VG Founder Drew Shula Interviewed on “Build for Impact” Podcast

VG Founder Drew Shula Interviewed on “Build for Impact” Podcast


Verdical Group’s Founder & Principal Drew Shula joined the Build for Impact podcast, hosted by LEED Fellow Daniel A. Huard, for “Structuring the Future of Green Building,” a conversation about net zero and living buildings.

Shula and Huard discussed Verdical Group’s Net Zero Conference and how the event is helping to scale net zero carbon, energy, water, waste, and transit.

They also touched on the living building movement — “living buildings” harvest the energy they consume from renewable resources like the sun and the wind, are constructed from sustainable materials, and serve occupants by providing a healthier environment.

To learn more, click here. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify or Apple.

Podcast Transcription
Daniel Huard: Hello audience, welcome again to Build for Impact. I’m Daniel Huard, your host, and today I’m joined by a dear friend and colleague, Drew Shula. Drew is the Founder and Principal of Verdical Group, a leading California based full-service green building consulting firm that specializes in green building certification project management, net zero, commissioning, energy modeling and program management.
What’s super impressive is that Verdical Group is a certified B Corporation and a 1% for the Planet member company. In addition to managing some of the highest-profile green building projects in California, they’ve done Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum projects, and they hold the world’s largest net zero building conference annually. We’ll share contact information for and dialogue with Drew, so without further ado, Drew, hello, how are you?
Drew Shula: Hi Daniel, great! How you doing today?
Daniel Huard: Really good, and thank you so much for joining us on, Build for Impact.
Drew Shula: Happy to be here, thanks so much for having me.
Daniel Huard: As you can tell I’m excited to dialogue with you. What Build for Impact wants to do is expose our audience to thought leaders and conversation to inspire emulation on their part, around the macro trends that I’ve identified that include resiliency, sustainability, material transparency, and the all-important wellness.
So as we start thinking about those things, I will start with sustainability and premise the listener that Drew has been super active on advisory boards including the USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council] Los Angeles Chapter where he’s a past Board member and he’s also a Founding Steering Committee member of the Living Future Collaborative in Los Angeles. So, Drew, “sustainability,” go ahead….
Drew Shula: Well, I wasn’t the actual Founder of Living Future LA, but I was part of the Founding Steering Committee, a group of people, and it’s something that we have been very passionate about pushing in Los Angeles — the idea of “living buildings,” or buildings that harvest the energy they need from the sun and the wind, are built of healthy materials, and that keep the occupants inside the building healthy. The four focus areas of your podcast that you mentioned Daniel, around resiliency, sustainability, materials transparency, and wellness, are all very interrelated and it’s great to join you today to talk about these things that are really the focus of my work at Verdical Group.
Quick backstory on my background and the company… Verdical Group was founded in 2012. It was a California garage start-up story in Pasadena. No heat and no cooling in the garage, and I’d sit out there in 100 degree days in the summer, sweating, and ice-cold down to the high 40s and 50s in the winter with my winter jacket and hat on. Through the years Verdical Group slowly grew organically as we gained clients and projects, and we’re now a 10 person specialty sustainability and green building consulting firm.
We’re based in Los Angeles and really all that we do is green building work. I always describe Verdical Group as having a couple of main buckets for the types of work that we do. There’s green building certification work, things like LEED certification, Living Building Challenge certification, Declare labels around material transparency, WELL, Fitwel, etc. Even Envision certification for infrastructure, and CALGreen code in California, which is one of the most advanced green building codes in the country. Beyond that, we provide more technical services around energy modeling and commissioning for building systems, and then finally we do our conference every year, the Net Zero Conference, this will be the seventh year.
The Net Zero 2020 Conference is being planned right now for September 15–16, and we’re announcing for the first time, it will be a virtual event this year. There has been a big shakeup in the events industry related to COVID-19 and everything moving virtual. We had previously been planning to host it in-person at the LA Convention Center. It’s the largest annual net zero building event in the world. We’re amazed at how it’s grown.
The first year, seven years ago, about 100 people showed up. “Net zero” was just something we were passionate about and we wanted to educate our clients on net zero buildings. We did it again the next year and 300 people showed up and it just grew and grew from there. We kept doing it annually and it’s been really exciting to help inspire as many people as we can and really scale the idea of net zero buildings as far and wide as we can through the conference.
Daniel Huard: It’s really cool that when you first started, people from perhaps 90 miles away made the first one, except for one special guest who was a long distance traveler, and that was me! You were like, “We’d like to welcome Daniel, from fabulous Las Vegas Nevada to our conference!” and I haven’t missed it since.
Drew Shula: You probably came the furthest to get to that first event and it’s cool that you have been there since day one, and I love our history through the years collaborating and working together. You’ve been such a leader in the industry that it’s great to connect with you here today to talk about all the things we’ve done together over the past decade.
Daniel Huard: For our listeners, Drew and I go back about 10 years, and we really sort of rolled up our shirt sleeves when we were collaborating around Living Building Challenge. We’ve been going to the Living Future unConference for years and I believe it was 2011, but certainly 2012, we spent more time dialoguing when you were launching your firm and I was a big proponent of what you were doing because you took a risk, you stepped out there and said, I’m going to make this my day job, and I’m going to really focus on helping people, and you’ve been a mentor for so many over the years in these channels. 

