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February 28, 2013

How contractors can make the supply chain greener

  • More contractors are asking what goes into the building materials they use. A new database could make answers easier to find.
    Skanska USA


    If we were going to discuss which contractors were the “most green” we’d likely start by comparing project portfolios, noting the LEED gold and platinum projects.

    While those are certainly worth the attention, the buildings we build often say more about our clients than they do about us. Certainly, there have been occasions when we have advised a client on how they can lower their building’s energy footprint or how they could save water through the use of certain mechanical systems. On the whole, though, a LEED building gets that designation because the eventual occupant wants it to be that way.

    When it comes to green, though, the way we work can have as much of an effect as what we work on. Skanska, for instance, has its “ISO 14001” certification, which sets a clear standard for environmental practices on our job sites.

    We’re just starting to see how we — along with the entire industry — can do more to green the actual work of construction. One such effort is coming in materials sourcing, and it has the potential to change the supply chain for construction materials for the better.

    For starters, since the first LEED standards came into being, there has been an emphasis on using materials that are more environmentally sound. Even before LEED, it made good sense to use regional materials. Procuring locally lowers the cost of transporting materials to a project site and it directly supports the local economy.

    The introduction and wide adoption of LEED standards have also raised awareness about the health effects of volatile organic compounds. Low-VOC materials are now not only preferred but required by LEED and the Living Building Challenge.

    Supply chain changes

    With the arrival of the Living Building Challenge we’re seeing that advocacy can lead to significant changes in the supply chain. Even under LEED, how closely did anyone ever really look under the hood at what goes into the materials we use?

    For instance, how much did you consider the chemical makeup of the insulating jacket of the electrical wiring that was ordered for your last job? The Living Building Challenge requires us to ask. By creating a “red list” of materials that cannot go into the building, we have to be accountable for every bit of material that goes into construction.

    You can imagine there are some stops on the supply chain where people aren’t sure what exactly went into the production of wire insulation. As more buildings seek this higher level of sustainability, though, more vendors will in turn have to look more deeply at their products and find out what they’re made of — or risk having contractors purchase from other suppliers.

    The downside for contractors, at least at the start, was the legwork it took to find out what was in many materials we took for granted. We spent hours of time on the phone, which likely led to similar phone calls from our suppliers to manufacturers.

    Online help

    Fortunately, instead of reaching for a bottle of ibuprofen, our teams will soon be able to use online databases like the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (http://www.hpdcollaborative.com) to quickly look up what meets red-list requirements. While still picking up steam, the HPD Collaborative has the support of big names like Google and aims to combine the shared knowledge of our industry in one place.

    That could have several effects. One is that it will lower the construction costs of living buildings and other highly sustainable construction by greatly increasing the efficiency by which materials can be sourced. Having this sort of database will make those steps of pre-construction easier.

    More than that, we’ll have built a supply chain that is transparent and environmentally friendly for every construction market. We’ll be able to measure the amount of materials on a job that meets these new standards, showing not only how green our building is, but how green this part of its construction process is. We’ll be able to set new goals and maybe even change the way our industry measures who is the most green.

    Kevin McCain is a vice president and account manager for Skanska USA in Seattle.

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