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Building sustainably


While many of yesterday’s trends in ‘green’ construction are now commonplace, new innovations in sustainable facilities emerge

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

In 1986, how many of us had a recycling bin? Or a compost bin? Or had ever heard of solar shingles and low-flow toilets? We thought gray water was what resulted when Elvis impersonators rinsed out their Grecian Formula.

From buying Energy Star appliances to using cloth grocery sacks, Americans behave, think and act differently than we did 30 years ago.

Companies are no different. In northeast Wisconsin, those in the construction trade say they’re more conscious of energy use and the environment than in the past, and their consumers expect it.

Little changes

Thirty years ago, people weren’t installing nearly as much roofing insulation as they are now, said Precision Roofing CEO Jerry Ziegelbauer. He indicated state guidelines for insulation back then were much lower than today.

Forget expensive solar panels and costly rooftop wind turbines – people in northeast Wisconsin are making modest shifts rather than radical means to use less resources and conserve what they have.

“There isn’t a tendency to spend money on things that have a limited return on investment,” said Rob Lindstrom, an architect at Keller Inc. in Kaukauna. “If we can show, for instance, a furnace that has higher efficiency rating, or that more insulation has a return on investment, they’re willing to spend that additional upfront money.”

Extra layers

Precision Roofing installs commercial and industrial roofing, and its customers are having them insulated. It might be just on the roof, but it’s low-hanging fruit.

“We push the expanded polystyrene that’s the white beadboard – much better for the ozone,” said Ziegelbauer.

One vendor Precision uses recycles its scraps and can remove old insulation and regrind it into a new product.

Many clients want white roofs.

“It reflects the sun off the building,” Ziegelbauer said. “It costs up to 30 percent less to cool the building, just because of the roof color. It’ll make your insulation perform as expected, versus a black roof, which will overheat the insulation.”

Although he’s not installed a rooftop garden yet, Ziegelbauer is fielding more inquiries lately about them. They not only add insulating properties, but also protect the roof membrane from the elements, especially the sun. “The sun is what deteriorates the roof,” he said.

Borsche Roofing Professionals in Hortonville, too, has seen an increase in reflective roofs in recent years.

“The biggest reason for that is they’re very close in price,” said president Dave Schultz. “Ten years ago a ‘green’ roof was substantially more expensive than a black roof, and we did a lot less of them because, when push came to shove, people couldn’t justify the cost. But today the cost is very similar.”

But Schultz said Borsche Roofing actually does more gray roofs than white. “They don’t look dirty nearly as fast,” Schultz said. “You get some reflective qualities in the summer and you still maintain some of your heat absorbing qualities in the winter.”

Maintaining the LEED?

Eighteen years ago, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) third-party green certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council crept onto the scene. In the last decade, it’s become more widely known in northeast Wisconsin. By meeting certain design standards – letting daylight inside, using environmentally friendly materials, installing bike racks for bicycle commuters – buildings can be certified by various levels of sustainability all the way up to platinum.

Not everyone buys it.

“There’s costs associated with (LEED). There’s commission. You also pay an outside agency that monitors the process. It really adds to the cost,” said Dean Hunt, director of marketing and business development for Bayland Buildings in Green Bay. “The benefit of that is still yet to be determined.”

Some building owners choose to build to LEED standards but don’t go for the official LEED seal of approval. “I see that as a trend,” Hunt said, adding that his architect hasn’t had a LEED inquiry in three years.

But where clients do see benefit is in using natural light, strategic window design, and renewable materials like cork and bamboo, Hunt said. In other words, smaller modifications.

“There’s a light shield you can create to reflect the light back into your building and prevent it from falling into an area that just doesn’t get utilized. Those are the types of things that don’t cost a lot that you can create to have a bigger input,” Hunt said.

Permeable parking lots are another no-brainer.

The lack of LEED inquiries isn’t due to lack of interest in the environment, Hunt said, but because builders are already on top of the issue of energy efficient and sustainable buildings.

“Our industry has done a really great job of incorporating a lot of sustainable design already into our projects,” Hunt said.

He said Bayland automatically puts in specifications for LED lighting, layout and utilizing building position for maximum sun to reduce electric light use when looking at a new project.

“A lot of our clients have seen us already adapt almost common-day principles into our design – that’s why they’re not requesting it much.”

