Good for the environment, good for business
By Thomas E. Glavinich
Concern about the environment and the future of our planet has become the focal point of everyday conversation, political debate and media coverage in the United States today; in the past, this debate has been focused on the industrial, manufacturing and transportation sectors; now, energy usage and its associated environmental impacts have become a major issue in the building industry.
Commercial and residential buildings consume about 40 percent of the energy used in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Information Agency (EIA), and both the amount of energy used in buildings and its percentage of the total United States’ annual energy usage is expected to increase in the coming decades. As a result, more building owners, including all levels of government, are demanding high-performance buildings and are seeking third-party certification to verify and publicly recognize their commitment to the environment.
The decision to build green or not is far removed from the electrical contractor’s involvement in a traditional competitively bid plan and specification project. The owner typically makes this decision, and the design team implements it. By the time the construction team gets involved, building green is just another contract requirement that needs to be addressed. However, the electrical contractor can build green with or without a green design.
The common perception that a green building project is more expensive is only true when the project design includes energy-efficient equipment and systems. However, if you isolate the construction process from the design and view green construction as planning and managing a construction project in accordance with the contract documents in order to minimize the impact of the construction process on the environment, the EC is put in a proactive position with regard to the environment. The EC firm bids the work in accordance with the contract documents as it always has, being mindful that selection will probably be based on price. Then, in planning and managing the electrical work, the project team looks for opportunities to conserve energy and resources that do not adversely impact its project budget and may even reduce costs and increase productivity.
Lean construction is all about removing waste from the EC’s business and construction processes to make it more efficient. Green construction is also focused on removing waste from the construction process and adds an environmental dimension.
On a renovation or demolition project, the deconstruction of the existing facility can yield a significant amount of materials that can be either recycled or reused, possibly creating a profit center for the EC, diverting waste from landfills and conserving energy and resources through recycling. The contractor can also work with suppliers to better package and bundle materials that could both reduce waste and improve productivity. Additionally, off-site prefabrication of materials can reduce waste at the job site and improve productivity. When expendables such as sealants and adhesives are purchased, low-emitting materials could substitute traditional materials.
Green and sustainable design need to become a way of doing business and part of the firm’s corporate culture. Within the office, the electrical contractor should investigate ways that will promote and demonstrate its commitment to the environment as well as provide a payback when possible. This could include using recycled paper or photovoltaics. The existing lighting system could be retrofitted with energy-efficient lamps and ballasts, occupancy sensors and daylighting controls. As office equipment and appliances—including company vehicles—are replaced, the new ones could be certified energy efficient.
Improved productivity and reduced costs at the job site as well as reduced home office overhead costs provide tangible benefits of going green. However, there may be a number of other benefits of going green that are more difficult to quantify but may benefit the EC. For one, by focusing on green construction, personnel will become knowledgeable about the possibilities, and when an actual green construction project comes along, they will have a better understanding of the actual work and costs involved and be a more effective construction team member.
Similarly, a commitment to going green in the office and field will appeal to many employees, and enlisting their help in this initiative will build camaraderie and commitment to the firm. Finally, the EC firm’s service and construction customers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious and are looking for the same commitment in the firms they work with.
This has put the construction industry in a reactive mode as it adjusts to the new technical and administrative requirements that the project contract documents and third-party certification requirements impose. Green construction doesn’t have to be just another contract requirement. Instead, the EC can embrace the principles and become proactive, which is not only good for the environment but also good for business.