David Johnston (Big50 1989) spread the word about solar power to the construction industry as a consultant to the Department of Energy. At DOE, he had the task of putting research into the hands of the building industry, and worked on programs with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the National Association of Home Builders, the American Institute of Architects, and other trade associations. In 1983, he left that job to pursue solar installations, founding LightWorks Construction, in Bethesda, Md. As federal tax credits for solar installations were cut back, Johnston added general remodeling, and new-home and commercial divisions. By 1989, he was doing $2 million in volume.
Then, a recession hit the Washington, D.C. area. "Work just stopped. We could not downsize fast enough," he says. When he received a call from a Virginia company that wanted a presence in Maryland, Johnston sold his company.
He chose to move to Boulder, where he had gone to school and which was a place he knew to be open to the idea of sustainability. Together with the local home builders association, Johnston created a green building committee to work on a green construction program. Then he received a call from a group in Denver that wanted a similar program, and began working with them as well.
Johnston also worked on certifying homes as green. This led to creating a new company, What's Working, which offers green consulting. Johnston now travels the country training builders, remodelers, architects, and developers. "Sometimes through NARI, a home builders association, through the [U.S. Green Building Council] chapters, or through cities," he says.
"I give them hard facts, not 'green is groovy,' which is so much of what is out there. As a recovering builder, I know they need concrete stuff in their hands and heads. Guys torture me during training for details and are constantly testing me. But there is nothing more exciting than a roomful of guys [who] I can watch [as] light bulbs go off, and see them have new meaning in what they are doing as contractors," Johnston says.
He is also looking at having a wider impact. "The footprint of building is just a starting point. Buildings represent a microcosm of our culture: they impact energy, water, carbon, transportation, etc. Whole communities need to engage in more diverse and larger-scale sustainability thinking," he says.
Johnston's work has received international attention. Last September, in a ceremony in Zurich, he accepted the Sustainability Pioneer Award from SAM International, an independent asset management company specializing in sustainability investments that every year chooses a Leader and Pioneer who has a traceable impact on promoting sustainability.
Johnston offers training DVDs and has written books about green practices. His latest book, Green From the Ground Up, will be released by The Taunton Press in March. He is also looking for people with construction experience to help him train those in the industry through the Green Advantage program. Visit his Web site at www.whatsworking.com.