Tim Wentz believes "green" is the future. So much so that students in the professor's mechanical construction course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are learning about sustainability and environmental building design. The work of Wentz's students is more than many contractors and engineers are doing. Not everyone in the construction industry is on board when it comes to so-called green building.

Tim Wentz believes "green" is the future. So much so that students in the professor's mechanical construction course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are learning about sustainability and environmental building design.

The work of Wentz's students is more than many contractors and engineers are doing. Not everyone in the construction industry is on board when it comes to so-called green building.

Some are taking a wait-and-see approach on sustainability, while others are confused on what exactly makes a building "green." And still others feel that green building, under its most popular system of certification, is flawed. Combine these complaints with states that have mandated environmental-building specifications and you have some troubled contractors.

According to Wentz, "there is a lack of consensus as to whether this sustainable construction is a fad or if it is the wave of the future" among contractors. However, many experts say it's not going away.

The offices of the Vancouver Port Authority in British Columbia achieved a LEED-gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Photo courtesy of the USGBC.

Calming fears

What makes a green building? How do you determine if your building is "green" enough? And why should some contractors be forced to design sustainable buildings? These are all questions that Wentz has been asked.

Recently, the professor conducted a forum on green building and sustainability for the Mechanical Contractors Association of America. The opinions of contractors attending the forum were not exclusive to MCAA members.

Wentz said many contractors are confused about green building. It's not that contractors are opposed to designing and installing more efficient mechanical systems; it's all of the other details involved, he said.

A lot of contractors have concerns about the LEED certification program, which is the most popular standard for what's considered a green building. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it was launched by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000. Not only has it become the standard for judging a green building, some states are demanding that contractors follow its regulations when they design mechanical systems.

There are four LEED designations: platinum, gold, silver and certified, depending on the energy efficiency and resource-saving measures used in a new or existing building.

Contractors involved in a certification-seeking project must go through a number of extra steps, including purchasing locally made materials whenever possible and performing commissioning after the project is completed. A U.S. Green Building Council-certified expert must also be on staff. The higher the rating, the more stringent the requirements.

According to Wentz, the process of working on such a building can be time-consuming and difficult, and it rarely has anything to do with the design of the structure. Many contractors are confused about the certifying process and following all of the guidelines.

With the process still foreign to many contractors, many states and cities are now requiring various levels of LEED certification on publicly funded buildings. There are currently 12 states with such a mandate, and several more state governments encouraging building owners and contractors to seek out certification through tax incentives.

Wentz said contractors are frustrated because they have been left out of the process in setting up the guidelines. He said contractors need to be "more involved in the LEED process so our voices are heard. More education would help allay some of the fears contractors are having about the process."

This visitor center at Denali National Park in Denali Park, Alaska, was awarded a silver-LEED designation. According to the park system, it is one of only two national parks buildings to meet LEED standards. Photo courtesy of the USGBC.

Why do it

For Dave Rosenberger, it's easy to see both sides of the "green" debate. As an employee with LSW Engineers in San Diego, Rosenberger said he understands where contractors are coming from. But as a founding member of the city's USGBC chapter, he says it's more important than ever to go green.

Rosenberger said that his interest in sustainable building really came about five years ago, which was around the time he and two others founded the council's San Diego chapter.

"We love our city here in San Diego and hated to see the direction it was going," Rosenberger said.

Like many cities in California at the time, Rosenberger said that San Diego was experiencing rolling brownouts due to maxed-out power demands. Rosenberger and others asked how this could be curbed.

The chapter currently has 200 corporate members, and he said the group is growing.

"If you are going to build, build smart," he said.

This is all fine for builders and developers, but what's in it for us, many contractors ask. While building owners get more efficient structures, how do mechanical contractors profit? Many contractors don't see how spending the extra time required with a LEED-certified building helps their bottom lines.

According to Rosenberger, contractors shouldn't be involved in green building just for the money.

"(Green building) goes beyond the bottom line in the bank account," said Rosenberger.

He acknowledges that some contractors will not see a huge profit in dollars when it comes to providing a sustainable building design, but that shouldn't stop them from "going green."

"We do it because we feel it is the right thing to do," he said. He added that contractors should consider getting involved in LEED because of the current situation with the environment.

The need for green building is due "to our misuse of products and fossil fuels," said Rosenberger.

He pointed out that the 10 hottest years ever recorded happened in the last 14 years. That's a signal that building owners - and contractors - need to be more environmentally responsible, he said.

Some states already are. In December 2004, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation requiring all new and renovated state-owned buildings to be LEED-silver rated.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Computer Center achieved a LEED-silver rating. The center, in Research Triangle Park, N.C., includes a "solar roof" and carbon dioxide sensors to monitor indoor air quality. Photo courtesy of the USGBC.

Profits vs. benefits

Mike Mamayek says that when it comes to environmental building, there is no immediate profit, but there are immediate benefits. Mamayek is the executive vice president of Illingworth Corp. in Milwaukee, and his company is actively seeking LEED projects.

According to Mamayek, Illingworth's parent company, Emcor Group, is pushing its companies to have LEED-certified employees and to pursue such projects. Mamayek, who is certified himself, said there is also pressure from Illingworth's home state of Wisconsin: Lawmakers there recently introduced legislation requiring state buildings to achieve a LEED-silver rating.

