What it means to be green

T he word “green” can mean two things — money or environmental friendliness. Are the two mutually exclusive or can businesses make money while respecting the environment?

Metal builders are trying to find out.

“Although the industry is still at the starting point of the learning curve, the idea of building green is spreading more rapidly than even a year ago,” reports executive director Bill Savitz of the Green Building Initiative for Houston-based NCI Building Systems, a manufacturer of metal building components, engineered metal building systems, and metal coil coaters.

The current impetus for advances in green building is the rising cost of energy, affirms president Steve Webster of the Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association (MBCEA).

“The green concept is a nationwide movement driven, even more now than in the past, because of the need to reduce energy costs,” observes Webster. He is owner of Dutton and Garfield Inc., Hampstead, N.H., a design/build construction company serving the industrial, commercial and community markets.

Yet if rising energy prices are creating a window of opportunity for sustainable building practices, the current economy is also driving many building owners to focus on up-front capital construction costs rather than long-term savings.

As Steve Thorson, owner of TNT Building Systems in Manhattan, Mont., says, “At least in our area, the green building concept hasn’t begun to catch on here.” TNT erects steel buildings for owners and general contractors.

Savitz also recognizes that progress in green building is spotty. In the West, for example, states such as “California, Washington, and Oregon are leading the efforts for environmentally sensitive construction, while in Montana and Wyoming the concept hasn’t been as prevalent yet.”

And across the country in Clinton, N.C., owner Hugh Carr of HN Carr also reports, “At this point, the idea of green building hasn’t yet come up on the horizon very strongly in our area.”

As general contractors, HN Carr specializes in commercial and light industrial construction.
“I think green building will become more of an issue in the future,” Carr suggests. “It’s something metal builders are all trying to learn more about, so that we can know better how to address the issues when our customers want answers.”

Evolving standards

Setting the pace for sustainable standards is the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. According to the council, LEED “encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”

Owners, architects and builders can work together in seeking LEED-certification for their projects by earning points for environmentally friendly construction practices, site work, building materials, energy and water savings and the like. But only the most exemplary projects are recognized.

Realistically, then, it is unlikely that LEED certification will be sought for, say, a mini-storage facility, a warehouse, a church gym, a horse barn or a suburban garage.

LEED certification is not the end all, concurs Savitz. Rather, the goal for metal building manufacturers such as NCI is to help builders “incorporate the standards from a construction standpoint — that is, to promote knowledge of the relevant concepts, and not necessarily LEED certification. Without the education, proper installation of green products is impossible. And without proper installation, the products won’t work efficiently.”

Grasp ‘teachable moments’

Savitz believes contractors can successfully sell the green benefits of metal buildings — provided they and their customers are educated.

“Your clients are in as much of an education mode as you are. They’re asking for education,” he points out.

For its part, NCI has brought on a green education director, is planning workshops, and will be launching a help desk through its web site that can assist builders with, for example, the process of calculating a building’s projected energy consumption.

Partnering with a knowledgeable metal building manufacturer or supplier, Savitz asserts, will be important if contractors hope to keep up with green developments.

“Elements of USGBC standards will be adopted into some building codes,” he predicts. “Already, in some cities any new construction must comply with LEED’s ‘Silver’ certification standards.” Thus as codes evolve, metal building contractors will need suppliers who are keeping a vigilant eye on any changes and incorporating those into their products.

Contractors and erectors must build their knowledge base and band together, MBCEA’s Webster adds, to ensure their interests are represented as construction industry standard-setting organizations debate green policies. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), for example, is “upgrading its insulation codes and it’s important that metal builders be part of the process,” he relates.

Potential payoffs

Such efforts will pay off for the metal building industry in the long term. But in the here and now, NCI’s Savitz concedes, “You need to apply a certain level of common sense. Our company produces ‘cool’ metal roofs that are rated to help reduce the urban heat island effect. But outside those populated areas, installing a cool roof might not make sense. In fact, in northern states there can be some advantages to not installing a cool roof.”

Thorson of TNT Building Systems backs up those statements with experience.

