Design/Building Green

Sustainable design and the design/build approach seem to be a match made in an environmentally friendly heaven. Sustainable design is built on the premise that a building is a holistic system, not merely a collection of products and technologies, while design/build emphasizes the importance of working together in teams that incorporate all the knowledge that will go into the structure’s eventual construction. Bringing both philosophies together seems only natural.

But, with design/build still seen as a nontraditional construction management method and green technology still evolving, this pair-ing doesn’t happen as often as one might expect. Still, those involved in both sustainable design and design/build projects see great promise in the possibilities such a match could offer.

Building a case for collaboration

Bill Musgrave, president of McMillan Cos., a San Francisco-based contractor offering electrical, data and security system services, is a be-liever in the value of bringing design/build and sustainable construction together. He said that incorporating electrical contractors into the design team can give engineers and architects the benefit of an electrical contractor’s cutting-edge product knowledge, which can be critical in a sustainable project’s success.

“A lot of the technologies are new, so I might know something that someone else might not, and vice versa,” he said. “There are just a lot of new things happening, and a collaborative approach is definitely going to enhance the final project.”

But new ideas take time to be adopted, and bringing these two philosophies together might pose even more hurdles for tradition-ally minded clients. This may be one reason traditional design/bid/build approach still rules in most green-construction projects. However, Thomas Glavinich, University of Kansas professor and construction industry expert, sees strong growth possibilities for design/build when sustainability is a key project goal.

“If you’re going to build a good, high-performance building, you need everyone working together,” he said. “That’s going to be a lot easier in the design/build mode.”

Electrical contractors are inherently well-suited to any job in which energy efficiency is a key project goal, and Glavinich predicts large opportunities for these building professionals to take the lead in design/build teams focused on efficiency improvements. For instance, there are a growing number of incentives coming out of federal, state and local-utility energy-efficiency initiatives, and much of that work involves lighting, controls and other electrical equipment. Electrical contractors have the chance to become such a project’s general contractor and assemble their own design/build team.

“They could say, ‘We can come in and do the whole project,’” Glavinich said.

Energy-efficiency upgrades to government and school buildings are a well-publicized aspect of the recently passed stimulus legislation. However, Glavinich said much of this retrofit work is likely to be performed by energy services companies (ESCOs). These projects proba-bly will be based on performance-based contracts, he said, meaning that owners will pay for the work based on the energy savings the up-grades generate. Teaming with an ESCO could be an option for electrical contractors seeking to pursue these assignments.

Knowledge is power

Product knowledge can be a key element in boosting your company’s profile within a green building project. New technologies, such as advanced LED lighting and power-over-Ethernet sensors and controls, are becoming increasingly important in the effort to boost build-ing performance. In fact, understanding how new systems can interact with other building elements can even move you from a tradi-tional design/bid/build specialty contractor role to one more like that of a design/assist consultant. Musgrave said this happened when McMillan became involved in the restoration of San Francisco’s Federal Reserve building, now known as the Bently Reserve.

The Bently Reserve featured the first U.S. installation of Lutron Electronics Co.’s advanced Quantum lighting and control system, Musgrave said. This system ties daylighting sensors to lighting controls and the company’s Sivoia QS shades for automated lighting management that is sensitive to both area occupancy and changing natural light. Communications with other building equipment, in-cluding mechanical systems, also is possible. Musgrave said the product’s newness brought McMillan, project engineers and manufac-turer personnel together into a relationship of equals.

“There’s a learning curve,” Musgrave said of the experience of working with such advanced technology. “In the process of that, it turned into a design/assist. We found ourselves collaborating with the engineers and Lutron; because the product was so new, nobody knew what to do with it.”

What McMillan and other project participants realized was that the interconnectedness of high-performance buildings almost forces designers, contractors and even manufacturers to work as a team, even when design/bid/build contracts are in place. Technolo-gies are advancing quickly, and a team approach can be the best way to ensure operational success.

