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Green Schools, Green Lessons in Construction

What’s new in green construction? Products submittal sheets are easy to obtain. Some contractors now have multiple LEED Accredited Professionals on staff, and finding green now seems easy.

“Everybody’s getting on board the green movement,” says Lee R. Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc., a New York, N.Y., drywall and ceilings contractor. “Manufacturers, especially in bigger markets, are opening facilities to comply with the 500-mile regional credit. Recycled content is now pretty much a standard. Before it was a specialty, and you paid a premium.”

Yes, green is becoming a staple. Even drywall manufacturers have begun situating facilities near power plants to create “synthetic” gypsum. On, the Gypsum Association says synthetic gypsum is a byproduct of the desulfurization of flue gases in plants. Rather than head to the landfill, the material ends up in wallboard products. It’s one example showing how technology is contributing to a bump in high-recycled content material availability.

It’s all well and good. The only bad news is some negative publicity. Last October, Henry Gifford, a New York mechanical systems designer, filed a lawsuit (amended in February) alleging that the U.S. Green Building Council has misrepresented the energy efficiency of LEED certified buildings. In his Estimator’s Edge column in the January 2011 issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, Vince Bailey, a long-time estimator, wrote “of the dubious value of the whole LEED concept.” Bailey believes the USGBC’s main purpose “is to manipulate powerful market interests” and suggests that the USGBC favors manufacturers’ interests more than the environment’s.

It’s quite a development. Can a contractor be held liable for ordering recycled content material that ends up short on the claim? What if the material wasn’t actually shipped from within 500 miles? “We all have to act on reasonable assumptions,” says Zaretzky, which implies the answer: Contractors are not responsible for green products claims; manufacturers are. A contractor can only get into trouble by not being well informed. So, ask lots of questions. Learn the ropes. Be ready to build green—because you’ll be asked to do so.

To help, we’ve put together some case studies. We hope these profiles will show just what contractors can do to contribute successfully to a green project. Each project below sought LEED certification, at least at the beginning. At press time, certification was still in the works for two projects, and the third project had pulled out of the certification pipeline to save money.

LearningSpring School, New York City

Contractor: Ronsco, Inc.

Time Frame: March 2009 – June 2010

Man-hours: 17,300

New York City’s LearningSpring School on 20th and 2nd Avenue is a nine-story structure built for children with special needs. While a green facility would be helpful for normal learning, it’s imperative for helping children with special needs. In its classrooms, LearningSpring School has solar shades, special lighting systems and temperature controls to optimize the environment for conveying new ideas.

“This school goes one step further in sustainable design, because it’s addressing issues that go beyond the LEED system,” Lee Zaretzky of Ronsco says.

Ronsco’s scope of work included light-gauge metal framing, drywall, acoustical ceilings and special BASWAphon absorptive plaster ceilings. These ceilings were critical to the construction of special “quiet rooms” for the students. To contribute to possible LEED credits, the company ensured that only approved sustainable products were obtained and installed.

Steven F. Jureller, chief operating officer at Cauldwell Wingate Company, LLC, a New York firm that provided program and construction management services for the project, says Ronsco contributed regional material, recycled content material, rapidly renewable materials, low-emitting volatile organic compounds on the adhesives, sealants, caulking and an acoustical rating for its wall-and-ceiling assemblies.

“You have to be conscious that it’s a LEED project throughout the process,” Jureller says. “It’s something that starts in the design stage and goes through construction. It’s a mindset. We think about the design elements on down to the subcontractors we’re going to use.”

Zaretzky says the submittal process took twice as long. “This was a $2.6 million job for me. Submittals would normally take me about five hours,” he says. “We’re talking about 20 products. So it took me 10 hours for the additional approvals.”

From an installation standpoint, Ronsco crews experienced no appreciable difference in their work flow compared to non-LEED work. “I’ll say that when you use a high-recycled content ceiling tile, we find they’re more brittle, which means additional labor because they’re harder to cut,” Zaretzky says. “You go through blades more frequently. Sometimes you’ll break a tile that would not have broken, so you have additional waste.”

What did Ronsco do differently on this LEED job?

“Since I single-source, I made sure that I only received [one type of] drywall from [one of the major manufacturers],” Zaretzky says. “In our industry single-source is a problem, whether it be metal, drywall particularly, and insulation. The supply yards buy from all the manufacturers. There are 10 different steel manufacturers, and each of their products looks different. I don’t want to see two different manufacturers’ metals on my job, and that’s more critical, in my opinion, to a LEED project.”

In the end, LEED job success is about taking precautions. “It’s an extra sentence added to a phone call when you place the order,” says Zaretzky. “You give your foreman a submittal log at the beginning of the job so he knows the material was submitted.”

Jureller says LearningSpring School has applied for LEED certification from the USGBC and expects Silver or Gold status.

L.B. Landry High School, New Orleans

Contractor: F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc.

Time Frame: May 2009 – June 2010

Man-Hours: 177,094

The L.B. Landry High School in New Orleans is a state-of-the-art facility with a university-like environment. The 210,000 square-foot structure was designed to achieve LEED Silver certification.

