Building Green

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Environmentally-conscious construction remains en vogue, but it still needs to make economic sense

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Wear clean underwear. Put on a sweater when you’re cold. Eat your broccoli. Don’t waste water. Turn the light out when you leave the room. Just because it’s “in” doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

All that sensible stuff our grandparents drilled into our parents, who drilled it into us, is just basic old-fashioned common sense that stands time’s tests.

So it seems to be the case with energy-conscious and materials-conscious construction in northeast Wisconsin. Nothing fancy these days. Just a bit of no-frills advice: Build a tight envelope. Insulate. Insulate some more. Use what you have. Don’t spend more than you must. It’s pretty much the counsel our Wisconsin German farming ancestors preached.

Dave Schultz, president of Borsche Roofing, Inc., in Hortonville, has been involved in energy-conscious design for more than 30 years, and he’s seen trends come and go.

“I went through college during the 1970s oil embargoes, when gas went from 20 cents a gallon to 50 cents a gallon,” he said. He designed active and passive solar buildings, and even earth homes.

“Most of what we’re seeing in the green movement is really nothing more than a regurgitation of what we saw in the 1970s and early 1980s that were promoted by government-assisted programs,” Schultz said.

Some in northeast Wisconsin’s building field say their clients are choosing sensible steps and budget-friendly options over new-age green technology and alternative energy.

“It really seems like people are interested in something with an ROI, something that returns their money back to them in some way,” said Rob Lindstrom, an architect for employee-owned Keller, Inc. of Kaukauna.

In fact, these builders say they’re seeing fewer clients seeking certification for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) than in previous years.

LEED certification – a points-based, quantifiable means of measuring sustainability of structures – came to be the Cadillac of certifications among the green-building crowd a few years ago.

“It’s more prevalent as part of government buildings more so than in the public sector – schools and public facilities – but not as much in the private sector,” Lindstrom said.

One area builder went so far as to call LEED and alternative energies “a bunch of hooey,” though after speaking with B2B magazine, he reneged his comments and asked not to be named for this article.

But the unnamed skeptic isn’t the only one to regard alternative energy with caution.

“You can create all the (alternative) energy you want, but if you don’t have a good tight building envelope to contain it, it’s kind of all for naught,” said Nick Mueller, project manager with Appleton-based Boldt Construction Co. “When people don’t want to spend additional dollars on energy-saving systems, they can still get a big bang for their buck by building a good, tight building envelope, so the amount of money you spend on energy offsets – like geothermal – is far less beneficial than a good insulated building envelope.”

Tightened building codes have contributed to more energy efficiency in general than the more loosely regulated building guidelines of the past.

“Energy-code improvements have driven (the industry) toward high efficiency, and it’s pushed consumers unknowingly to stuff that is higher-end than stuff we did five or six years ago,” said Chad Calmes, vice president of operations for Bayland Buildings, Inc. of Green Bay. “Today it’s like the baseline, whereas high-efficiency was an option years ago.”

Calmes said very few of his projects involve LEED certification – maybe 1 to 3 percent.

“Some start out LEED but never come to fruition. About 25 percent go with Focus On Energy recommendations but don’t certify their buildings,” Calmes said.

Don’t spend more than you have to

It’s fairly easy to show a customer that by adding extra insulation to a building they will see a return on their investment in three or four years. Even expensive geothermal systems can yield a decent, albeit eventual, ROI.

“LEED is a piece of paper you can stick on the wall, and unless you can market that, there’s not a lot of return on it,” said Keller’s Lindstrom.

Big-box stores like Walmart use LEED certification to their advantage in marketing, creating a reputation of environmental concern and thereby increasing customer appeal to pump up profits.

“A small mom and pop store in Sturgeon Bay who doesn’t market to a wide sector of people really can’t find that marketing return that’s required to become a LEED-certified building.”

It costs a lot to obtain the actual LEED certification, although in theory, that money can be recovered through energy savings. But reality is different here in northeast Wisconsin.

“Everything is relatively inexpensive – utilities are inexpensive, land costs are relatively inexpensive, the cost of water is relatively inexpensive,” said Lindstrom. “We don’t have the water issues they may have in Phoenix. It’s harder to recover that cost because things are relatively inexpensive here.”

More building customers are favoring a down-to-earth path to energy savings, rather than going the alternative-energies route, according to Calmes.

“A lot of customers will end up choosing the same options – mechanical systems, going with high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, creating zones that help shut off certain areas inside of a building that don’t need it and deferring some of that heating and cooling to the outside of the building, controlling the envelope a little better,” Calmes said. “LED lighting fixtures have come down in price in the last two years – we’re seeing a lot more of that as a viable option to offset energy costs.”

Or customers will choose large fans in big additions to move air, which helps with temperature regulation, Calmes said.

“You wouldn’t think it would, but it helps a lot to destratify the air in large spaces.”

Eat everything on your plate

In times of economic trouble, there’s more of a renewed interest in efficient materials use than in energy savings, according to Boldt’s Mueller. People are staying within strict budgets.

“Clients are still very much concerned with investing for the future and energy savings, but I would say the focus is less (on alternative energies) because the upfront costs are greater,” Mueller said.