“What the products are really doing is talking holistically to each other now,” Musgrave said, citing just one example of the need for cross-team collaboration. “We had to make sure the lighting control would talk to the mechanical system.”

Getting your foot in the door

Getting involved in green design/build projects requires the same networking needed to boost your general design/build work. Research and networking with area design/build leaders are two critical elements in this process, and there is the added factor of getting ahead of the pack in terms of product and technology knowledge. While this education is key to any electrical contractor’s success, it is especially important in the green-¬construction field, where advances are occurring so quickly.

“It’s just a matter of staying out there and watching what’s coming down the pike,” Glavinich said.


Testing a Hypothesis

While intuition might tell us that the emphasis on teamwork inherent to both design/build and sustainable-design approaches might make the two obviously complementary, little data yet exists to prove this hypothesis. Now, with both philosophies gaining steam in the construction industry, several groups have begun investigating just how compatible the two are with each other.

The Charles Pankow Foundation and the Design-Build Industry Association have teamed up to sponsor University of Colorado re-searchers looking at the influence of project delivery method on achieving high-performance, sustainable buildings.

“This is one of those things that we believe to be true,” said Lisa Washington, DBIA’s executive director. “Now we need some data to back up that premise.”

This project is expected to be completed by fall 2010.

Additionally, Washington said the U.S. Green Building Council has begun to track project delivery method as part of its LEED program. While design/build projects won’t earn extra LEED credits, researchers hope to use this information to understand the impact design/build might have on successful LEED-accredited buildings.

He cites distributors and manufacturers’ representatives as two important resources electrical contractors can turn to for information on new-product development. Also, he suggested electrical contractors keep in mind a manufacturer’s overall reputation when evaluating new-product performance claims.

“Stick with a reputable manufacturer, somebody you know,” Glavinich said. “If it’s a reputable manufacturer, they’re going to stand behind their products.”

But general contractors assembling design/build teams for sustainable construction projects aren’t only looking for product knowl-edge. They also like to see that specialty contractors have a good general understanding of broader green-design concepts. Having staff members who are accredited under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Pro-fessional (LEED AP) program can be one means for proving your company’s green-building capabilities and commitment.

“LEED AP is definitely a starting point,” Musgrave said. “Most architects and general contractors have LEED APs [on staff]. We’ve sent out a number of our people to get accredited. You have to have an understanding of what all the trades are doing.”

Design/build experts also suggest that LEED accreditation can give contractors both a good green-construction education and pro-vide potential team leaders with an assurance of that contractor’s skills.

“We believe the LEED AP certifications are very important,” said Lisa Washington, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Design-Build Industry Association, adding that her group’s own education program, focused on design/build concepts, makes a good com-plement to LEED training for contractors seeking work in both areas. “That, combined with a technical understanding of the LEED rating system gives a very broad understanding of what’s needed to achieve a sustainable building.”

Additionally, as with non-LEED-related design/build projects, it can be helpful to have your own electrical engineers on staff to en-able greater full-service capabilities, Musgrave said.

If subcontracting drawings out to a consulting engineer makes more sense for your company, he suggests finding someone with whom you can establish an ongoing relationship so you can work like a single entity in the broader team lineup.

Know your team

Electrical contractors seeking out sustainable design/build opportunities also need to do their own due diligence regarding their poten-tial team leaders and partners. Musgrave especially suggests checking references for out-of-town general contractors. You want to as-sure yourself that you can trust the general contractor’s guidance on the client’s project goals.

“You’ve got to understand what they’re trying to accomplish [to know] which products and systems to use,” he said.

Additionally, in the case of leased spaces, Musgrave suggests it might be wise to do some research on the tenant who will be signing the lease. And, of course, finding something out about other specialty contractors who may be working on the project can be valuable, too.

“You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “If you’ve got one weak player at the table, it’s going to slow down the entire process.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer
Chuck Ross is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility bus...

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