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Proving "Green" in Construction

Updated on November 19, 2012

Can sustainable design have a real impact on the environment? Can a project's goals be met? The answer is YES! Read on to hear a first-hand acount of one project's accomplishments.

The construction of a multi-million dollar suite of medical offices was recently completed in north-suburban Chicago. One of the goals of the project is to be LEED certified. This means that the design and construction have to meet certain environmentally friendly objectives that would help minimizes the impact of the project on the environment. To do this, a series of goals are established, a strategy is developed to meet those goals and a process is put in place (in this case LEED certification) to measure the success of the strategy.

I was involved with the LEED documentation of this particular project and was amazed at the level of sustainability that can be achieved with a minimal amount of additional effort. Some of these achievements have been outlined in this hub.

The LEED Scoresheet idenifies potential credits.
The LEED Scoresheet idenifies potential credits. | Source

USGBC and the Green Building Movement

The “green” movement has been around for a while now and it permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. From curbside recycling to more energy efficient machines to the way we design and plan our environments, there is no escaping this phenomenon. Even those who are totally against the concept and reject any form of environmental stewardship are being dragged (maybe kicking and screaming or maybe without even knowing it) into a new “greener” world. One sector that has really embraced this movement is the construction industry. An early leader in this area is an organization called the USGBC. The US Green Building Council is a non-profit trade / environmental group that promotes sustainable design and construction. A building can prove its “green” prowess by obtaining a LEED designation.

USGBC is probably the most recognized sustainable building organization in America but it is not the only entity promoting environmentally friendly buildings. Local, state and the federal government have all jumped on the bandwagon and there are many other private companies and non-profit entities that promote a sustainable built environment. Over the last year, as I worked on the construction of the medical office building, I began to realize just how far this movement has come.

My "Green" Experience

As an Architect, I have been involved with green projects, including LEED certified projects, for the better part of a decade. I would probably be correct in saying that the architectural community was at the forefront of the sustainable building design movement and in the early days, led the effort. Back then, being green was harder, partially because the documentation and measurement process was just starting. Proving a building met the requirements necessary to gain LEED recognition was a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare. As such, there was a cost to “going green” that an Owner would have to be willing to bear.

Today, there may still be a small cost associated with this process but that has been greatly reduced. This is partially because of new construction methods and new technologies but it is also because the industry has embraced the process and so the documentation (the bureaucracy) has become easier. The medical office building was my first working on the construction side of the project and it opened my eyes to the progress made over the last few years.

Snapshot of a Waste Collection Report - noted are pick-up dates, tonnage of sorted content and percent of each type of content.
Snapshot of a Waste Collection Report - noted are pick-up dates, tonnage of sorted content and percent of each type of content. | Source
Snapshot of a manufacturer's document showing recycled content and regional materials.
Snapshot of a manufacturer's document showing recycled content and regional materials. | Source

Materials Help Meet Sustainable Goals

When you think of an environmentally friendly building, the first thing that comes to mind is energy efficiency. Saving energy in the areas of heating, cooling and lighting a building (and perhaps water conservation) is the backbone of any LEED project. Most of this work, however, is done in the design phase of the project. Architects and their engineering consultants are primarily responsible for the energy design aspects of a project.

There is another area of conservation, however, that involves the guys actually constructing the building. This involves materials, site conditions and waste management. The design team is also involved with some aspects of this but it is the contractor that must be responsible for LEED verification and reporting.