So we touched on resiliency as one of the pillars of this podcast, and the work that you’re doing is so supportive of resiliency even though you don’t take a strong stand on it, waving a flag saying “look I’m a resiliency leader,” yet you are. So let’s talk about the impacts that your work around net zero buildings and the Net Zero Conference have had on reducing carbon emissions and how that in turn helps the planet.
Drew Shula: Well, there are so many threads here. Resiliency is so important and very linked to the idea of sustainability. When I think about resiliency it’s just about the idea of being able to withstand a challenge. In the built environment that might be COVID-19 with this pandemic. What does that mean for buildings? How do we come back to clean, healthy, safe environments once everyone comes back to work? 

We’re still in the throws of how to respond to this pandemic right now, but resiliency planning for buildings also relates to natural disasters like earthquakes or wildfires, and it’s very important that we think about these extreme possibilities before they happen to create resiliency plans for buildings that can withstand these types of things happening.
With sustainability, it’s about things working for the long term, and again the ideas of resiliency and sustainability are very linked. With sustainability, we’re talking about creating healthy spaces that really work for the occupants, that aren’t full of toxic materials. Daniel, you and I have talked about the relationship between the idea of when you go into a grocery store and you can pick up the food on the shelf and you can see the ingredients on the packaging for the product you’re about to consume. Same idea for building products. We really need that transparency for exactly what ingredients are in our products that we’re surrounding ourselves with as we spend 90% of our time indoors. We really don’t have that transparency for most building products and there’s a big movement starting to happen now to get there.

Declare labels from International Living Future Institute being one of those certifications out there for building products to really avoid those most toxic chemicals, but there are all ideas — resiliency, sustainability, materials transparency, and wellness — are all ideas that we promote and focus on at our Net Zero Conference. There we’re bringing together the top names in the industry to share their cutting edge ideas, so if you want to check it out, it’s You can see some of the keynotes and talks and topics that are most relevant as we really push the green building movement forward from 2020 into the future.
Daniel Huard: I think it’s great that we’ve collaborated so much over the years, but I really admire the audience growth that your Net Zero Conference has experienced, and really it’s a testament to being humble which you are, inviting people without an ulterior motive except for sharing that knowledge and continuing to drive and build the future. So, in that regard, you’re helping build resiliency by virtue of education. 

I’m going to flip topics just a little bit…. So my background is mechanical engineering, I’ve also got degrees in architecture and in urban planning, and Drew and I share an architecture background. But what I do in my engineering work specific focus on buildings related to energy, water efficiency, and resources, Drew’s team has continued to drive this to make it recognized in the state of California and prove that it’s possible. I’m also going to touch on materials transparency a little bit, because I actually serve with an organization named, which is actually one of the premier certification bodies for products internationally. 

I’m really happy that you touched on Declare, because we’ve started to see Global Green Tag clients asking how difficult is it for us to assist them with their Declare lables. You and I both know it’s difficult in the sense of transparency to share down to 100 PPM [parts per million] level, what ingredients go into the product and after that, what have you done to mitigate any potential damage that’s being done. At the end of it all, Green Tag has what it calls a “Health Rate” which is a healthiness metric for the product. Drew, related to these items, can you talk about the synergistic and the holistic effects of the green building projects you’ve done?
Drew Shula: I think the materials transparency space in the building world right now is one of the most exciting revolutions that’s happening. We’ve never had that line of sight into what the ingredients are in the chair that we sit in every day, or the bed that we sleep in, or products and furniture in our buildings, or the walls, ceilings, windows, carpets and ceiling tiles that we’re surrounded by every day. This movement is happening and has been going on the past few years now and is really starting to get some legs under it. 

