Where Does It LEED Us?

Vince Bailey

August 2009

The dreaded e-mail came late last week. It was an "invitation” to a pre-installation conference for a school project that we’d recently been awarded, but it stated that attendance was "mandatory” for subcontract estimators/project managers. Since I’d performed the estimate and was managing the job as well, it would be hard to justify delegating this chore to some unsuspecting subordinate. I scanned the agenda for this snore-fest and that is where the dread came in: The "conference” was nothing more than a front for a two-hour LEED presentation—a professionally prepared dog-and-pony show complete with a sinister-sounding "master task list,” model submittal forms and a long list of objectives that included "total subcontractor compliance.”

For those readers who’ve newly awakened from a 10-year coma, LEED stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” and is the enforcement arm for the U.S. Green Building Council. Disproportionately empowered tree-huggers—at least, that’s my take. But more on these acronym maniacs later.

And so it was with some sense of foreboding that I approached this conference. I had always in previous instances pawned off all LEED submittal tasks and "green” product selection on an intern or an assistant. My notorious disdain for green building concerns is exceeded only by my deliberate ignorance of all things LEED. I was feeling vulnerable, and by no means prepared for any discussion on LEED requirements, much less prepared for the outright confrontation that was about to occur.

I was fashionably late when I arrived at the GC’s office building, and an awkward hush fell over the room as I entered—the kind of hush that alerts one to the fact he’d just been the object of discussion.

"Welcome to the team, Mr. Bailey.”

This "team leader” was a professional LEED consultant hired by the owner and architect to monitor the progress (or lack thereof) on the "master task list.” She was young and easy on the eyes—calculated, no doubt, to ensure that a room full of drooling middle-aged construction managers would pay close attention; all part of the "total contractor compliance” scheme.

"We were just discussing your regular practice of excluding all LEED considerations on your proposals.” The attractive enviro-Nazi was continuing to address me. "It’s just your idea of a joke, isn’t it?” She batted her eyelids rather coquettishly.

I explained what my general position on green building is—that it imposes an added cost to a project, but adds no real value. She asked for examples, so I fired off a salvo of bullet points:

• I cited a recently completed project that required me to provide "natural cotton fiber” insulation (recycled blue jeans) in lieu of the preferred, but less environmentally friendly fiberglass batts. The price tag for the ground-up pants amounted to something like 200 percent of what the spun fiberglass cost. The project was awarded several LEED credits for utilizing the recycled material, but I’d say the owner lost his shirt over those pants.

• On the same project, I offered a value-engineering credit of more than $8,000 to accept a substitute submittal on ceiling tile. The architect conceded that it was an equivalent, but with one caveat: The proposed substitute had a light reflectance designation of .84, while the more expensive specified tile had an LR of .85. He insisted that the deviation would negatively impact energy efficiency and LEED points would be lost. A significant cost savings was passed over in deference to the mighty LEED.

• On another project, we were informed by the LEED inspector that the construction adhesive we were using had an unacceptably high level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). We politely pointed out that this was the material that was specified in the project manual. No matter, it was determined that all installations using our product would have to be dismantled and the adhesive ground off—all at the owner’s expense.

"Well, it is imperative that VOCs be eliminated in order to establish a sustainable planet!” the LEED lady hissed.

"Fine,” I returned. "Then you can eliminate glue that sticks, paint that covers and preserves, and caulk that adheres while you’re at it, because the alternative products that they’re coming out with to satisfy your requirements are as inferior as they are overpriced.”

"Aren’t you at all troubled by off-gassing concerns?” she queried incredulously.

"Lady, the only off-gassing concerns that trouble me are the kind that occur at these team meetings!”

Next month: The USGBC is unmasked.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for San Juan Insulation and Drywall, Durango, Colo.