Where Greening Meets the Green

Steven Ferry

October 2006

The U.S. Green Building Council developed the voluntary LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System in 1998 to create a common standard of measurement for "green” buildings and offer third party validation for builders. Parameters include assessments of site sustainability, materials and resources used, energy and atmosphere-related initiatives, indoor environmental quality and water efficiency. Any innovations beyond the checklist requirements earn bonus points and certificates ranging from certified to silver to gold to platinum validate the levels reached.

Green buildings offer lower operating costs, higher lease and sales figures, and happier and healthier occupants than conventionally constructed structures, according to LEED, and are driven by customer concerns over cost and a desire for environmentally friendly facilities. Local governments also consider environmental and conservation issues sufficiently important to pursue. In Dallas, for instance, the city requires new public buildings greater than 10,000 square feet to be LEED projects and existing buildings to work toward Green Building Council certification.

USGBC (www.usgbc.org/) reports 24,000 LEED accredited professionals in all 50 states and 12 other countries, and 563,000 million square feet of commercial building space registered or certified, making the move toward green buildings a significant trend. But how is this trickling down to the average AWCI sub?

NGIMBY—No Green In My Back Yard
The short answer, based on the handful surveyed, is "not enough yet.” The reason seems to be that sticky old bottom line issue, not for the subs, but the owner. The personal bottom line is more important than the greater, long-term good. Or as one Colorado contractor put it, "The trend is definitely going in the direction of green, but I think there is the reality that everyone tries to stay as cheap as they can, so I think there are some conflicting interests. More people are trying to save money than are trying to save the planet.” Maybe the rising price of materials and energy as China and other factors keep increasing the demand for those materials will make greening a foregone conclusion, but we are not there yet.

Half the subs questioned have had no green projects to work on in their area, even in the way of recycling:

"We have never done a green building, but we have had to document that our gypsum board was recyclable and that they were taking it to recycling dumps.” (California)

"Recycling is not a big part of our construction because of the logistics of shipping the recycled materials to the mainland.” (Hawaii)

"We don’t do anything with green buildings.” (Colorado)

"Green buildings are not really our venue.” (California)

"We haven’t worked on any green buildings and I haven’t seen one in our immediate area. I think the manufacturers are starting to recycle more stuff. As far as drywall is concerned, they’re recycling more of that. But no other significant changes that I have seen.” (Delaware)

"I have never worked on a building that was classified green. They’re calling for any possible green thing you can do in the specifications—they’re looking for it all the time, but there is only so much you can do. Better insulating jobs to reduce energy consumption is the best way to go.” (Idaho)

"Green buildings are relatively new in this area, and we have not worked on any or do anything like recycling. Although one company did just complete a shopping center where they took down some old buildings, recycled the materials, and then built the new buildings within green building specifications.” (Georgia)

What Goes Around, Comes Around
Recycling seems to be a major component of green building, and when subs do run into issues of green building, recycling is where they are involved.

"I’ve done a few larger projects,” states an Arizonan contractor, "where we separated the trash because the owners asked the general to be environmentally friendly. I just finished the second phase of 10 buildings that are totally green. We’re putting the steel and [drywall] in separate Dumpsters, and they’re starting to do the wood and the garbage in separate containers, too.

"But around here, recycling is just beginning to appear, and with smaller projects it’s not worth messing with really. There is no recycling in our area for gyp board. Where we really did see recycling was about 15 years ago, in Seattle, when all the Microsoft projects were like that. Back then nobody else ever separated the different materials—framing and drywall—into separate containers in the trash. At Microsoft, they did. They even had the trucks driving through a big water pit and across gravel and screens before they hit the road, so they didn’t leave mud and dirt on the roads. In Phoenix, right now, they’ll usually just spray a truck before it leaves.”

"There’s very little green building here,” reports an Alabaman, "just the owner-driven requirement for more recycled drywall, insulation and acoustical ceiling tile materials in about 25 percent of jobs. Manufacturers are doing a lot of it voluntarily and that helps. It doesn’t really impact us either way, though.”

"Most green projects are schools or other public jobs,” adds a Floridian, "but they’re only requesting any green products we may have, they’re not saying we have to use a certain product. If these cost more than non-green products, they may or may not decide to use them. We don’t deal with a lot of schools so about 5 percent of our work may be green projects. We do drywall and metal studs, so we are green to the extent that metal studs are manufactured from scrap iron, and drywall uses recycled paper and gypsum byproduct.”