It really impacts how designers and architects work. Typically architects are looking at cost for building products that they specify, and aesthetics, what the things look like, when they’re choosing any type of building product. Now there really needs to be a third consideration, for all designers, around sustainability, and that includes the healthiness of the materials that they’re specifying in their designs. This is something that we’re huge proponents of at Verdical Group, we talk about it a lot, and we advise our teams on.
We’ve worked on some really exciting projects like Google’s Charleston East project in the Bay Area where they’re targeting Living Building Challenge certification including the “Materials Petal” and we’ve been working with furniture manufacturers to help them get their products certified with Declare labels to help them meet those very rigorous requirements, again around material transparency. 

We’ve worked with very large national and international furniture companies, to get Declare label certifications for chairs, tables, workstations, and partitions, that will fill up this million square foot office space. Beyond this one very large project that Google is really helping shape the market with, the exciting thing is that it will then cascade out into the rest of the market in California, across the country, and eventually globally. I definitely think this will continue to scale and grow in the years to come.
Daniel Huard: I think that what you shared is that this isn’t something that’s that difficult. It’s really something that just needs consideration and focus, and when we do that then we can see our way through it. I think that when people realize that you can get a material transparency rating on a product they’re going to be happy about it, but they’re also going to want that more in the future.
Drew Shula: A lot of sustainability and resiliency ideas are very simple and a lot of it is going back to the way we did things hundreds of years ago before industrialization. Using passive design strategies to use natural ventilation really helps reduce the energy load of mechanical systems in our buildings. 

A lot of these ideas are common sense, they have been forgotten about and need to be resurfaced, and that’s our role sitting around the table with architects and builders, is to raise our hand for sustainability issues to share the options and alternatives that are out there that often times are forgotten about in the sort of run of the mill, almost factory-like process that a lot of architects and builders take. 
Daniel Huard: I couldn’t agree more. As a member of the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) Global COVID-19 Task Force, where we gathered 577 global experts on building science, wellness and sustainability, and we all shared our specific expertise on how to make buildings healthier, and source solutions in response to this pandemic. I see the impact of the pandemic really opening eyes toward resiliency first, but then to sustainability attributes of projects. The wellness aspects of us creating an HVAC air distribution system that is effective at not only giving uniform temperature balance and comfort, but also taking care of filtration and making sure that we don’t recirculate pathogens, is huge. Now we could do that with all the other aspects we touched on including materials, and then finally we get to behavior, but the real emphasis has been around creating what we need to insert in WELL v2 (version 2) to make the rating system respond to all these issues. 