For this project, I was responsible for tracking and reporting on some of the LEED credits in three general areas: (1) Sustainable Sites [SS], (2) Materials and Resources [MR] and (3) Indoor Environmental Quality [IEQ]. Specifically, the following LEED credits where being pursued:

  • Construction Activity Pollution Prevention (SS)
  • Construction Waste Management (MR)
  • Recycled Content (MR)
  • Regional Materials (MR)
  • Certified Wood (MR)
  • Construction Indoor Air Quality (IEQ)
  • Low-Emitting Materials – Adhesives and Sealants (IEQ)
  • Low-Emitting Materials – Paints and Coatings (IEQ)
  • Low-Emitting Materials – Flooring Systems (IEQ)
  • Low-Emitting Materials – Composite Wood and Agrifiber Products (IEQ)

Silt Fencing helps protect an adjacent creek and low-lying area from any soil contamination or runoff from the construction site.
Silt Fencing helps protect an adjacent creek and low-lying area from any soil contamination or runoff from the construction site. | Source

Sustainable Sites (SS Credits)

This credit for “Construction Activity Pollution Prevention” is all about keeping the construction site contained. This means preventing run-off of contaminated water into local waterways and keeping soil erosion at bay.

This is a good example of a LEED credit that typically requires very little extra site activity. This is because state, county and/or local jurisdictions already require some kind of “soil erosion plan,” or other similar protocol. This usually involves a permit and some kind of monitoring procedures. In the Chicago Metro area (the location of this project), the rules and monitoring are strict and so the credit is an easy one.

Medical Facility Project:

  • 83% of construction waste was recycled.

  • Construction materials exceed 28% recycled content.

  • Over 43% of all materials are from the region (local).

  • Over 98% of new wood products are harvested sustainably.

Snapshot of a LEED Template showing the "Post-Consumer" and "Pre-Consumer" recycled content of some products used on the project (MRc4).
Snapshot of a LEED Template showing the "Post-Consumer" and "Pre-Consumer" recycled content of some products used on the project (MRc4). | Source
Snapshot of a LEED Template showing the regional material percentage of some products used on the project (MR Credit 5).
Snapshot of a LEED Template showing the regional material percentage of some products used on the project (MR Credit 5). | Source
Snapshot of a certification of the "Chain of Custody" of a wood product.
Snapshot of a certification of the "Chain of Custody" of a wood product. | Source

Materials and Recources (MR Credit)

Most are familiar with recycling programs but it might surprise you to find out that up until recently, there was not much recycling at construction sites. That is a big deal because construction sites can be a huge source of waste. I have seen a number of estimates about how much garbage is generated from construction sites and it can vary a great deal. One figure that is often repeated is that up to 40% of all landfill waste is from construction. Considering that the construction industry only makes up about 15% of our economic output, that is a shocking number. This has led many jurisdictions to require contractors to recycle. When these mandates first appeared, builders were very wary. All they could envision was vast waste sorting operation right on the job site. It sounded costly, time consuming and messy.

Instead, a whole new industry of recycling providers has been created. In most cases, construction waste is co-mingled and sorted later. For the medical office building, the waste handler provided monthly documentation of the recycled content extracted from the project’s waste and sorted at their facility. The amount recycled varied but never fell below 77% and reached as high as 92% (by weight). Over the course of the project, an average was 82.70% of all waste was recycled. The main materials pulled for recycling were: wood, steel, cardboard, plastics and aggregates. The down side of the waste management issue is that there is still a lot of garbage coming off of construction sites but at least, now, there is a significant effort to put those materials to uses again.

Would is surprise you find out that a newly constructed building could be built from materials that contain almost 30% recycled content. That means that almost 1/3 of the materials used to build this building contained pre-used materials. They weren’t extracted from ground and processed from raw materials but instead where recycled from other products and put back into service to be used again. This is just one of the aspects of the Materials and Resources category of LEED. Here is each item broken down:

Recycled Content: 28% of the building materials used at the medical office building where from recycled content. This was the verifiable amount. Most product manufacturers and supplies can now fully document the quantities of recycled materials used in their products. However, there are some that still do not and on this project there was some additional recycled material that could not be completely tracked and verified. It is my guess that the actual amount of recycled material was probably in the low 30% range. As it turns out, that almost everything used in construction now has some recycled content in it.

