by Paul Nutcher
January 2, 2008

Contractors that have a "green" advantage can gain a valuable foothold in the architectural marketplace, especially as more and more designers and building owners seek environmentally-friendly materials and construction practices for their projects.

For most contractors, their role in implementing sustainable practices can at first appear intimidating. But it boils down to understanding the four main areas covered within most green building rating systems. These include: construction waste management, indoor air quality management, materials selection and use and reporting protocols.

The Contractor's Role

Understanding the contractor's role in compliance with programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED  (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System represents an opportunity to bid on more projects, as well as a higher potential for bid acceptance. 

In addition to LEED, there are other commercial building initiatives such as GreenGlobes, from The Green Building Initiative (which is very similar in its intention to the LEED program) and the GoGreen Program developed by Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. 

On the residential side, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has a sustainable homes checklist. There are also building-type specific programs such as the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, which has been adopted by many of the school districts in California.

Documentation Is Key

Since most of these programs embrace the same general concepts, such as energy efficiency, recycling and air quality standards, a contractor with general “green” knowledge can assemble and maintain the documentation necessary for compliance with any of these established standards, as well as any municipally mandated derivations. 

The most important first step for contractors looking for a competitive advantage is to understand what these rating systems expect in terms of verification and compliance. Understanding the purpose of the various credits can lead to the development of a project plan that fits within a reasonable time frame and cost to the owner.

A green contractor needs to have thorough knowledge of materials, especially building products that are rapidly renewable, contain recycled content (post-consumer and pre-consumer) and are low VOC-emitting. With such a skill set, the contractor can then truly participate in the integrated-design approach needed to build green facilities and even contribute by identifying ways to reach LEED certification of a building. During integrated design charettes, a green contractor can target the LEED credits that they believe are achievable from the beginning and then help to define the project team's responsibilities. 

The Contractor on LEED Projects

Within the popular LEED-NC (New Construction and Major Renovations) program, a contractor could potentially have decision-making responsibilities for up to twenty-three required prerequisite credits, plus an additional sixty-nine available credits within the six established LEED categories—Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality and Innovation & Design Process.

It takes a minimum of twenty-six points for a project to gain a LEED certification, with silver, gold and platinum levels available for achieving higher point levels.

On LEED projects, the contractor is required to maintain spreadsheets in various categories such as itemizing the costs of materials used in specific building systems. Often, the subcontractors are responsible for providing the general contractor with some of the information such as how far certain products traveled from the point of manufacture to the jobsite. This is necessary for calculating the Regional Materials credits.

Another part of the compliance process can involve contacting manufacturers or their suppliers in order to obtain information such as where the raw materials were harvested, the amount of recycled content used in their products, as well as the content of any cleaners and polishes required to maintain the product both during and after installation.

In all, the general contractor is potentially responsible for up to thirty submittals, leaving much of the burden on their subcontractor for reliable recordkeeping and accurate data in order for the project team to eventually submit its report to the USGBC (or other third-party verifying organization) for determining the building's sustainable performance. 

Tips on Compliance

If the general contactor is new to the compliance measures needed to gain third-party verification of a green building, another practical solution to ease the burden is the creation of a LEED project binder. Such a resource can streamline the documentation procedure, serve as a template for the submittals, provide a good reference for a cost-per-credit analysis prior to construction and could reduce the time needed for the close-out phase. 

Some documentation can be as simple as taking photographs, while others could mean retaining labels from the specified filters placed over HVAC duct vents during the application of a product, which emits airborne particles during the installation process.

Prior to bidding on a green project, there are several pre-construction activities a contractor can complete to get a better handle on his costs and enhance his chances of getting the job. The contractor can research other green building projects in the region relevant to the type of construction, regional weather patterns and the local regulations. 

Expect Green Building Certification to Grow

Because more and more government and municipal regulators are requiring LEED certifications for projects funded with tax dollars, it is prudent for contractors to allocate funds for education programs as well as for developing in-house databases of green product manufacturers, salvage vendors and qualified demolition contractors.    

Be able to identify green language in bid packages and be familiar with third-party green product labels of relevance to the construction segment served. For example, the GreenSeal paint label signifies an independent verification of low- or no-VOC products, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Chain-of-Custody label means that the attached wood products qualify for the LEED MR 7 Credit (Certified Wood). Also, understand that some sustainable materials take longer to arrive on site and must be stored under roof because they utilize minimal packaging protection. 

While many of the green building rating systems began as voluntary options, a growing number of governments are adopting measures requiring green compliance. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is working on Standard 189,