“We’ve always had to build with adequate insulation because in Montana, with our climate, that’s a necessity. Cool roofs and cool siding aren’t as important as quality windows and recyclability.” In a region where most people do not have air conditioning units, he points out, “We worry about heating, not cooling.”

The only time Thorson hears about green building is from “transplants” to the region. For the most part, he says, “We only get involved with green issues when customers have moved here from places like California and bring their thought processes with them. Native residents are less likely to bring it up. Still, as green building gets more attention in the media, I expect it will become more prevalent in the future.”

In North Carolina, too, Carr reports that his only conversation with a customer about green building occurred when he himself brought it up.

“We recently completed a blueberry processing facility,” he relates. “They have to keep the facility fairly cool and have an area with a very large freezer. I told the customer we were going to go with a white reflective roof because it would reduce the air-conditioning load. So we incorporated the cost of the cool roof into our quote.”

Savitz suggests that one reason for owners’ reticence to “go green” is fear of adding to the price tag. Even among the most progressive building owners who seek LEED certification, he reports, “There’s a big concern for up-front costs. Yet the truth is that green building practices don’t have to cost more. Even for projects that go all the way to certification, on average the added cost is only from zero to two percent for the first level of certification.”

Potential payoffs, however, for metal builders who adopt green construction practices can be many. Their customers can reduce the cost to heat, cool and generally operate the building.

For example, decreasing HVAC loads might mean the opportunity to install a smaller HVAC unit, thus saving capital cost and operating costs as well as electricity. Employees or tenants in a green building — with features such as increased natural lighting and paints or adhesives with low volatile compounds — can be more comfortable, healthy and productive. Owners of green buildings can therefore have an edge in securing tenants or gaining resale value.

These advantages can be sold by builders so that, in time, customers may look for builders with green expertise.

USGBC certifies people as well as buildings, and today numerous builders and architects are marketing the fact that they have “LEED-accredited professionals” on their staffs. And finally, as builders gain expertise and incorporate green practices into their everyday operations, the cost of green building decreases.

Then, too, metal buildings have their own uniquely green properties. Like other manufacturers, NCI uses substantial amounts of recycled content — in its case, more than 50 percent — for its steel building materials.

Metal buildings and roofs are, in addition to being durable and long-lasting, virtually 100 percent recyclable when the structure is razed. And metal roofs are essentially maintenance-free, which provides further savings of energy and labor costs over the life of the roof.

Green equals green

Nor are the payoffs of green building only for new construction. Steve Webster of MBCEA explains that one way to “go green” is to renovate and upgrade an existing structure rather than tear it down and start from scratch. As the LEED standards recognize, the energy consumed by new construction — both in shipping materials and in the construction itself — can be considerable. But renovation, he says, is actually a form of recycling.

“Reuse the existing building by upgrading insulation systems and wall systems to bring the building up to LEED standards, and by replacing the roof with a green product,” Webster advises. “One owner I visited had renovated an existing building using green practices a few years ago. The last two winters he cut his heating bills in half. Now his green building is putting green in his pocket.”
Making such savings available to customers can help metal building contractors carve out a profitable niche in the renovation market.

Webster recognizes that LEED certification may not be for everyone. “LEED is slanted more toward urban projects, but a lot of metal building systems are used in rural settings,” he notes.
Nevertheless, the ideas behind LEED — getting credit for using recycled content, for environmentally sensitive site preparation, for insulation value, for building systems that conserve energy and water — can be incorporated into any contractor’s thinking.

“An energy-efficient building is not only better for the environment,” he contends, “but it’s simply a better-built, higher-quality building for your customers.”

General contractor Hugh Carr has seen this dynamic at work when, before moving to rural North Carolina, he was based in the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan market. “The cities are moving increasingly toward green building technologies and putting them into practice,” he relates. “But in time, green building is going to be everywhere, including the more rural markets where metal buildings are popular.”

In anticipation, Carr says, “I’m trying to learn more about eco-friendly practices and products. We want to advise our customers not only when they ask about energy savings, but to also be proactive and make suggestions for incorporating green ideas into our design/build projects. When we do a job that helps the owner with energy costs, it resonates with our customers.” n 

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