In some cases, the really splashy projects aren’t worth the money. Borsche’s Schultz cites green rooftops with vegetation like grass and gardens.

“They’re not real cost-effective, and there’s not a real good ROI,” Schultz said. “They cost three to five times the cost of a standard roof, and there’s not enough energy savings to justify them.”

He’s seeing more white rooftops these days, and he’s not convinced that those are warranted in many cases, either.

“Unless you’ve got some pretty substantial air-conditioning loads, there’s not that much advantage to a white roof in this area,” he said. “We don’t have the degree days.”

White roofs reflect light rather than absorb it. Material costs for white rooftops have come down, making them competitive with black roofs, Schultz said.

But Schultz’s favorite roof has been around for years: the ballast roof.

“It’s one of the highest-reflectivity roofs, and we’ve been doing it since the early 1980s,” Schultz said.

It’s a rubber or thermal plastic roof that uses river washed stones as a ballast. Gravity holds the rubber sheet down.

“The river washed rock in our area is generally limestone, which is a light color and is highly reflective because of all that surface area,” Schultz said. “From a reflectivity basis in an energy conscious design, and (for those) with a lot of air-conditioning load, it’s the best roof you can get.”

Another variation of that is the asphalt-based roof with pea gravel – also highly reflective. Many 1970s structures have these. They weren’t done for energy savings but because pea gravel reflected UV light, Schultz said.

“UV’s one of the most destructive things there are for the roofing membranes,” he said. “In reality, they became pretty good roof systems from an energy standpoint.”

Dress in layers

Another bit of common sense: Seal your seams. It’s not something the average person can do this afternoon, but next time you need a new roof, you might want to think about this.

Aligning the layers of insulation with the roofing substrate (metal, shingles, etc.) makes no sense. It lets air out the roof, indicated Schultz.

“You want to stagger the layers because of the heat loss,” Schultz said. “Generally whenever you put a roofing system together, you want to try to use multiple layers of insulation, and you stagger the layers because your major heat loss is where the cracks are. If you minimize that vertical conductance, you are making it jog all over,” (versus shooting straight up and out your roof).

It’s just smart roof design, Schultz said. “We see a lot of our competitors (fail to) do that, and we don’t subscribe to that.”

Don’t throw that out!

“When you have a building project, 45 percent (of the total cost) is materials costs, and owners are challenging us to look at the use of materials in a responsible way,” Mueller said. “That ultimately yields (a lower) materials cost, but you are still trying to accomplish the same programmatic goals. This happens through wise choice of materials, recycled or repurposed content, or virgin materials.”

In order to reuse materials, the building owner has to be flexible with styles.

“You don’t really go get used 2x4s, but you can do doors or furnishings. But with that comes a certain aesthetic,” Mueller said.

What doesn’t get recycled gets landfilled. “We try to make efforts upfront to minimize what goes into the landfill,” Mueller said. One way to go about this is to contract with subcontractors and companies that recycle materials versus those that don’t.

Don’t waste water

In Wisconsin, especially the New North region, we’re lucky – we’ve got lakes aplenty. But that means we tend to take water for granted – we use it and even abuse it. And while we may water our geraniums with the rainwater that arrives in our watering cans, how many companies do we know of that collect and reuse their rainwater?

  1. F. Ahern Co. of Fond du Lac uses at least 60 percent less potable water with its rainwater collection system than it otherwise would. This system provides nearly 100 percent of the water required for flushing toilets and urinals, lowering demand on the City water supply by 110,000 gallons per year.

Ahern’s rainwater collects in a covered concrete basin built into its facility. The collection tank filters for larger solids that might enter the roof storm drain, such as leaves or pine cones, and an ultraviolet (UV) disinfection system treats for bacteria. Sediment at the bottom of the tank is cleared by a submersible pump with solids handling capability.

“Even in a dry season we have been able to keep our tanks at least half full,” said Ahern Engineer Nate Nelson. In drought conditions, Ahern would use the water accumulated from snow the previous winter.

Ahern uses the rainwater in its urinals and toilets. “The savings are pretty dramatic,” said Nelson. “Toilets represent the largest use of water in the facility.”

Such a system can go a long way, especially in commercial office buildings with a lot of restroom use, according to Nelson. He said most companies would realize savings similar to Ahern with water reclamation systems.

Two of Ahern’s sites in Milwaukee and Fond du Lac use low-flow faucets, showerheads, toilets, and urinals/waterless urinals in addition to rainwater collection systems. “Outside that, there are limited other water uses in our facility,” he said.

But the systems are slow to catch on.

“There’s not a whole lot of interest in rainwater collection because our cost of water is cheap, and at the end of the day, we’re not going to sell water reclamation projects on cost savings alone,” he said. “There usually has to be a bigger reason, such as a sustainability effort or marketing opportunity to do a project like this.”

Currently, there are no known incentive programs that are available to offset the costs associated with rainwater collection and treatment systems.)

Often that impetus is LEED design and construction.

“It’s a good way to get LEED points for water reduction and storm water quantity,” Nelson said.

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.