What Does It Take to Build a Green Wall?

Mark L. Johnson

September 2009

These days, big construction jobs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts regularly seek some level of LEED® certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. Dennis McDonnell, vice president at T.J. McCartney, Inc., Nashua, N.H., is ready to meet those needs. His company has documentation loaded in a database.

If a job calls for use of adhesives with low levels of volatile organic compounds, McDonnell’s team accesses the database of LEED-compliant products and prints the needed submittal. When a project specifies "synthetic” gypsum board, again a team member logs onto the database, grabs the correct form and orders the board from a plant in Montreal.

"Building a green wall is not that big of an issue,” he says. "It’s really about filling out the paperwork.”

Moving Up the Learning Curve
Yes, green building is falling into place, perhaps not in every locale but in enough regions and districts of the country to say it is becoming common. Of course, green construction products, standards and practices are always in flux. So, sustainability managers working for drywall and ceiling contractors have plenty of work to do to stay abreast of the issues.

But on the whole, sources contacted for this article indicate that the wall and ceiling industry is moving up the learning curve. Green awareness exists in abundance, sources say. Green building products and submittal sheets are readily available—more so than in the past. More industry personnel are passing green credential examinations and becoming accredited. The job of building green walls is getting done.

"In the last five to six years, we’ve done 10 or 12 LEED-certified projects,” McDonnell says. "We are accustomed to dealing with the paperwork associated with these programs, and most of the products fall within 500 miles of our projects. Most board has some synthetic recycled content, so that isn’t an issue. Steel recycled content isn’t an issue. The only problem that we’ve had is with FSC-certified wood, but more local dealers are getting certified. It’s becoming less of a problem. And the issue for us is not really cost. We don’t even add any money to the bid.”

Once green building standards get adopted in an area, wall and ceiling contractors seem to jump on board. They figure out what works in their area, and building green just becomes part of what they do. The key to making it all work, says McDonnell, comes down to having the necessary submittal information available from the industry’s building products manufacturers.

"Some manufacturers have their literature online,” says McDonnell. "It’s easier today than it was six or seven years ago to find that information.”

Others agree. "Finding the submittal information required for each product is the most difficult thing our members go through,” says Terry Kastner, technical consultant at the Northwest Wall & Ceiling Bureau, Seattle. "Manufacturers are much better than they used to be. You can go to their Web sites and get the LEED information. We used to have to contact them, and they’d send the information, which took time for them to hunt down and some never followed through. It used to be difficult to get submittals in on time, but not anymore.”

Really, the biggest hurdle to building more green walls, at the moment, may be the current economy.

"We are in a depressed construction market. Having a green building is a luxury,” says Michael Alexander, LEED AP and director of sustainability and communications for B&B Interior Systems, Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It’s a bit more expensive up front, and people haven’t wanted to spend the money. I’d say in the next year that’s going to change. The economy is slowly picking up.”

The Role of Credentials
With construction poised for a comeback, green building may lead the way. Should companies work on getting their employees accredited? It depends on what you think it will accomplish.

"The individual credential only adds one point to the standard, but that person has a very important role,” says B&B Interior Systems’ Alexander. "They have to register the product with the USGBC and monitor the project. So, even though you don’t get a huge credit for having a LEED AP (Accredited Professional) on the job, there are a lot of duties to perform. And, one point can make the difference between not getting certified, or between silver and gold, all the way up.”

Many drywall contracting companies pursue credentials in hopes of gaining an advantage in the marketplace. Some credentials, such as Green Advantage, are for building-related practitioners and are frequently issued to contractors, subcontractors and trades people. Green Advantage has Commercial, Residential and Commercial/Residential certifications. Other credentials, such as LEED AP, LEED AP+ (the 2009 designation with a new exam) and the LEED Green Associate (GA), focus on building professionals with knowledge of design and integrated design principles (although LEED GA requires a less stringent level of experience than LEED AP+). LEED certification is achieved through a new tiered rating system administered by the Green Building Certification Institute, which was founded by the USGBC last year.

