can get a beautiful building that has a near zero carbon footprint. Pearl River in particular is an interesting one. The disparity of what is going on in China is so great. Pearl River will be up against a smog-filled sky.

In Corporate America right now, there are a lot green ideas and initiatives out there and some of those are marginal, token or bad ideas, no?

Absolutely. A lot of companies are trying to put a veneer around their activities and make themselves better corporate citizens -- and there’s not much substance to it.

Does the average CEO you talk to get it?

Out here in California, they seem to get it. The CEOs of tech companies clearly get it. I see it among our customers. Its much more widely shared that I ever imagined.

What about government efforts and the government’s role? What would you have it be?

I think government’s role is generally funding and research. These are questions of basic research. Companies to do well at solving short-term problems but when you get back to fundamental science -- material science, chemical science -- that is where government can play a role that is unique. And that’s a model that has worked for the U.S. for generations.