He and other builders say many companies aren’t willing to exceed their construction budget for alternative-energy projects with long-term payback.

“Geothermal is still a long-term payoff for the investment you put in upfront,” Hunt said. Companies want to be good stewards of the environment but need to remain within budget.

“They’re saying, ‘Yes, I want energy savings, but if it’s a 25-year payoff and it puts me over budget, I can’t do it,’” Hunt said. “These conversations are happening on every project.”

Other builders agree.

“I think people are just more aware of the little things they can do,” said Jesse Van Boxtel, president of Millennium Construction in Appleton. “If it’s a 10-year payback, that is the borderline of where people decide to go with the energy-efficient (product) or not. Things like solar panels aren’t going to come around, wind turbines for on top of buildings aren’t going to catch on, geothermal isn’t going to pay for itself, but if your average 12,000-square-foot warehouse decides to spend $5,000 on all-LED lighting or another $5,000 on insulation, they’re going to go with those options versus some of the other green environmental (options).”

For some organizations, alternative energy is worth the extra cost.

“Say you have a corporate philosophy (that touts environmentalism),” Hunt said. It can be good for public relations. But costs can be substantial.

“Often those who put up wind turbines do it on principle, not necessarily to save money on energy,” Hunt said. “The technology is not at the point yet where it equates to what the cost is.”

Government subsidies spurred many installations of wind turbines, he said, but most of those subsidies don’t exist anymore. Still, the government’s involvement may help speed along improvements in technology: “More things will get developed that will eventually get to the efficiency level that makes them viable,” Hunt said.

Like making solar and wind power storable. “Then that’s when you’ll see people really diving into it.”

Feeling WELL

LEED is still around, but there’s a new kid on the block: WELL, the building-standard rating system developed by the International WELL Building Institute, which is partnering with the U.S. Green Building Council to roll out.

While LEED focuses on reducing quantities of resources used – materials, energy, water – WELL supplements those measurements by focusing on increasing quality, said Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services for Fox Crossing-based Miron Construction.

“Increasing quality of lighting, increasing quality of water, increasing the quality of anything has the potential to impact human health,” Lehman said.

WELL is “marrying best practices in design and construction with evidence-based health and wellness intervention,” she said.

Its guidelines focus on people – their moods, fitness, nutrition, sleep patterns – as they relate to their environment.

“Due to low energy prices right now, the market seems to have shifted from focusing on how to be energy efficient or minimize energy use to ‘How do we enhance the health and wellbeing of people?’” Lehman said. “Healthcare costs continue to rise, health insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, and there’s been a big huge emphasis in all market segments on human health and wellbeing.”

WELL and LEED overlap on about a dozen metrics, but WELL adds the categories of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

“When it comes to water, LEED is all about reducing quantity of water where WELL looks at quality, so they’re looking at sediment and micro-organisms, dissolved metals, organic pollution, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers,” and keeping public water supplies pure as well as testing it and releasing the data in readable form, according to Lehman.

WELL looks at air purification, suggesting carbon filtration, air sanitization and ensuring indoor air quality is exceptional.

It looks at minimizing combustion-emitting appliances. “They don’t want any appliances in the building that have the ability to combust,” she said. So gas appliances and gas and wood fireplaces are frowned upon.

WELL looks at moisture control, sanitization of high-touch surfaces in schools and healthcare centers, establishing policies for green cleaning and pest control, among other things.

“As this new generation of millennials comes into the workplace, they’re very interested in does your organization have a corporate sustainability strategy,” Lehman said. “They’re very interested in working in a healthy environment.”

NEW catches up

Milwaukee and Madison may be heavier on LEED projects than northeast Wisconsin, but it doesn’t mean people here are washing their driveways with gasoline or air conditioning their parking lots.

“The whole industry has moved more toward what LEED and green were talking about five or eight years ago, like low-VOC paints,” water-based materials and carpets that don’t have the same off-gassing, said Keller architect Lindstrom. “When we put up a steel structure, most of that steel is recycled steel. There’s no additional cost.”

Old asphalt and concrete from parking lots, streets and sidewalks is often crushed and used as base for new pavement.

“We used to leave it in big chunks and send it up to some landfill site somewhere,” Lindstrom said.

He’s seeing more clients and customers requesting daylighting even in warehousing and manufacturing spaces.