"We’re doing a couple of buildings under a LEED program with high recycled content,” reports a Coloradoan. "One is a medical center with recycled percentages in the low 70s and by the end of the project, they expect to meet a goal of 75 percent recycled materials. This trend is being driven by architects who are being driven by the LEED program. It means a little more work for us and a little more cost. Every little bit of trash we have on the job has to be taken out and sorted into Dumpsters by type: all the cardboard goes in one, all the wood in another, all the metals in another. On a normal job, you just dump your trash. On a LEED program, you’re spending a little more time sorting and categorizing your trash to place it into the right containers.

"We didn’t bid the job any differently because there really wasn’t anything different up front that we needed to do. They specified products that met the recycled content they were aiming for prior to going out to bid. There’s some paperwork and an enrollment program, but it is minimal and we didn’t adjust our price because of the LEED program. This was a very large project so there was enough to absorb a little bit of the LEED impact.

"I don’t know how they calculate the recycled content, but it seems to be a combination of the waste stream and the materials being used for construction. All the materials that we supplied for the job, we had to provide letters from the manufacturers stating the amount of their recycled content. Once the materials were on the job, 100 percent of the waste stream was recycled. We have had four or five projects out of maybe 350 under LEED, about 1.5 percent. We did our first LEED or green job about two years ago and since then, we’ve bid quite a few, making the percentage of green jobs probably less than 5 percent here in the commercial market. But it is growing in volume.”

"I believe jobs are becoming greener following the LEED-type programs,” states a Californian. "We are doing a lot more work that contributes to MR 4.1 and 4.2—providing at least 15 percent recycled content. In some cases, they are looking for 90 percent post-consumer recycled content on some papers and things, and we’re seeing more and more of that. The biggest focus right now is looking for products that are manufactured from the same product that was either disassembled or demolished from cars and buildings. Some of the metal studs we use are from re-manufactured iron purchased from car manufacturers. They take what is left of the coils and run them through a process that actually makes all the different thickness coils into the same sizes, from which they make the sheet steel and then metal studs.

"In some ways this drive to green is good, but there is some overzealousness resulting in what I call ‘act first and think later’ that makes people want to stiff-arm it. A good example is the 1.5 gallon toilets: To maintain pressure, they made the hole smaller, but now the waste doesn’t always go through the hole and the user ends up flushing twice and sometimes even more, so where’s the savings?”

Beyond Recycling and Toilets

Part of going green, of course, is using building materials and systems that conserve energy, among other benefits, and some subs are certainly working on these projects. According to a Coloradoan who hasn’t been particularly involved in any special green buildings, although he says he has worked on some, "A buddy of mine applied EIFS on a green project they say is the ‘Tightest House in America.’ They used solar panels and were giving electricity back to the electric company. By putting EIF systems on houses, we save people up to a third of their heating bill, therefore reducing fossil fuel usage. I did a house up in Aspen where we covered the whole house with 3-inch thick Styrofoam—8,000 square feet of 3-inch thick Styrofoam, and they were heating it for less than $30 a month in the middle of the winter! When sealings are done properly industry wide, efficiency will also increase.

"I understand EIFS Styrofoam is now made in an environmentally safe way and no longer gives off CFCs. I am using totally environmentally friendly products such as water-soluble, latex paint. I don’t know if it’s biodegradable, but it’s safe to wash off buckets and tools, it won’t kill any grass and so on. I’m doing that, but I’m not expending a lot of energy to stay green.”

Another green system is Insulating Concrete Forms, as a Floridian points out: "We’ve had a lot of customers trying to attain a green rating with ICF, because the concrete obviously has fly ash in it and recyclable materials with the plastic furring strips and so on. Houses down in Venice, Fla., were built by WCI to a 200-point minimum FGBC (Florida Green Building Coalition) green building standard, a standard that awards points for energy and resource conservation as well as indoor air quality. These are basically the greenest houses ever built in the state of Florida. They used ICF on the lower level and then wood frame on the upper level, with sprayed Icynene (foam urethane) insulation in the attic and Xeriscape landscaping (quality landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment) outside. There is a whole new approach being taken with the Icynene, away from the school of thought that calls for venting attic space in Florida, to spraying Icynene on the top chord of the trusses, sealing off the soffits, not putting any bats over your bottom chord but just hanging drywall. The air then trickles into the attic, and they’re saying that in an average home, the attic is 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the air-conditioned space. Many people are moving in that direction and saving a lot on their utility bills while opening up the attic as a useable space.