Mamayek said the desire for green building is not all at the government level.

"There are a lot of customers who are looking for it," he said.

He added that by becoming LEED certified, a company might get jobs it would otherwise miss. At least, he said, officials should know what's involved in the projects.

Doug Turley agreed. While his company hasn't seen great profits from green projects, he feels it's ahead by working on them. He's the vice president of engineering for McDonald-Miller Facility Solutions in Seattle. Washington is another state that has made LEED mandatory for state-funded projects, including school district buildings.

Turley said that his company has worked on about a dozen private LEED projects. According to him, the process "is pretty involved. The booklet is an inch-and-a-half thick. Just to work through all the paperwork is very tedious."

Despite the hassle, Turley said his workers need to know about the program.

"I think there is one benefit - that we know how to do it," he said. "If we hadn't done it, we would have disqualified ourselves from some of the work."

He also feels the program is generating increasing support, and his company benefits from having knowledge of the process.

"It seems the momentum is just picking up," he said. "I think it's going to be around for a while."

This 129,000-square-foot U.S. Department of Transportation building in Lakewood, Colo., earned a LEED-silver rating after its construction in 2004. Photo courtesy of the USGBC.

Prove it

While the green-building movement probably won't be going anywhere, some contractors say it's still difficult to prove that a project was sufficiently "green" and energy efficient.

For example, in Turley's home city of Seattle, a high-profile LEED building turned out to be anything but. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in July 2005 that the newly built City Hall, which earned LEED-silver certification, ended up using more energy than its original building. In fact, the $72 million structure, which opened in 2003, was much smaller than the original building, and ended up with utility bills that were $3,000 - and sometimes $5,000 - more a month.

Such situations have some contractors thinking that LEED, especially when mandated, only leads to problems.

According to Glenn Friedman of Taylor Engineering, there are definite pros and cons to government involvement in green building.

Friedman is a mechanical engineer and principal with the Alameda, Calif.-based engineering company. He also has a great deal of experience when it comes to responsible building and energy efficiency. His company has worked on over a dozen sustainable and LEED projects, and he has been active in American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers committees on ventilation and energy efficiency.

Friedman also played a role in the development of California's energy codes, known as Title 24 (See "State of confusion," June 2006).

"Some of the market is not going to change unless there is a push," he said. "People aren't eager to experiment in construction. On the other hand, I'm a little concerned and alarmed about the learning process."

Friedman worries that in the rush to increase efficiency, some contractors will erect a "green" building that underperforms or isn't "green" at all.

According to Friedman, what happened in Seattle is "not happening a lot, but I'm not saying it's rare."

He said that in some cases, buildings might not be as efficient as expected because energy-use assumptions were wrong during the planning process.

Compare it to a shopping center with large entrance doors at the front of the building, Friedman said. If there was an assumption that those doors would be closed all the time, but they end up being left open 12 hours a day, energy ratings and savings will be vastly different from what was expected.

Another example would be an office building where engineers thought electricity and cooling systems would be shut off when employees left for the day. But instead, the building's maintenance crew left the lights on all night or ran the HVAC system all weekend. Again, the energy use would be higher than anticipated.

For some contractors, Friedman says the real gripe is proving a green building's energy savings is a long and sometimes difficult task. Some say the savings can't be proven.

HVAC systems need to be monitored for performance and data needs to be analyzed, he said. This takes more time and effort than just installing the system, and some contractors may skip it.

LEED certification also requires commissioning of mechanical systems, where tests are performed that prove they are functioning properly. Sometimes commissioning tests will find that mistakes were made, even though "the contractor is trying to do a good job," he said.

That might result in extra work, Friedman said, but "that's not to say we shouldn't do a green building."

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.

Sidebar: Some states are going green

Several states are adopting the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards as part of their construction codes.

According to the council, here are some of the states that are requiring green building for their state-funded projects.
Arizona: All new state-funded buildings must use renewable energy and achieve LEED-silver certification.
California:All new and renovated state-owned buildings must meet LEED-silver status.
Colorado: All new and existing state buildings must achieve a level of LEED certification.
Maine: An executive order issued by Gov. John Baldacci in November 2003 calls for all new or expanding state buildings to use LEED as a guideline.
Maryland: Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued executive orders in 2001 requiring LEED certification on certain capital projects and establishing a state Green Building Council. In April 2005, a new law expanded the certification requirements.
Michigan: Last year, an executive order signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm required LEED certification on new construction projects or major renovations costing more than $1 million.
New Jersey: In July 2002, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey gave an executive order requiring LEED guidelines to be used on new school designs.
New Mexico: All public buildings over 15,000 square feet must be LEED-silver.
Nevada:All state-funded buildings must meet LEED-certified standards or an equivalent one. Every two years, at least two buildings financed by the state must be designated for LEED-silver status or an equivalent.
Rhode Island: All new construction and renovation projects on public buildings must at least meet LEED-silver status.
Washington: All state-funded projects over 5,000 square feet must reach LEED-silver, including school districts. Washington is the first state in the country to adopt such a standard.
Wisconsin: All state buildings are required to conform to LEED standards. Over the next few years, the state will determine how to best meet them.