F.L. Crane & Sons’ scope included the metal framing, drywall and ceiling systems. Of 34 specification sections in its scope, seven were specialty ceilings, which had long lead times and required precise field measurements. (F.L. Crane is headquartered in Fulton, Miss., but has offices throughout the South, including one in Louisiana.)

When F.L. Crane began its work, the project was three months behind schedule due to poor weather. The average annual rainfall for Louisiana is around 62 inches, but New Orleans experienced nearly 23 inches in December 2009 alone. To make up lost time, crews worked seven days a week and at times 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts.

What challenges did LEED certification present? “There was a lot of paperwork on the front end,” says Chad Alsobrooks, an F.L. Crane estimator and project manager who has worked on LEED projects before. “The document micro-management was a big deal.”

The project had hundreds of change requests. F.L. Crane incorporated each change, despite having to re-order material and, in some instances, re-fabricate and modify assemblies in the field.

Alsobrooks says submittals took time. “We had to provide [architects] with more information,” he says. “In turn, they had to look through it all and pass our submittals before we could place orders.” It doubled the submittal process.

“In some ways, getting the material was more aggravating than the paperwork,” says Chip McAlpin, an F.L. Crane division manager. “Getting the right material from the right place was hard.” For example, McAlpin says that the most economical sheathing choice couldn’t be used, because it was processed in a location beyond the mileage requirement. Timing material deliveries proved just as challenging, especially since the project was already delayed by poor weather.

Still, building green did little to change the work of the crews. “They had the material sitting there at each stage just like they always do,” Alsobrooks says. While F.L. Crane had to sort the cut drywall and metal into separate containers, this added little, if anything, to the cost structure.

In all, how much did it cost F.L. Crane to build green? “It wasn’t a whole lot,” McAlpin says. “The design somewhat taxed our submittal process, but once we got going I saw it having little impact on the guys in the field.” The company’s profitability rate for this job was comparable to its other jobs. For his part, Alsobrooks invested “a couple of extra weekends” to get the job done.

At press time, the L.B. Landry High School had not received LEED Certification. Nicole Marshall, LEED Green Associate at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, the school’s architect, says it’s in the LEED for Schools application pipeline at the Silver level.

Westminster High School, Westminster, Colorado

Contractor: Heartland Acoustics & Interiors, Inc.

Timeframe: August 2009 – June 2010

Man-Hours: 4,256

Westminster High School, located at 4276 W. 68th Ave. in Westminster, Colo., was a $90 million, 375,000 square-foot project. Reportedly, it’s one of the most energy-efficient schools in the country. It has a daylight design and sensors regulating artificial lighting with sunlight.

The work scope for Heartland Acoustics included more than 170,000 square feet of decorative acoustical ceilings, several reflective curved acoustical clouds and washable ceilings. The project had a high level of project management activity, since Heartland Acoustics priced nearly 160 change-order requests.

What was it like working on this LEED project? “It was really about the products and their recycled content,” says Marty Romero, general manager at Heartland Acoustics, headquartered in Englewood, Colo.

Was the submittal process extensive? “I don’t think it was any more complicated than other jobs, but it’s a less daunting task for us,” says Jason Gordon, president and CEO, Heartland Acoustics. “Three of us on staff are LEED APs, so we’re familiar with the process.”

Gordon says manufacturers’ websites saved time. “Online Web tools do the LEED submittals,” he says. “They pull the products and already know their recycled content. Instead of doing these by hand, we’re doing it online and printing reports we submit to our contractor.”

According to Gordon and Romero, no ceiling systems manufacturers have facilities within 500 miles of Denver, so they focus attention on recycled content.

As for sorting construction waste, this had little to do with Heartland Acoustics work. “We sort the cardboard containers used as packaging, but it isn’t a huge amount,” Gordon says. “There might be a little additional cost, but we don’t bid any different. We’re not passing cost to the owner for sorting trash.”

“We’re a ceiling contractor, and I don’t think we have more difficulties on LEED jobs,” Gordon says. “Our costs are higher on the high-recycled content ceiling tiles and steel grid, but there are no problems with installation.”

For Heartland Acoustics, working on LEED projects is just another way to do business. “Some projects don’t start out as LEED jobs, but later they try to get to a LEED certification, or they try to move up from Silver to Gold. Our challenge is to increase the number of LEED credits, and those can get pretty involved,” Gordon says. “Westminster High School was specified LEED right from the beginning, and that made it easy.”

Gordon says Westminster High School achieved high energy-efficiency ratings. Though built to LEED Gold standards, the school board opted to not pursue certification.

What Have We Learned?

• At LearningSpring School in New York, contractor Lee Zartezky and construction manager Steven Jureller say the key to success was having the right mindset. Zaretzky single-sourced his material to keep better tabs on the regional and high-recycle content material.

• The LEED process was a little more difficult at L.B. Landry High School in New Orleans. Getting the right materials from the right place on time took coordination—and a few extra weekends of work for Chad Alsobrooks.

• In Denver, far from manufacturing facilities, Jason Gordon’s team relied finding and securing material with high-recycled content. At least the manufacturers made the process easy through their Web-based submittal tools.

“It’s a very simple learning curve to be compliant,” Zaretzky says. “The manufacturers all have amazing website calculators. What used to take weeks has now become streamlined. This is the new normal.”

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

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