Buildings in the United States are responsible for 39 percent of CO2 emissions and 40 percent of energy consumption. Cited by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington D.C., those statistics have entered the collective consciousness of the construction community. According to usgbc.com, the council also estimates that buildings account for 72 percent of electricity consumption and 15 percent of the gross domestic product per year “making green building a source of significant economic and environmental opportunity.” Electrical contractors (ECs) are taking note.
The question is not how large the green build movement will grow. Sustainable construction is now expected, if not mandated, in several parts of the country. And, the participation of electrical contractors in USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects, Energy Star and other certification programs are helping them compete, differentiate and lead through green building work.
Electrical contractors play a significant role in the voluntary LEED green building rating system. Within the certification point system, a general contractor (GC) looks to an EC to perform lighting control, renewable-energy generation and management, lighting component selection, and lighting power management. Beyond those efforts, the electrical contractor can help projects succeed in other ratings listed under “Sustainable Sites,” “Indoor Air Quality,” “Materials and Resources” and “Innovation and Design.”
LEED offers four increasingly stringent certifications (Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum). Ratings can be pursued under nine different systems: New Construction, Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, Commercial Interiors, Core and Shell, Schools, Retail, Healthcare, Homes, and Neighborhood Development. Individuals who work to shepherd building projects through the LEED process can earn accredited professional status (LEED AP). The USGBC reports there are more than 115,000 LEED APs as of May 2010, and some ECs pursuing green building projects are adding or encouraging existing staff to become LEED APs.
Adding to the toolbox
Rosendin Electric Inc., headquartered in San Jose, Calif., and Oregon Electric Group in Portland have LEED APs on staff. Each firm finds value in having LEED APs on staff because they understand the LEED process. Though admittedly a large firm, Rosendin has 31 APs. What each firm learns in LEED certification courses seems to benefit its work as a whole, while adding to its capabilities and marketability in green building design.
“By earning my LEED AP, I gained a better overall understanding of the entire construction process, learning how all the different parts and pieces work together,” said Matt Saager, LEED AP and project manager for the Design/Build Services Group of Oregon Electric Group. “Though the GC sets the tone, a well-run LEED project is incredibly collaborative.”
LEED’s latest update (LEED v3) adds focus to electrical and mechanical systems. Rosendin’s broad capabilities prepare the company well in meeting the ever-progressing LEED requirements.
“We take part in the design and installation of building management systems, metering systems and solar PV installations,” said Erica Paul, assistant project manager and green team leader for Rosendin. “The GC will state the LEED certification goal. We review it and provide feedback. We also assist filling out the required paperwork for LEED online submission. Our in-house designers do a lot of design/build work incorporating the latest green technologies. If the owner wants to go after a particular LEED point, our LEED training allows us to advise if that point is feasible or [to] find others the GC might have missed.”
What you learn
Sustainable practices, as they apply to electrical design and power, are not complex. These practices may incorporate products or processes with which some ECs have not yet had experience (e.g., alternative energy, integrated control systems), but none of it is rocket science, Saager said.
“What LEED does require is a level of increased documentation and awareness of the project design,” he said. “The sooner you are brought into a project, the better your success.”
Under LEED certification for new construction and existing buildings, there are two areas where ECs have a direct role: optimizing energy performance and efficiency.
“You look at the lighting load on a building and find ways to reduce it through analyzing the space and lighting controls,” Paul said. “The more systems and equipment that you can [use to] monitor your energy load and manage a building’s performance, the higher your points and the chances of earning an even higher LEED level.”
You learn as you problem solve through LEED, Saager said.
“Through the incorporation of occupancy sensors in a commercial construction project, we were able to reduce overall lighting load by 25 percent. Those sort of gains are not forgotten when we move to the next project, LEED or otherwise,” he said.
Commissioning is another area through which ECs can earn a LEED point.
“We’ve always commissioned our own project work, regardless of LEED,” Saager said. “It’s a value-added skill we can bring to the table for LEED projects. Our involvement depends on the commissioning agent. We will typically field-verify measurements and settings on lighting controls and systems.”
