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Building a green tomorrow


Sustainable construction practices are becoming more of the standard, no longer the exception

Story by Sean Fitzgerald

IT WASN’T TOO LONG AGO that “green” was an unsavory word in the construction industry lexicon.

Building green typically meant more intense architectural work and project planning, greater care of the job site, and ultimately, higher costs for the entire project.

After years of greater visibility, mainstream acceptance of sustainability practices in a variety of industries, and financial evidence of the return on investment of green buildings and products, it’s become more hip to be green.

“It has been a huge shift in the market,” said Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable service with Miron Construction in Neenah. “Sustainability didn’t become the norm until about two years ago.”

Most green building professionals indicate it was during the summer of 2008 when gasoline prices reached more than $4 a gallon in the area that sustainability popularity hit home with the general public, forcing nearly everyone to face a more realistic view of the relationship between energy, environment and economics.

“When people began to see the economic impact of energy, it really opened their eyes to sustainability,” Lehman said.

For years, cheap energy often seemed like a small, largely irrelevant operating cost. High gas prices changed that perception, from gasoline to natural gas to electricity.

“We learned that energy does cost money, and the rising cost of energy does affect us in certain ways,” said Rob Lindstrom, an architect with Keller Inc. in Kaukauna.

It certainly does. So much so that – whether we think about it or not – energy is a critical part of our lifestyle and our economy. From a social and philosophical standpoint, it’s important that we look at energy through a different light – literally.

“We’re not going to live as a country – at the standard of living that we’ve been used to – without thinking about energy differently than the same way we always have,” said Mike Potts, executive vice president of Plymouth-based Orion Energy Systems, an innovator and manufacturer of energy efficient lighting and energy management systems.

Setting a standard

LEADERSHIP IN ENERGY and Environmental Design, or LEED as it’s known across the industry, has become the leading standard for sustainable building construction in the country. The official certification, issued through the U.S. Green Building Council, is available both to construction industry professionals who design and build structures, as well as a separate designation given to buildings meeting various levels of sustainability aptitude.

Lehman has been involved in the construction industry in the Fox Valley for 12 years, earning her LEED certification a number of years ago and serving as an instructor for LEED during the past few years. During that time, she’s witnessed a drastic change in attitude from prospective customers asking specific questions and wanting to learn more about sustainability.

“Now people are taking the time to be educated,” Lehman said. “It’s kind of like the saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t necessarily get him to drink it.’ My job is to let our customers know that sustainability is ‘water’ and it is drinkable.”

Lindstrom echoed the sentiment that clients are more informed about energy efficient components of their project. In the past two years, he said clients have asked more questions about day lighting and energy efficient lighting fixtures, citing the increasing awareness in the region of Orion Energy Systems and its innovative approach to bring meaningful measurements and dollar-value savings to the energy discussion.

“They have made a lot of companies in our area aware of the possibilities in lighting,” Lindstrom said.

He said building construction customers also ask more educated questions about insulation products and heat retention values, as well as HVAC systems. But Lindstrom indicated not  all components of sustainability entice local business owners.

“In northeast Wisconsin, there’s an awareness, but there’s still some reluctance to engage a greater amount of LEED, if you will,” said Lindstrom, who’s also LEED certified.

As an example, Lindstrom cited the use of porous concrete in building foundations, which has the ability to better manage the climate within a structure, but hasn’t really been tested in Wisconsin due to its typically-Midwestern weather. Porous concrete is more widely used in the South, Lindstrom said, where extreme cold temperatures occur far less frequently.

A collaborative effort

IT’S ONLY BEEN A FEW SHORT YEARS since a time when the various sub-contractors involved on a project worked within their own silo of discipline. Excavators only concerned themselves with preparing the site, plumbers only worried about the plumbing, and HVAC technicians worried only about heating, cooling and other air exchange concerns. And piece by piece a building went up, with the general contractor often being the only central point of communication and organization for a construction project.

In recent years, as an example, there’s become greater awareness that the natural heat from the sun shining through a tempered glass exterior building might require a different – and perhaps more efficient – heating and cooling system than an office building with few windows at all, said Phil Corbin, the HVAC business development manager at J. F. Ahern Company in Fond du Lac. In addition, Corbin said, heat generated by the lighting system, computers and other electronics in the office, needs to be considered when evaluating appropriate HVAC system requirements.

LEED certification includes a requirement for collaboration among all contractors on projects, said Corbin. That’s important, because the efficiency and sustainability of equipment and products is improving at such a rapid rate that building professionals might have a difficult time keeping updates on the latest product development outside of their own discipline.

“There’s a lot more options out there than there was 10 years ago,” Corbin said.

Even in the last three to five years, manufacturers of HVAC equipment have steadily ratcheted up the efficiency standards for their products, eliminating many of the older, less efficient models from their product assembly lines altogether.

Green products the standard

OUTFITTING A NEWLY CONSTRUCTED BUILDING with the latest energy efficient and environmentally sensitive fixtures and furnishings previously meant a mark up on the price for the finished building.

But in recent years, the cost of modern, efficient accessories to a building are often in line with their traditional counterparts. In some cases, products that were the industry norm just five years ago are no longer available, as recently developed, more sustainable adaptations of a product have become the new benchmark.

Lindstrom, a LEED AP-certified architect with Keller Inc. in Kaukauna, points to low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and low- to no-VOC carpeting, both of which are the omnipresent standard in their respective industries today.

“The market has shifted to a point where some manufacturers have made these their standard products now,” said Lindstrom.

Additionally, Lehman said a variety of water-saving technologies such as low-flow toilets and urinals bear costs which have fallen in line with more traditional water-guzzling products.

“These are an investment (to the building owner), because you do get a return on investment,” Lehman said.

Going LEED, going green

WHILE MORE AND MORE NEW CONSTRUCTION projects are designed with a LEED scorecard as a compass, not all building owners take the final step of LEED certification, claiming the cost to be prohibitive.

But an expensive certification process isn’t always the case, said Lehman, indicating Miron currently has 28 construction projects in which the building owner has expressed an intent to seek LEED certification. Lehman said there’s a  standard $900 registration fee, then a cost of three-and-a-half cents per square foot for officials from the U.S. Green Building Council to physically inspect and offer their benediction to a LEED-certified building. The process starts to become more expensive when unique, customized heating, cooling and other air exchange systems need to be commissioned.

Lindstrom said certain components of LEED certification that don’t offer a noticeable return on investment often won’t resonate with building owners.

Installing a bicycle rack and showers to encourage employees to bike to work, for example, doesn’t work as effectively in northeast Wisconsin as it would in New York City. Building multi-storied structures to minimize footprint makes less sense here where expansive business parks offer lots of land at comparatively cheap rates.

“The concepts they like, but the costs that come with those components…can often be hard to swallow,” Lindstrom said.

Assistance is available, though, to businesses looking to construct a more sustainable building. Federal tax credits, grants through state programs like Focus On Energy, and other initiatives sponsored by investor-owned utilities can make the energy-saving initiatives even more affordable and speed up the return on investment for the building owner. Most general contractors will assist clients in obtaining grants, tax credit and low cost loans for the project in which they qualify.

In the final analysis, being green and sustainable is really much the same as being lean, Lehman argues.

“It really boils down to reducing waste,” she said.