Do these credentials matter to the firm? "The need [to obtain credentials] really isn’t there, other than the perception it creates among owners and general contractors that you’re LEED knowledgeable,” says McDonnell, whose company, T.J. McCartney, has two individuals currently working on LEED AP+ designations. "Obviously, if you’re an architect, designer or general contractor, there’s more at stake. The higher in the design chain you are, the more important the credentials are.”

The credentials point aside, McDonnell isn’t even sure that experience with green project carries any weight in winning bids. As previously noted, T.J. McCartney has worked on 10 to 12 LEED-certified projects, but so far, McDonnell says, the résumé does not seem to register with construction managers, architects or building owners.

Says McDonnell: "I suppose of if it comes up in a pre-bid meeting or job scope meeting, ‘This is a LEED job. Do you know what that’s about?’ I would sit there and say, ‘Why, yes. We’ve done 12, and one was Platinum.’ Obviously, that’s worth something, but to what extent I don’t know. People just don’t say, ‘We gave you this job because you’ve done 10 to 12 LEED projects.’”

Creative Solutions
Sometimes, building a green wall calls for innovative ideas. Take the case of Poellinger, Inc., La Crosse, Wis. Mike Poellinger, president and general manager, says general contractors and designers are beginning to ask his firm for ideas on how to earn more potential LEED credits.

"A designer might say, ‘We want to get a LEED certification here. Can we put in more recycled components?’ Well, our steel framing is recycled and comes from within 250 miles. Our gypsum board contains potash and other filler, so it has recycled components,” Poellinger says. "So, we look at the finishes, and we sometimes suggest eliminating the paint coat, or the vinyl wall covering. If we use a plaster texture, an integral plaster, then the whole wall assembly will become a greener, and for not much more money.”

Poellinger says most veneer plasters contain all-natural products, and they can be tinted. For example, Poellinger recently bid on a medical clinic and during the process recommended a switch from a vinyl wall covering to a less-costly plaster veneer. Since Poellinger does not normally bid on paint contracts, adding the veneer plaster to its job scope was a creative way to add dollars to its contract—while giving the general contractor one less subcontractor to work with on the job.

"Minimizing the number of subcontractors helps designers to better achieve a LEED building,” Poellinger says. "They like it anytime we can bring more work into a single contract.”

Poellinger sees similar issues playing out in remodeling and renovation projects.

"In the last year, school districts doing renovations began asking us for alternatives to paint. They’re concerned about VOCs and air quality,” Poellinger says. "Both Wisconsin and Minnesota adopted new VOC guidelines for new construction, and school administrators began focusing in on them for their renovation projects. They want to meet the new criteria, because they realize going forward that anything green today could help them obtain future funding.”

New: Recycling Bins
A new issue of late has to do with recycling construction waste generated on LEED-registered projects.

"This never seemed to be part of the program, but now you have multiple Dumpsters on a job site,” says McDonnell. "To be honest, we do a lot of work in Massachusetts, and Massachusetts has passed laws about sending construction debris to the dumps, so it’s hard to determine if it’s a LEED requirement or one that’s coming from the state.”

While recycling construction is certainly good for the environment, doing so may raise project costs. It can be cheaper to buy new material than to participate in recycling efforts. "In our market, there is no way to recycle gypsum board,” says Poellinger. "The tonnage price to bring gypsum board to the landfill costs less than it does to recycle it. While I believe building green is becoming more cost-effective, that would be with the exception of recycling gypsum board.”

Nevertheless, the industry is moving through the green learning curve. Green product is here. Credentials are being earned. Knowledge of best practices and green concepts important to integrated design and the construction process are turning out higher-performing green buildings. Yes, the work of building green walls is getting done, and will continue in the days ahead.

"We need to keep our eyes on the prize,” says Grady O’Rear, president and CEO, Green Advantage, Inc., Washington. "We need to move as quickly as we can to making green the norm.”

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.