“It may not be a traditional window like we’re used to looking out (from) your desk, but it may be clerestories, transom lighting or ribbon windows along the top of a manufacturing plant so we’re getting daylight spilling deep into the building,” he said.

Lindstrom is also seeing more sprayed-on expandable insulation (a lot like Great Stuff in a can). “We use it a lot in masonry walls, and we’re starting to use it more in this area in wood-frame buildings,” Lindstrom said. It seals buildings better and has a higher R-value than other insulations.

“Because it’s being used more, we’re seeing costs come down on things like that,” he said.

He’s not seeing much action on the solar, geothermal and photovoltaic fronts, possibly because government subsidies for alternative energy projects have expired.

“We don’t have the subsidies anymore. We’re seeing that unless someone has a real desire to do it, the return on investment isn’t very good,” Lindstrom said.

Filling a need

Clients may be discouraged when they find out how long it might take for a solar, photovoltaic or geothermal construction project to pay for itself, but they’re still choosing to be kind to the environment.

Especially when it comes to landfills. People love reusing old construction materials.

“A lot of people and groups are coming forward and wanting to use things. People don’t want to see the landfills overfilled,” said Randy Calmes, president of James J. Calmes & Sons Construction in Kaukauna. Habitat for Humanity is one such group.

His company recently demolished a building in Chilton to make way for a credit union. They opened the site to the public to take whatever they wanted.

“All we had left was one wall. They took everything: every window, every door, all the ceiling tiles,” he said. “We didn’t realize they were going to take the building apart.”

These days, Calmes’ demolition sites often have three or four different kinds of Dumpsters on hand, and they’re not headed for the dump.

“There are Dumpsters for all of the gridwork, ductwork, all of the electrical stuff. They’re taking all that stuff and separating it rather than just putting it all in a Dumpster. All of it’s being recycled, even the concrete,” Calmes said. “It’s good to see that we’re not filling the landfills as much.”

A new angle

Prismatic skylights are generating excitement for Millennium Construction in Appleton. They diffuse and refract sunlight into microbeams so it can be redirected and maximized.

“We’re able to incorporate them into our metal buildings and our metal roofing. They can put off more light than actually having the lights on inside,” said Millennium’s Van Boxtel. “People want projects that include natural lighting on the inside.”

He’s seeing an uptick in clerestory windows in warehouses and manufacturing plants. Clerestories are series of windows on an upper part of a wall, for the purpose of letting daylight in rather than seeing out.

Van Boxtel said LED lights are even more popular than prismatic skylights and predicts up to 80 percent of his projects will incorporate them in a few years. Customers enjoy the low maintenance.

“You’re not having to change lightbulbs all the time,” Van Boxtel said, noting LED lights last longer than incandescent bulbs. They’re cooler than incandescents, too, which reduces cooling demand.

And of course, using less energy is a perk, too. “We’re still finding it to be a five- to seven-year payback, but I would say on a 12,000-square-foot warehouse, you could save a few hundred to $1,000 a year on electricity.”

Let there be light

Consolidated Construction’s clients are also asking for daylighting.

“It’s good from a worker-satisfaction standpoint, and if you don’t need to turn the lights on, you save energy,” said Curtis Schroeder, director of design for Appleton-based Consolidated Construction Company. They’re designing office buildings longer and thinner versus square so more daylight can reach more rooms.

Customers are requesting sensors that turn off lights when a room has enough daylight.

One recent project for Werner Electric’s new headquarters in Appleton includes a photovoltaic device that tracks the sun’s angle and rotates accordingly. It shows how much energy can be generated from the sun in a given day.

Consolidated is one of the many companies incorporating LED lighting into its projects. Most of its projects in the last year used LED.

“There are certain things that are just very good practice,” Schroeder said. “Can we get non-LED lighting? Yes, but it just doesn’t make sense not to do LED lighting anymore, so we’re going with the energy efficient. The price has come down.”

He’s working on a tentative design for a downtown Milwaukee building that integrates rooftop gardens. Plants would grow in three to four inches of soil in trays on a white rubber membrane roof.

“It will take care of some of the stormwater (versus letting it flow into the storm sewer),” Schroeder said.

He said despite lower energy costs, people haven’t lost interest in conserving energy. “Some people in the back of their mind are thinking ‘Are the energy prices going to go up in three years?’ But if they’re truly meant to be energy conscious, they are.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.