What role do contractors play in green construction?
Owners and architects are typically the drivers of sustainable design, whether their goals are to achieve a certification like LEED or simply to ensure as little negative environmental impact as possible during the building's lifecycle.
Contractors, too, are in a position to influence how green a project can be, both during construction and after completion. After all, it takes buy-in and ownership from all stakeholders to achieve a project's green ambitions. With invested clients and the products and systems to do the job, contractors today can make more of an impact on sustainability than ever before.
The first step toward that objective is for the owner and design team to fully communicate the project's sustainability goals to the contractor as early as possible in the bid phase, said Kristin Schuster, a project architect with SWBR, in Rochester, NY. From there, the contractor can help shepherd along — and even improve upon — those goals as it carries out its responsibilities.
Contractors are typically the ones who order materials for a project. As such, they must be in the loop early enough to source specialty items in time to meet the construction schedule and the project's energy and other performance goals.
Early involvement also gives contractors the opportunity to navigate the submittal process, in which the architect or other design team member reviews requested project and product details from subcontractors and suppliers. Contractors sometimes leave out critical elements like the chain of ownership for certain materials, Schuster said, which can be a requirement of LEED certification. In a situation like that, the architect would request that the contractor revise and resubmit its material package because using the right materials could be the difference between getting certified or not, Schuster said.
If the contractor jumped the gun and ordered the wrong materials prior to receiving final approval, the design team and owner might be forced to take a different, possibly less-sustainable path forward. After all, Schuster said, there are certain economic realities to a construction project and for some owners it might be worth using the materials that the contractor purchased, even though they don't meet the original specifications.
Another way contractors can impact sustainability is through their standards and practices once working on the site.
McCarthy Building Companies prioritizes sustainable job site practices in its Leaving Green Footprints initiative. "It's more of a culture. It's a mindset," Chad Dorgan, the company's vice president of quality and sustainability, said of the program. “For any project, we look at it from a green operations perspective.”
Using LED systems for temporary lighting is one way to increase energy efficiency on a project, Dorgan said. Even if the first costs are more expensive than standard lighting, he said, payoff occurs over the course of several jobs.
If solar power is part of the project, the company would try to get that operational first and then use solar energy to power site operations, he said. Contractors can also prevent construction debris runoff into community stormwater networks or fresh water systems by setting up retention ponds before beginning work, he said.
Waste management and recycling is another area in which contractors can have an impact. Yet a plan for the post-demolition recovery of reusable or recyclable materials, for example, can be a wash if the demolitions contractor isn’t included in that conversation and instead carts everything to the landfill.
For VOC-emitting products like paints and other finishes, contractors are also in a position to suggest lower-toxicity options. "This is more beneficial where the installers' health is concerned and for the end-user's health later on," Schuster said.
Contractors also have the chance to increase the green quotient over the building's lifecycle when they are called in to perform maintenance or renovation work.
Addressing the country’s building and infrastructure maintenance backlogs has the potential to save time and resources down the road, said John Brown Miller, president of the Winchester, MA–based nonprofit infrastructure consultancy the Barchan Foundation. Without adequate upkeep, however, the costs compound quickly. That's where contractors come into the picture.
One way building owners can achieve savings large enough to support their maintenance costs is through a well-maintained, energy-efficient HVAC system, he said, a service the original contractors would typically perform. Many owners lose out on that money-saving opportunity by not investing in someone to take care of the system.
The same goes for highway and paving contractors. Spending $1 on early road maintenance today could spare transportation agencies the need to spend 14 times that amount for repairs later on, according to an RS Means report. Not only is this a more expensive proposition, but it takes more greenhouse gas–emitting asphalt and concrete production to repair a road experiencing years of neglect.
Working with owners
Contractors on jobs that let them work directly with owners can also have a strong influence on sustainability.
Bill Lomel, president of Atlanta-area commercial roofing contractor Sentry Roof Services, said dealing directly with an owner gives him the chance to have the sustainability discussion and to suggest greener options. That's not always the case when Sentry is acting as a subcontractor on a new project.
"I look at sustainability in a number of ways," he said. "Is it something we can build in a way that leaves elements reusable in the future, or can we use what's existing?"
When installing a new roof, Sentry uses assembly methods that make it easier to take apart the structure for renovations later on. That can involve installing the architectural metal in such a way that it can be incorporated into future projects, reusing insulation or simply not gluing roofing materials together, he said.
Sentry typically recommends a TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin) roof system, which is characterized by a white membrane than reflects UV radiation. Not only does it save the owner on air conditioning bills in the summer by reducing the rooftop temperature, but it also makes working conditions more comfortable for installers. And when it comes time for a new roof, he said, an installer can just pull off the old membrane and put on a new one.
A TPO roof can also be the less-expensive and less-labor-intensive option in many circumstances. That puts the white roof in the rare position of being both green and cost-effective.
Sustainability has become an ongoing discussion at McCarthy and in many parts of the industry, Dorgan said. That conversation, which occurs between managers and workers at all levels, has expanded to include not only where materials come from but the working conditions of those who manufacture and install those products. But it's not just about meeting contract requirements or doing the minimum for a green certification.
"Mandating sustainability [to the workforce] doesn't get you the passion and desire,” Dorgan said. "You want them to be part of what they do because they want to do it."
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