When the US Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993, its name sounded vaguely left-of-center. Few in the building industry could have predicted just how mainstream the group would become. Its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, which were introduced in 2000, have helped quantify developers’ “green” construction claims. And certification to one of the standards’ varying tiers has become a near-given in some construction markets.

For electrical contractors, growing interest in achieving LEED certification in the commercial, industrial and institutional markets poses both opportunities and challenges. Adding LEED expertise and LEED-accredited staff has become a market differentiator. Even contractors whose business is primarily residential can find reason to pay greater attention to LEED-related guidelines. The USGBC currently has a LEED for Homes program in testing. It expects to release a final version in the fall of 2007.

“The tide has definitely turned on this subject,” said Stuart Binstock, executive director of NECA’s Management Education Institute (MEI), which is developing new, LEED-related online coursework. “[Initially] people viewed it with a little bit of skepticism. That has changed. The market is now driving this issue.”

LEEDing experience

San Jose, Calif.-based Rosendin Electric Inc. has a long history of LEED involvement. The company has employed a LEED-accredited staff—employees who have been tested and certified by the USGBC to be familiar with both green building practices and the specifics of the LEED process—for at least three years. Currently, between 30 and 50 Rosendin employees are studying for the required exam, according to Erica Paul, a Rosendin estimator as well as the company’s LEED trainer and sustainability team leader.

For Rosendin, pursuing LEED-related projects is a natural outgrowth of the firm’s long-term interest in sustainable design. The company has been recycling job-site scrap for more than 20 years, Paul said, and pushes recycling within the company, as well. The company also has a renewable-energy division, concentrating on wind turbine installation projects. As a California-based company, Rosendin also has to address the strict energy requirements called out in the state’s Title 24 efficiency standards.

“I still feel like we’re able to specialize in this area,” Paul said of the marketing advantage she thinks the company’s LEED expertise provides. However, as an instructor working through the local USGBC chapter to teach other electrical contractors in her area, she sees that advantage beginning to slip. “I think the competition is starting to pick up. A lot of the other electrical contractors have been in my classes.”

One of the biggest lessons electrical contractors may need to learn when working on LEED projects, beyond the specifics of individual credits and documentation requirements, is how to work more closely with other building professionals. Reaching LEED’s aggressive performance requirements forces professionals from various disciplines to work together in ways they haven’t previously.

As an example, Paul noted the interplay between electrical contractors and glazing specifiers that results from LEED’s emphasis on daylight harvesting. To ensure illumination goals are met without exceeding energy-use guidelines, electrical contractors need to know just how much natural light will be available, which can vary based on the glazing product specified.

“It all goes off of their glazing factors,” Paul said. “We still need to be clear on how many candelas they want.”

Suppliers are equally important information sources under the LEED scheme. For instance, information on volatile organic chemical content (VOC) of sealants and adhesives can play a role in meeting LEED credits related to indoor environmental quality.

“We really have to dig deep down with our suppliers and get a lot more information than we’ve gotten before,” Paul said.

LEEDing evolution

One of the biggest issues many building professionals have regarding LEED-project participation relates to the level of documentation needed to ensure a building meets the performance requirements in the certification guidelines. LEED officials note that the guidelines and procedural requirements continue to evolve based, in part, on the experiences reported by LEED-project team members working in the field.

“I think the response from the general contracting community has been, ‘we need to know more,’” said Brendan Owens, director of LEED technical development with the USGBC. “At the same time, there’s starting to become a feedback loop from the contracting community at large, [saying] ‘We’ve got a problem with this, and here’s a proposed solution.’”

So, when painting contractors began reporting performance problems with paint that met LEED’s VOC limits but required multiple coats, USGBC researchers began investigating options.

“It doesn’t make sense to need three coats,” Owens said.

Owens said the USGBC also is trying to address participants’ concerns about LEED documentation requirements. The organization launched LEED-Online to enable electronic document submittals and revisions and is working on second- and third-generation versions to help address remaining questions.

This kind of feedback loop between USGBC and building professionals in the field will become more important as LEED continues to evolve. The USGBC recently announced it is raising the bar on energy-performance targets, mandating that new-construction projects now reduce energy costs by 14 percent below those projected by the baseline ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1–2004 standard. And Owens predicts such efforts will only increase over time.

“That’s what USGBC exists to do—to transform the market,” he said. “As those transformations happen, we need to either up the threshold or focus on things that aren’t rising as quickly.”

LEEDing yourself

Industry organizations are beginning to show greater interest in increasing their members’ awareness of LEED-related requirements. Many federal, state and local government agencies now are mandating their new-construction projects achieve at least base-level certification, and some are requiring even higher performance levels. Corporate owners also are seeing marketing advantages in the “green” seal that LEED certification conveys.

“It’s not really a question of if. It’s a matter of how much of this market LEED will capture,” Binstock said. “[Contractors] who are paying attention are recognizing that this is more than a fad. We want to be on the front end of this trend.”

That desire to keep contractors on top of LEED’s potential opportunities is why Binstock’s group is launching its new online education program. MEI developed the classes based on research conducted by Electri International.

“I like to call it ‘LEED 101,’” Binstock said. “It explains the nature of the market and what contractors need to know to become leaders on a team, instead of just following.”

Additionally, the USGBC offers online courses along with training at the national and locally based chapter level. And the group is looking at less formal education efforts, such as laminated, job site-based information sheets communicating the importance of specific LEED-related construction practices. Such ongoing efforts to reach out to all members of the building team are crucial to LEED’s continued progress.

“General contractors and subcontractors are the people on the ground,” Owens said. “It’s absolutely essential that this community play a role in the development of this tool. It’s the only way LEED gets better.”     EC

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.