"We definitely try to market the green rating: ICF is basically a green-rated product and that is how the manufacturer markets it. We try to sell owners, GCs or architects on ICF and if they do mention the green word or they’re trying to obtain a green rating or get LEED credits from an architectural standpoint, then we also let them know we can do an ICF shell, metal-stud frame, metal trusses and Icynene insulation, and you basically have a green building. We’re not out there pushing the green market, so to speak, but if they mention it, then we definitely have enough information and product to help them move in that direction.

"I think the demand is huge, because the federal government is encouraging and trying to support it. Federal tax credits and energy-efficiency ratings go hand in hand with the green ratings. Right now, green building is not huge, maybe 7 percent of the market, but it’s definitely growing, especially here in Florida with people trying to build using green products. Architects have the greatest opportunity to make something go green in their pursuit of LEED requirements and credits, so more and more buildings are being spec’d using green products. But it really takes the effort and desire of the owner and contractor more than an outside sub.”

The Politics & The Green Behind Greening
A Californian sees the percentages about the same for green buildings in his state: "About 8 percent of my clients have contracts requiring a certain percentage of recyclable material. There are certain areas, residential mainly, where green is absolutely demanded. In Menlo Park, for instance, you have to be very wealthy to live there, and you absolutely cannot build unless you are green.

"All debris does go to a recycling facility, however, where they recycle 100 percent. Green products are just now starting to ramp up, and we have certain brands involved in drywall recycling. We use a lot of metal, of course, which is made from scrap metal. There is not enough recognition in our area yet, unless there is a big political push, to create a greater demand for this kind of product. That’s because you have to have individuals who can document, research, plan and order in these special supplies, which increases the cost, and because the materials are more expensive. Recycling does have a huge impact on the community and the planet as a whole, but most people are bottom line. It will take a while for the Bay Area to move into a heavier demand for recycling and green buildings.

"A big contractor, like a big university for example, can afford to pay some front person six figures to sit in a trailer and come up with the right plans, and they are the ones that get the recognition, not the subs who are sweating it out. But this will trickle down to low-bid subs eventually. A sub receives a project that requires 10 to 20 percent more pricing because he does do green, and people recognize that and therefore give him a project that will cost 10 to 20 percent more.

"Everyone is still about being down and dirty and making the most profit. But when the environmental and city inspection departments meet together and certain vendors decide to go green when they get kickback points from the government, then becoming green will become commonplace.

The guys who go green are more high profile or more interacting with the environment, such as roofing, HVAC, landscaping. The most they can do at the moment is use recycled products and recycle them. No one is pushing them to go green at the moment. But I do see it coming. It really depends on the political environment. When the building code and the state of California say ‘We want a certain percentage of green engineering,’ then it will happen. If the states say we have $4 million for a green building, for instance, then contractors will go for it. And then the subs of course will, and then the vendors will, because they’ll see that there is a market.

"My vendors are actually talking about green products, but they’re not fielding people to sell them. Right now, they are more focused on making products that protect people in their houses, such as drywall that addresses mold, but a lot more can be done in the direction of greening a building.”

A Colorado contractor thinks there may be other issues than politics that could explain the currently low percentage of jobs that are green: "I don’t see that subcontractors are holding it back. The manufacturers are very driven to provide recycled content on the materials and in the last four or five years, they have launched their own recycling programs where they’ll pick up old materials, take them back and recycle them into new products. They’ve become really proactive about publishing their recycled program, to try and get architects pushing their products into green and LEED programs.

"I think owners may be the problem, or the architect, because they’re the ones who have to manage and maintain the program, and maybe there’s a lot of red tape involved with that. I don’t know the logistics at their end of it. From a contractor standpoint, green buildings are definitely nothing we would go against; they are a very easy process for us. Why it’s not 20 or 30 percent, I don’t know, other than maybe it’s just gaining momentum and getting everybody aware that they can do it. I’m not even sure what the benefits are to an owner. I know there are some advantages or reward for them—whether it’s a discount or some incentive—but I know there is something driving it, or the ones who are doing it wouldn’t be doing it.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.