There’s no denying that the landscape of the construction industry has changed over the years. In order to stay relevant and take care of the bottom line, A/E firms and general contractors must adapt to the increasing client and market demand for green designs. But they worry that they won’t be able to find enough skilled employees to fill workforce shortages. If you’re a contractor, you have a golden opportunity to retrain yourself to “think green,” combining green skills and construction experience into an unbeatable package that will make you sought-after in the industry.
According to a study by McGraw-Hill Construction (MHC), over 90% of construction firms are working on at least a few green projects, and green jobs make up over 40% of the workforce. It’s true that many colleges have expanded their science programs to include an emphasis on sustainability and the environment, and consequently the student pipeline produces potential employees who value green building because it’s “the right thing to do.” So A/E firms and general contractors don’t have much trouble acquiring entry-level staff. The real gap exists between the graduates, who understand green concepts but have little practical experience, and the mid- and senior-level staff, who have years of experience in the construction field but cannot easily integrate green concepts into business practices due to lack of green education and training.
The MHC study found that general contractors desire project management skills (72%), knowledge of construction processes (70%), and people management skills (48%) as the best qualifications for their staff. Green projects put these skills to the test, as the initial cost can be quite high and the planning and preparation phases more intensive than for traditional projects. Some contractors may decide to cut corners to save money and time, or simply be ignorant of certain impacts. These practices can hurt a client’s chances of achieving LEED certification. It’s therefore important for contractors to grasp the complexity of building green beyond meeting client demand.
Let’s see what this would look like on a jobsite. Due to the foresight required in a LEED project, the building owner or construction manager needs to hire a LEED-capable contractor as soon as possible. He or she will help to set the tone of the jobsite. George Carlson, VP of Operations at T.G. Construction, Inc., believes this means keeping “the entire jobsite focused on both the project’s LEED goals and the overall philosophy of the LEED rating system. An effective jobsite LEED action plan,” he says, will “cause individual workers to make daily decisions that are consistent with the ‘culture of sustainability.’” The culture results from marketing LEED to the community of workers and rewarding them for meeting milestones. In this way they will become advocates for the plan and increase the chances of the project’s success.
Long before construction begins, the contractor and the rest of the team must establish a budget not only of money, but of time. Because of the high upfront cost, grants and subsidies are often needed to keep the project financially feasible, and it takes a responsible construction manager to make sure the team understands the parameters and has sufficient time to apply and wait for approval.
The team should decide on a specific LEED certification at an early stage. Sometimes, as Carlson discovered, achieving one LEED credit becomes prohibitive because of a manufacturer’s noncompliance, but the project can stay on track towards certification by substituting another, less expensive credit for the first. Only a contractor who is present from the beginning and knows the LEED rating system thoroughly will be able to identify such problems and solve them immediately.
The subcontractors who bid on the project also need to have a solid understanding of the real costs associated with LEED requirements. Otherwise they will bid too high to compensate for perceived risks, and the contract will go to another company. General contractors can give their companies a better chance of success by giving bidders a condensed, straightforward version of the LEED project information, and also by holding pre-bid meetings for further explanation and Q&A. With the confidence in this knowledge, each trade will bid aggressively.
Carlson considers the site-specific LEED action plan the most important aspect of the construction phase. Crucially, the subcontractor submittals must include materials reviews to make sure that the correct materials are ordered. The last thing you need is to lose a LEED point or end up with a big bill because of noncompliant materials.
At the preconstruction meetings, the contractor presents the LEED action plan to the project managers and foreman, who may not be familiar with the LEED requirements. “Educate early and educate often,” Carlson advises, because everyone should be held accountable for adherence to the plan.
Once the materials arrive at the jobsite (or onsite staging area), the superintendent needs to inspect them and give them the stamp of approval before installation. It’s a good idea for the LEED engineer to assist the superintendent in this task. This leaves no doubt that all materials meet LEED specifications. The LEED engineer should also work closely with the foremen to prevent workers from installing non-approved materials or purchasing supplies that cost LEED credits.
The contractor should also keep the materials spreadsheets current, so that the team can be flexible based on the data. Midway through the project, when the subcontractors are still actively engaged in the project, it’s time for an audit to solve problems, clear up misunderstandings, and gather missing information. Taking photos of the jobsite on a continuous basis allows the contractor to document LEED compliance and promote the philosophy behind it.
For contractors in this evolving industry, it’s not simply a matter of winning bids for green projects, but of acquiring green building knowledge, keeping up-to-date with trends, hiring subcontractors with green skills and jobsite experience, and working with (or acting as) the construction manager to ensure that all parties are working towards the same vision. A LEED-capable contractor makes all the difference in the world for a green project.
Why not get ahead of the competition by attending our free webinar LEED 101 for Contractors? In this course you’ll learn the basics of LEED, including the v3 and v4 rating systems, and the performance and cost of LEED projects. We’ll also introduce you to the concepts of green building and sustainability. By the end of the course, you’ll have a GBCI CE/AIA HSW LU and be prepared to take the LEED v4 Construction Management course in August.