Rosendin’s field and project management staff are trained in commissioning, as well.
Reducing on-site material waste is another way ECs can help earn a LEED point. If the general contractor is doing his job, waste disposal bins will be located on the job site. In a remodel, ECs can safely dispose of old wire, conduit and lighting fixtures or ballasts that contain hazardous material.
When codes help
“Our building codes are such that earning LEED doesn’t require a huge change in the project,” Saager said. “State and local requirements are pretty close in many cases to what LEED will require. For instance, our state [Oregon] requires the use of alternative energy. The ‘1.5 percent for solar technology in public buildings’ mandates public entities spend 1.5 percent of the total price of a public building improvement contract (new construction or major renovation) on solar-energy technology. That requirement will certainly earn us a LEED point as well.
“City of Portland ordinances really direct us, as well,” Saager added. “The more stringent the ordinances, the easier it is for us to meet the LEED standards. For instance, office spaces must be equipped with occupancy sensors. That helps us meet the LEED point for ‘lighting controls in 90 percent of building occupants.’”
California’s 2005 Title 24 energy code, as it applies to lighting, sets mandatory energy reductions that direct contractors to use high-efficacy luminaries, less of low-efficacy lighting, and more occupancy sensors and dimmers. More stringent 2008 updates went into effect in January 2010.
Competing in green
“It’s important that everyone is on board with your commitment to green build,” Paul said. “We educate everyone from project managers to field employees on the goals of a LEED project and new installation practices. In LEED, you especially have to adhere to the design. You can’t just move something if you see a conflict. You have to work on a solution that can maintain the integrity of the points being sought. Sometimes, you have to agree a point will be left unearned.”
Paul shared an example: “On one particular project, we were working to earn a LEED ‘sustainable sites Credit 8 light pollution reduction’ point. We were constrained due to the egress path lighting requirement codes. The minimum foot-candle requirement was higher than the site lighting allowance. Also, because of the way the parking lot was situated and the building entrances, the project had to forgo the lighting cutoff credit.”
Sometimes, obstacles can be overcome. Oregon Electric recently worked to earn the same credit.
“We wanted the credit but needed to provide the necessary lighting for the shipping and receiving docks and overall safety for employees,” Saager said. “Through the selection of good fixtures with cutoff, we directed the light only where it was needed in the lot.”
While green building expertise can set you apart in many parts of the country, it’s more challenging in states like Oregon and California where green building is norm, meaning the competitive advantage isn’t there.
“It all comes down to you doing a better job than the other guy,” Saager said. “Sustainable building practices are expected by our customers, including municipalities and the state. If you are great at what you do, show it and get customers talking, spreading the word and coming back to you. We also communicate our commitment top-down, with a company president who earned his LEED AP.”
Creating green ambassadors within a company adds a demonstrable commitment noticed by customers. Both Oregon Electric and Rosendin spend the money to keep staff up to speed on the latest and greatest green products and practices and LEED updates.
“Our ‘Electric Green Team’ produces a lot of initiatives. One is a sustainability survey issued to measure employees’ green knowledge and familiarity with our company efforts,” Paul said. “We might ask, ‘Do you know what LEED stands for or are you interested in becoming a LEED Green Associate or AP?’ The quarterly Rosendin Electric Green Wire newsletter also helps raise employee’s awareness. Employees contribute green ideas large and small. We also have in-house committee that has audited our lighting and suggested more sustainable products.”
Rosendin also offers in-house exam prep for LEED NC (new construction) approved by USGBC.
In the end, both companies have immersed themselves in green-construction efforts to stay competitive and grow. LEED has been an important doorway into the field.
“Don’t forget, companies pursue LEED for lots of reasons,” Paul added. “Boasting rights is one. So are doing the right thing and providing employees with a healthy work environment. [Return on investment] in the operation of a green building is a big one. You help customers earn green certification, and they’ll turn to you for that next project.”
GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at email@example.com.