July 29, 2004

Going green? Try calling on your contractor

  • A dramatic shift in the construction process has made green building practices successful.
    Rafn Co.


    Environmental responsibility recently washed over us.

    The construction industry probably didn't even see it coming. For decades contractors thought nothing of sending tons and tons of construction debris to land fills. That trend may not abruptly cease, but it is certainly in a clear, and accelerating, decline.

    Recycling, reusing and renovating have converged with conscious environmental protection, economic good sense and social policy. The green building movement will continue to expand, and more contractors are realizing that green building practices represent good building practices.

    Contractors used to think of green building practices as something the design community, with their bow ties and artsy orientation, were primarily interested in. The prevailing notion was that construction waste was a natural by-product. They didn't have the patience or passion for it.

    But some contractors realized that they are an invaluable link from the owner's development team, through design to implementation on the construction site, for the use of sustainable building products and methods. The less progressive contractors will be, or have been forced into it, by the surge of public opinion and regulatory oversight.

     recycled concrete instead of gravel
    Photo by Lynda Boyle
    On this jobsite, straw wattles were used instead of a filter fence and recycled concrete instead of gravel.

    In short, it has been in the construction process that a dramatic shift has occurred to make green building practices successful.

    On any project, a good contractor is one who understands the scope of the work, is able to stay in budget and on schedule while putting quality work in place. A good green contractor is all of that and more.

    Any good green contractor understands the theory of sustainability, has good green product knowledge, is able to develop processes to manage green building practices, has the wherewithal to implement these practices, and weaves sustainability throughout the company.


    Green building is not a phase we will pass through; it is not a specialty market. Human population and standards of living continue to rise; natural resources, air and water quality continue to decline. Whether we like it or not, change is afoot. Sustainability and green building represent a new way to approach the design and development of our built environment that is, hopefully, less harmful to our environment and ourselves.


    In the past five years, the green products market has exploded. Some products are entirely new; some products are the same as they always have been, but they are just now acknowledging their green attributes; some products have legitimately changed their composition to improve their environmental attributes; and some products are just hogwash.

    A good green contractor stays abreast of new green products entering the market and is able to evaluate their appropriateness for a given project. Issues to consider include:

    • Applicability: Does this product meet the goals of a green project?

    • Availability: What is the lead time? Where is it shipped from? How available are replacement parts? Is the supplier reputable/Do they have a proven track record? What external factors could affect availability? For example, if there is only one FSC plywood mill in the region, what is their production capability? What is their history for consistently meeting demand and quality standards?

    • Cost impacts: Is the green product more or less expensive than a similar conventional product and why? Can you work with your existing suppliers to get prices down or find acceptable alternatives? What is the long-term maintenance for this product? How does that affect the long-term cost of this product?

    • Constructability: Is it durable? Can it be installed in a practical manner? How available are replacement parts? Can you talk with someone who has actually installed it? How does this product affect other areas of work? What are the unknowns?

    • Code impacts: Is this product or process allowed by code? Are special permits required? How will this affect the project schedule?


    Going green
    Corporate practices:
      •Support local businesses
      •Support renewable energy (through power company programs)
      •Support socially responsible investing (401k plans)

    Office practices:
      •Green janitorial service
      •Office recycling includes paper, electronics, toner cartridges, batteries
      •Paper reduction plan, increased focus on electronic routing
      •Support organic coffee, lunch catering
      •Implement lighting, energy conservation strategies
      •Promote alternative transportation

    Good planning is essential to a successful green project. The earlier a contractor is included in the design process, the better the planning will be.

    During the design phase and throughout pre-construction, a good green contractor works with subcontractors and the project team to:

    • Develop accurate cost models that allow the project team to consider various options while trying to design green.

    • Source appropriate green materials.

    • Determine if any salvage or building reuse opportunities exist and plan accordingly.

    • Collaborate with the architect to incorporate green building language into the project specifications.

    Prior to the start of construction, the contractor needs to establish working plans to successfully implement green building strategies. Examples include plans for erosion control, waste management and air quality.

    Additionally, if the project is following a green rating system, the contractor needs to set up the necessary documentation and systems to allow accurate tracking and record keeping.


    This is where the rubber meets the road. Understanding the theory, knowing the products and developing good planning processes are meaningless unless they are implemented. A good green contractor gives its field staff the support they need to implement green building practices.

    This support is demonstrated through:

    • Education and training. Send employees to classes or host in-house seminars to teach them about the concept of sustainability and why the company wants to follow green building practices.

    • Regular meetings. Put sustainability on the agenda! Any regularly scheduled company meeting is a good opportunity to continue green education and let employees know that green building practices are an important part of the core business.

    • Staffing. Initial education and implementation of green building practices takes time and effort. Recognize this and budget accordingly — it's an investment in your future.


    A good green contractor looks beyond individual green building projects and develops a companywide framework that supports the concept of sustainability. All employees need to be trained in the concept of sustainability so that they can look for opportunities within their sphere of influence to shift towards greener practices. While it is important to have "green champions" within the company, there needs to be support from the top leadership within the company.

    Hurdles to green building practices

    The biggest obstacle to greener building practices is attitude. Ya gotta want it. It takes extra time and effort to research new materials and methods; to lead the way towards building practices that reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with the construction industry.

    Ultimately, green building practices represent good building practices -- quality, value, durability and longevity.

    Ann Schuessler is director of Sustainable Building Practices at the Rafn Co.

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