Back when it was a niche movement, "green" building was driven by the aspiration of less raw material and resource usage. While that is still a popular motivation, another familiar factor has emerged for builders that is taking sustainability to new levels: competition.
Construction projects are increasingly being bid with requirements for sustainability, and this is leading many builders to strive for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits, the rating system for high-performance, sustainable buildings developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. According to the council, LEED-based initiatives are in place in 44 states, 112 cities, 31 state governments and 12 federal agencies. For further proof that sustainable building practices have become main stream, the recently signed stimulus package from the federal government includes $4.5 billion allocated to the General Services Administration to make its facilities "high-performance green buildings."
Interest in LEED is partly due to the range it covers, which includes detailed design of building operations and maintenance. But for developers, architects, engineers, designers, contractors and trades people, the Green Advantage program is more construction specific. This green certification complements and supports LEED accreditation and offers immediate and long-term benefits.
Earlier this year design-build contractor GeoStructures, who engineers earth structures and foundations, hosted a one-day Green Advantage training course for its staff and several builders including Balfour Beatty and T.W. Ellis. For the company, Green Advantage provides an opportunity to add value to owners, general contractors and construction management companies.
"We have always used environmentally favorable products such as recycled concrete whenever we can in our foundation support projects, and we found that they can cost less as well as lead to more enduring benefits such as less consumption of raw materials," says Mike Cowell, P.E., president of GeoStructures. "From this we have adopted a focus on sustainability, because with more of our staff understanding the 'big picture' of green building, we are well positioned and can help builders and building owners both benefit from environmental upgrades and obtain LEED credits. In the near future, this won't be optional."
Builders can get a LEED innovation credit if 30 percent of a project's building team, including subcontractors, is Green Advantage certified prior to construction. According to Liz Boastfield, assistant director of sales and marketing at Green Advantage, there is a flip side to getting the credit.
"Feedback has been that it's great to get the LEED credit, but builders found that input from a Green Advantage-certified team resulted in not losing other LEED points they thought they had, so having a workforce informed on green building issues has many benefits."
For some builders, the benefits of Green Advantage go well beyond LEED. After learning more about the positive outcomes of sustainability, they become eager to implement the green practices that add another common purpose to a project and help team-building efforts. In addition, at the design stage, incorporating sustainable ideas can uncover opportunities to lower costs, for example, by optimizing systems such as better windows and smaller mechanical systems. Taking it one step further, setting specific environmental goals at the outset of a project can lower costs instead of adding sustainable concepts after construction has started.
For example, for minimal energy usage, sustainable design can show the tangible benefits from long and thin buildings that allow natural light to penetrate deeper, and from orienting the structure to take advantage of shade and cross-ventilation breezes, provided that windows are tied to the HVAC system.
After they are occupied, buildings designed for sustainability have lower operational costs, too, because they use less water and impose less burden on the treatment facility. They maximize energy efficiency and eliminate or manage sources of indoor pollutants. In the course, Green Advantage identifies indoor air quality as an issue both during construction, because of the dust and fumes that affect workers, and afterward due to chemicals "off-gassing" from manufactured products (sometimes compared to the "new car smell"). With Americans spending 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Green Advantage brings to the attention of builders an array of filtering and monitoring systems, air quality ratings, testing procedures and green HVAC systems such as geo-thermal and radiant hydronic.
According to Green Advantage, buildings have the single greatest impact on the environment, accounting for 70 percent of electricity consumption, 40 percent of raw materials used and 39 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, waste from construction accounts for almost half of all typical waste, and the program raises awareness of waste management strategies including use of recycled, recyclable and substitute products that can cut down the amount of material that gets land-filled.
"We often used to get asked how much it would cost to implement green initiatives, but now the question is more 'What will it save me?'" says Boastfield of Green Advantage. "Demand is bringing down prices for many sustainable materials, and there are more qualified installers available." Boastfield added that Green Advantage expects in the next two years to double the 4,550 certifications awarded since the program began in 2002.
Construction has often been criticized because of non-sustainable practices and raw material usage. The industry is responding, and there are several non-LEED certifications for home builders and remodelers. However, Green Advantage offers a way to show green leadership among all engineering and construction companies and subcontractors, whether they are architects, electricians or landscapers. By having field and engineering staff that have mastered green building principles, materials and techniques, construction companies cannot only counter criticism and have less impact on the environment, they can win more business.
Construction Business Owner, June 2009