Taking Notes: Documenting Green Projects

Filling out paperwork and documenting your company’s work may be one of the more mundane project tasks, but when green building certification is involved, that documentation serves several important purposes. If documentation isn’t done correctly, it can delay green certification or lead a project owner to withdraw their certification efforts entirely. Also, the party responsible for documentation varies by project.

For these reasons, when green building documentation is necessary, ensuring it gets done correctly can save time and money. Agencies such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have been streamlining the document-filing process so that green building projects receive the certification they deserve.

All parties involved in a sustainable project, including general contractors and subcontractors, should know what is expected of them based on their role in the project, said Daniel Osterman, preconstruction project manager, Sundt Construction.

For example, construction and demolition waste are two key areas where practices need to be properly identified and overseen. Consider electrical metallic tubing (EMT) conduit scrap. The electrical contractor would be responsible for putting that scrap material into a dumpster provided by the general contractor. The GC’s waste management supplier would be responsible for providing tickets that list the amount of scrap material, including waste by weight. Everyone has a stake in it being reported properly.

Contractors often think they can simply follow the lead of the owner or the GC.

“[However], the owner’s primary responsibility is not so much documentation as it is providing direction for what level of certification the project intends to achieve,” Osterman said.

LEED projects

All subcontractors involved in a LEED project bear some responsibility for their portion of LEED credit efforts. ECs are most likely to play a role because they provide LEED credit enablers such as lighting and motion or occupancy sensors.

The USGBC, which promotes the construction of environmentally friendly and high-performance buildings, has a set of documentation requirements for each LEED project. Without a systemic approach, that process can get away from contractors quickly. 

This year, the USGBC offers LEED v4, the latest version of LEED’s guidelines and requirements. The documentation has ramped up in some ways for materials, especially with the health product declarations (HPDs). It also features a greater focus on operation issues rather than comparing material to models. The USGBC calls it a streamlined documentation approach with better alignment between rating systems for different building categories. 

LEED v4 eliminates specification requirements for materials used in a building. Now the requirement is only for the basic product name. Spreadsheets and calculators are located in the USGBC website’s credit library, and there are combined forms for the prerequisite and the credit.

A contractor needs expertise if it expects to get work on LEED projects.

“My recommendation would be to become a LEED AP BD+C or a LEED Green Associate and maintain the CEUs [continuing education units] required for those accreditations,” Osterman said. “The benefit provided would be that the general contractors would look at that individual as a leader in the sustainability movement in their area of expertise.”

The USGBC initially assumes contractors and subcontractors are providing accurate information about the materials, the work site practices and other necessary specifics to ensure LEED certification on a project.

“We have to have some documentation,” said Larissa Oaks, indoor environmental quality specialist, USGBC.

The goal is to use that documentation simply as reinforcement for what the contractors report, she said. 

At every project, before the work begins, the USGBC recommends GCs or ECs start assigning documentation roles for each company member on-site.

“There should be clear expectations of who is responsible for what,” Oaks said.

Often, a LEED project administrator is appointed to serve as the documentation coordinator, and that individual should be able to identify quickly when something isn’t being properly recorded. Within each company on-site, someone should be responsible specifically for the paperwork and for ensuring that it will meet the requirements of local or national agencies providing certification. Such a green building documentation specialist would typically collect the necessary documents, delegate the completion of those documents to the right parties, and organize and track their status. Once documentation is complete, the specialist would prepare to fill certification submittal packages. This person would be a champion of the green building process and the proper recording and submitting of paperwork.

The specialist must understand how to file for exceptions or special circumstances. A contractor seeking special circumstances should offer an alternative or list of alternatives. With each project, the agency typically sees one such alternative request, and it weighs those requests carefully.

When a new version comes out, there is an adjustment phase, Oaks said. The USGBC is in that phase now as the industry adjusts to v4.

“Our focal point is trying to see if there are any sticking areas with v4,” she said.

Green project documentation

Other certification programs

The Green Building Initiative (GBI), an alternative to the LEED building rating system, offers building rating system Green Globes Certification, which requires documentation.

Kevin Stover, GBI facilities engineer consultant, said an EC should first determine if the green building project has the goal of certification.

“Some green certification programs have strict prerequisites, and any omission of a prerequisite [amounts to] points deducted in the certification process,” he said.

When it comes to Green Globes, the building’s assessment is based on a percentage of relevant points.

As with LEED, in most cases, a project owner or GC should assign a green facilitator to serve as an expert source for all green building project documentation needs. In the case of Green Globes, a third-party assessor assigned by the GBI is available to help guide green building best practices, including energy- and water-saving features, as well as emission-control features, installed by the EC.

If a green building rating system is chosen that incorporates a direct communication protocol between the project client and the green building organization’s assessment team, this also helps prevent documentation problems. For example, Green Globes’ third-party assessors make recommendations and collect documentation, making it easier for the building owners to know when specific work on the building has earned the building more points in one of the assessment areas.

Reducing the amount of paper on-site can save time and better preserve records. Stover recommends documentation be done electronically whenever possible. Documents can be uploaded to a shared folder in the cloud. Photos are a good documentation strategy—used for taking close-ups of labels, storage arrangements and installations.

Stover said it also is important to keep records of all actual submittal documents and communications.

Typically, GCs may offer all of this documentation, but the EC should not assume someone else is following through.

“The electrical contractor should keep a project binder in chronological order that includes all instructions, changes, documents and photos,” he said.

This can come in handy if the EC is communicating directly with the GC, while the GC is having a separate conversation with the building owner.

Key actions for success in certification are communication, taking time with the record keeping and showing due diligence.

Christopher Smith, alternative energy engineer for the California Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC) teaches ECs how to build green energy buildings and customize solar power arrays, among other complex projects. He said that green building often takes place simply to save energy costs and certification isn’t part of the equation. However, documentation in any case is critical to a successful project.

Much of the green building documentation can be pulled from good record-keeping, which should already be collected as part of any project. One of the very first documents should be the project intake form. Start capturing data correctly using that form, and the documents needed for certifications should be ready-made.

Thus far, Smith said only about 10–20 percent of ECs are taking advantage of programs to take a leadership role in documentation and other services that serve niche projects such as green construction. The other 80 percent are still more likely to simply follow the lead of the GC. That may be short-sighted, since today’s successful contractors are heading up unique, complex projects that go far beyond simple installs for a GC.

Smith said in the past four years he has been in his position, contractors have gotten more savvy, delving into smart cities, intelligent lighting and other more complex systems.

When certification is needed, and the paperwork isn’t already recorded, more likely than not, some owners simply drop the effort to gain that certification. In some cases, they don’t think to pursue certification until the project is well underway, and, if the documents aren’t in place, the certification doesn’t happen.

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