The single biggest contributor to this category is metal. Steel and aluminum are used in the building structure, wall cladding, studs, ceiling systems, doors, door hardware, windows, roofing panels and a lot of other incidental materials found throughout a building. Today, almost all of the steel used in construction is recycled material. In this project, the amount of recycled content for the structural steel was over 95%. The raw materials of most US steel mills are not taken from the ground but instead from scrap yards.

Regional Materials: This was another area where I was amazed by the results. Over 43% of all of the materials used to construct the medical office building were extracted and manufactured within 500 miles of the building site. Regional Materials are an important part of a sustainable project because they help to reduce transportation costs and thus save energy.

The location of this project, Chicago, does give it an advantage with this credit. There are many opportunities to obtain steel, concrete and masonry products close-by. Still, I was surprised at the amount of materials that was produced locally. I also believe that the project far exceeded even the 43% documented. There were many instances were a material probably contained some local content but the manufacturer’s data was incomplete and so it was not included in the calculation.

Certified Wood: This is a requirement that was hard to verify just a few years ago. But now, almost every source of wood, be it a cabinetry, doors, wood trim or other lumber can be traced back to its source. An organization called the Forest Stewardship Council certifies that wood used in construction comes from sustainable, managed forests. This effort protects “old growth” forests and insures that logging is done in a responsible manner. Even though there was not that much wood used on this project (less than $50,000 in material cost), what was used, was over 97% certified.

In each of the categories described above, waste management, recycled content, regional materials and certified wood, this project far exceeded the minimums required by the LEED process. And for a project that exceeded 10 million dollars, the costs associated with this compliance were hardly noticeable.

Medical Facility Project

  • Implementation of Indoor Air Quality Plan (IAQ) makes the work environment better.

  • Paints, coatings, adhesives and sealants contain no VOCs.

  • All materials meet "Low-Emitting" requirements

Snapshot of a Low-VOC compliance statement from the manufacture for a sealant product.
Snapshot of a Low-VOC compliance statement from the manufacture for a sealant product. | Source

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ Credit)

For the contractor, meeting the indoor air quality requirements means a safer and less toxic work environment. Dust control, air quality and toxic-emitting materials can all be controlled. If you have ever painted a room with oil-based paint or installed new carpeting, then you know the odors that can emanate from these products as they go through a process called “off-gassing.” That “new car smell” everyone always talks about is probably not exactly healthy.

On the job site, air quality is most affected by what I call the “gooey” stuff. Manufacturers of glues and adhesives, caulks and sealants, paints and coatings and other gooey materials have made great strides in eliminating the chemical odors and reducing the off-gassing of all of these types of materials. This was not always the case; there was a time when it was hard to find materials that met the indoor air quality requirements. They key to this has been the reduction of volatile organic compounds or VOC’s (which are usually petroleum based).

In addition to restricting materials that can be used on the jobsite, there is also a credit for implementing an Indoor Air Quality Plan (IAQ). This plan is in place during the construction operations. The IAQ plan employs some simple steps to maintain air quality. These include, restricting smoking, storing materials off the ground, keeping materials in packaging until use, controlling humidity, cleaning up spills, keeping down dust, etc. As with the low-emitting materials, the main purpose of this is to make the workplace safer for the construction crew. It may also have some bearing on the future user as well because some products will off-gas for a long time.

The Future Looks Even Better

The industry has made huge strides forward in promoting sustainable design and yet, things are just getting going. It has only been a few years since these practices have been put in place. There was a time when there was no recycling on job sites, when it was hard to find and verify if building materials contained any recycled content and when buying local was not on anyone's radar. Now, it is second nature and becoming easier to exceed expectations. The same is true for other areas of the design and construction process, such an energy efficiency and water conservation. Still, there is work to be done. Not everyone is on-board and participating. Over the next decade, I believe this whole process will become second nature and common place at the job site.