WELL is a certification to help facilities respond to COVID and get back to opening and being safe for the public. So let’s touch on the wellness attributes of buildings, and how we, as professionals, contribute to that. Drew, your thoughts on that, because you started with Declare labels and materials transparency, so let’s just expand on that periphery a little, to share your thoughts on why people should select green buildings, of the types that we work on, to be their only choice in the future.
Drew Shula: We’ve talked a lot about materials today, I think as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re currently climbing out of, one important aspect, is the healthiness of the materials that we specify for our buildings, but there are a couple other very important choices that we make as designers of the built environment that you just touched on as well Daniel, that I think every project should at least consider. Again, that’s our job at Verdical Group, as consultants, to be on the team to bring these things up as options for projects, but there are rating systems that exist for sustainability for a reason. They have all these ideas in one place, like the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating system. Of course, they’re not perfect, but they try to take a holistic look at the building around the site, materials, energy, water, and indoor environmental quality.
Same thing with the WELL rating system that really focuses on the wellness attributes and how the building impacts the wellness of the building occupants, or a similar wellness rating system like Fitwel. Rating systems for buildings are third party verifications that you’re doing what you’re intending to do for sustainability or wellness. A lot of times clients will want to look at “equivalency” for the rating system, or incorporate some of the ideas from LEED, WELL, Fitwel, or Living Building Challenge, but they won’t want to go all the way to achieve the certification. It’s great to do something, anything is better than nothing, but the real rigor from the review and certification process is what the value really comes from, in making sure that you’re meeting all the requirements and things don’t fall off the table.
Beyond materials and rating systems, air quality is another very important issue that we’re thinking about right now in a post-COVID-19 world. Things like continuous air quality monitoring. There’s a great company that I’m acquainted with called Wynd that has a product that you can get at the Apple Store and that you can roll out in larger commercial spaces, or your home, that does continuous monitoring for air. It’s something that will pop up on an app on your phone and you’ll be able to see how a forest fire in the area might impact your indoor air quality. Air changes are another issue related to your mechanical systems and HVAC, making sure we always have enough fresh air in the building. You’re looking at the same thing inside of an airplane right now and the air changes that get the fresh air in continuously and potential germ-filled air out, which is something on the forefront of everyone’s mind right now.
Finally, related to the operations side and behavioral changes that you mentioned Daniel, green cleaning is very important. It’s part of the LEED rating system, but in and of itself, using healthy green cleaning products to clean surfaces, is very important since there are so many high touch surfaces in any building. We’re thinking a lot about this right now related to the spread of germs around COVID, and I think we’ll see more technology in buildings as a future development to create as many touchless surfaces as possible. We’ll continue to see the proliferation of the ability to use voice activation, like your Amazon Alexa, to control things like the elevator in your building, so you don’t need to touch the buttons. You can simply tell the elevator where to go, and again that’s reducing the number of touches and the spread of germs and incorporating technology ever more pervasively into our buildings.
Daniel Huard: I want to remind our listeners that you’re an architect, yet do not get so narrowly focused on what you do that you don’t have an appreciation for what other disciplines can positively contribute to your projects, and you touched deeply on several mechanical engineering concepts. You also touched on building operations and maintenance concepts in addition to wellness concepts, so really what we want to be is knowledgeable in the various attributes of buildings that we can speak intelligently on a diversity of topics.
Drew Shula: I went to the University of Notre Dame and did a five-year degree in architecture, but a lot of the work that we do now at Verdical Group is really engineering related. Commissioning is checking all the systems in the building to make sure they’re optimized for your energy and water systems, and envelope. Energy modeling looking at the energy systems, windows, and R-values of the building and models these in 3D software. Same thing with daylight modeling. These are very much engineering functions that we perform through our work at Verdical Group. I’m an architect by training, but we have mechanical engineers on our team, environmental science folks, and really various backgrounds for example biologists, that all play a role in the sustainability world. You need to be a generalist. You need to have bits and pieces of information from all sorts of fields to make your buildings as sustainable as possible.
A couple other quick notes — Verdical Group is a B Corporation as you mentioned early on. We’re a mission-driven company. B Corp certification is a certification for for-profit companies, rather than nonprofits, so we’re for-profit, but we really have an environmental and social mission as well, and with our Net Zero Conference, we’re seeking to educate as many people as we can. The work that we’re doing, we’re for-profit, but we’re trying to make a positive impact on the world every day through green building, and I feel so lucky that I’ve found that role in the world. Coming out of college, that’s what I wanted to do — make money, but make a positive impact doing it, and that’s what we do every day at Verdical Group.
Daniel Huard: Drew, thank you, for circling back to the big wellness key. B Corps really are making a positive difference because the focus is on the wellness of society. Like you said being a “generalist” is huge, and I wanted to circle back to B Corp certification before we close today and talk about the importance of this and you articulated it so well. For our audience, this is typical, Drew and I schedule a five-minute quick catch up chat that turns into at least a half-hour, and I’m really thrilled that you were able to share your time and knowledge with me as always, this time specifically with our audience on Build for Impact.
Drew Shula: So happy to do it Daniel, thank you, and thank you for your leadership through the years and as a LEED Fellow and leader in the green building world, thank you so much.
Daniel Huard: Oh, you’re welcome. We’ve known each other for 10 years and I don’t want to quit collaborating for at least another 10, because there’s so much work that we need to do.
Drew Shula: We will, we have a lot to do together, looking forward to it!
Daniel Huard: We’re going to sign off, and thank you so much, everyone. Look forward to future issues of our Build for Impact podcast from MarketScale, and if you have interest in topics Drew and I discussed today, please reach out to us and request that we get back on and discuss topics of interest that you may have.