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    • brblog profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois


      Thanks for your comments. A LEED project is still more costly to implement VS a non-LEED project but that premium has been coming down. Today, the main source of the extra cost is in the manpower needed to document the process. The design team and construction team each will spend more time (and thus, more fee) to implement a LEED project. There was a time when some "green" materials cost more but that is not much of a factor anymore, except if you are implementing green power solutions (like solar or wind). There can be higher up-front costs for these strategies. Overall, the extra cost associated with a LEED project continues to decline and be less of a factor in the determination to go green.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      OK, OK, obviously I have to come in and try my best to do a litlte PR here.No, seriously, not PR. Just some explaining. LEED for Homes is literally brand-new. It just barely launched in late November. Before that, it was in pilot form. Development of LEED rating systems is a long, involved process, with lots of consensus-building among the USGBC membership, a lengthy public comment period, another lengthy balloting period, not to mention constant revisions and new versions. It's all an attempt to make sure all the "green" elements LEED considers are truly green, realistic and applicable to the type of building being considered, etc. etc.A key part of developing the rating systems is a pilot period, which involves guinea-pig projects sorting through the process to bring to the surface any unforeseen issues (and there are always lots). With the Homes system, especially, that required third-party certification from experts who could focus on some carefully selected projects (to represent single-family homes, affordable housing, big-city high-rises, etc. etc.). It just takes time to do some quality control.And people are right. If you're building your own home and just want to make it green for the sake of doing the right thing, there is no concrete reason to get it certified, unless you want bragging rights. LEED for Homes is mostly useful for commercial endeavors (i.e., an apartment building that wants to advertise its rooms as green, or a spec builder who wants to draw attention to a new development). It's also useful in jurisdictions that offer tax incentives or other inducements for LEED-certified building.But LEED for Homes is definitely growing - booming, actually - and there are now something like 15,000 homes registered in the LEED process. So new providers in more geographically diverse areas will be showing up.And regarding that one guy's comment about manufacturers wanting to get their systems LEED certified, LEED actually doesn't certify products of any type, nor does it endorse or recommend any. Only buildings can get any kind of stamp of approval from USGBC, so it's really not a money issue. I promise. If it was, I'd tell you. :)

    • brblog profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois


      I just Googled "a building made out of books" and looked at images - found a whole bunch of good stuff . . . people have been building structures out of books and some of them are great.

    • claudiafox profile image


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      How about a whole house built out of copies of the Da Vinci Code? I get heaps of those!

    • brblog profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois


      Books in an adobe style building might work . . .I am waiting for someone to present their big idea!

    • brblog profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois


      Based on your comments, I asked a HUB question about this - go check it out - and also that there has been no real good answers - perhaps books cannot be used to make buildings . . .

    • claudiafox profile image


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      And here's a grant if want to have a run at it. Books as energy efficient walls?

    • claudiafox profile image


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      How to make a house out of books?

    • brblog profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      Hey claudiafox,

      I feel your pain. There was a famous Architectural bookstore in Chicago called the Prairie Avenue Bookstore. As students, when visiting Chicago, we were required to make a pilgrimage to this store. Later, when I moved to the city, I lived a couple blocks from the place and would often wander its aisles. A few years ago, the unimaginable happened; it closed its doors forever. I think your question has merit. How many books are being disposed of every year by individuals, libraries, businesses and other entities? Is the paper recycled, do they end up in landfills, are there other productive uses for all of these volumes? I don’t have any answers but I think it is a question worth pondering.

    • claudiafox profile image


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Good to see your question: "Can sustainable design have a real impact on the environment?" answered with "Yes". On the sustainable front can I pose a question to you as an architect. I run a small bookshop. I have tonnes of excess books as folks move to Kindles and an aging population in my area down-sizes for retirement. What to do with tonnes old books. Can I build a house with them? Can I burn them in a fluidised bed combustion and turn them into bio-char? Can I use them to build retaining walls? Ideas welcome on sustainable design using old books.


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