Going Green In The Midwest

By Jim Romeo | September 28, 2010

All across America, there is a clear buzz about the need to go green. The construction industry is hopeful that that this provides opportunity to prosper from new construction revitalized by a dearth of LEED projects, which were helped by government policy from a new administration. The construction industry in the Midwest seems quite conscious and hopeful of a new wave of green.

"The growth in green construction is a result of a greater consciousness by decision makers at every level of business and government," says Paul Hoffman, owner and CEO of Hoffman LLC, an Appleton, WI-based planning, architecture and construction management firm. "Rarely does a day go by when leaders don't see the topic of sustainability cross their desktop in some form. To support the value proposition of green, we now have solid information and a mountain of data demonstrating that by integrating green into planning, design and construction, sustainable buildings can cost the same or less than traditional construction. Those in the market who build using sustainable principles will see added benefits beyond using and incorporating environmentally friendly materials, including improved employee health and life cycle cost savings instead of just hollow hype."

Part of the green growth, however, will hinge on collective thinking as to what constitutes "green." "There is no doubt that there is incredible market demand for green technologies and green buildings," says Brian Hendrickson, principal of 180° Urban Design in Kansas City, MO. "This demand will only increase, but those who demand green buildings will also continue to become more educated and savvy as to what is really green and what isn't. I think the idea of the lone green building standing alone, dissociated from an urban context and accessible only from the interstate is a dead end. Smart consumers already see the fallacy in that idea."

He adds, "The construction industry consumes just about every industrial resource that there is. There is an inherent responsibility to consume those resources in a more responsible and efficient manner. The next great step in building green will be to look at integrating green construction with sustainable transportation and planning practices. That's where the real efficiencies are."

While implementation of the economic stimulus bill could boost green construction, not everyone is optimistic that it will be a boon to green construction. "The stimulus bill will create many opportunities for construction projects in the Midwest; however, only a portion of those projects will be green construction projects," says Paul Yambor, a project manager with Chicago-based Walsh Construction, who is presently overseeing work on Central Michigan University's education building, a current LEED project. "Green construction opportunities will be available for mass transit facilities, schools and municipal buildings, among other building types."

Yambor sees the Midwest as lagging behind other regions of the country. "Our experience has shown a greater involvement on the West Coast and on the East Coast," he says. "California in particular has been on the leading edge of sustainable building for years. Also, states with extreme climates oftentimes incorporate green elements due to lack of resources. We hope that the Midwest can 'catch up' on the green building movement and provide more opportunities for green construction."

"I'm not sure that the green side of the criteria will hold up through the drive for speed and budget," says Ken Osmun, group president for Wight Construction in Darien, IL. "Good green design takes solid collaboration with experienced professionals, as does the project delivery."

The first drafts of the economic stimulus bill had allocated more spending for green construction. By the time the final cuts were in, many of the dollars for green construction were eliminated. "If anyone attempts to wade through the thousands of pages in the new economic stimulus package, it appears that much of what was originally appropriated for green construction has disappeared," says Paul Hoffman. "Earlier proposals gave school construction a sizable piece of the pie. However, there is still money allocated for some construction, and those in the business should make a strong case for using it to build with a sustainable mindset. Of the dollars that were appropriated for education, much of it is to be used to avoid education cutbacks and layouts. But a portion is available for school modernization, and we will be learning how that might be used to fund remodeling of existing facilities."

LEED Certification

A topic of interest to those with a hand in green construction is the role of LEED certification.

"LEED is a great tool to assist and guide owners to make wise, disciplined, verifiable, and principled sustainable decisions during the planning, design and construction process," says Hoffman. "The USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) deserves a lot of credit for the work they've done to create standards that motivate owners, municipalities, states and federal government, and builders to move toward greater sustainability. However, it is important for people to understand that green does not equal LEED or vice versa."

Hoffman adds, "There are times when choosing LEED is important to the project and is the best decision. However, there are times when pursuing LEED certification is not the right decision. For example, we recently moved our offices into a former retail space that we remodeled. Our office space is one of the most sustainable retrofit projects in the United States. However, for our business it did not make sense to choose LEED certification. It would have added $4 per square foot to our rent, without producing any real, additional benefit to the environment and our bottom line."

Joshua Randall, vice president of Kwame Building Group, a St. Louis-based construction management firm, agrees that the LEED program and the USGBC have played a significant role in educating owners, designers and contractors in the areas of sustainable design and construction. He has concerns about how the momentum of the program will fare as the marketplace changes.

"The structure that has been put in place as a result of their efforts has legitimized the green construction industry," says Randall. "The challenge going forward will be their ability to continually adapt to the ever changing marketplace — providing structure without becoming a stifling bureaucratic system."

From a labor perspective, it is hard to find anyone who is not upbeat about the future growth of green jobs for the construction industry.

"It appears there will be some temporary growth in other types of green jobs due to the stimulus package, and that will help more workers understand various facets of sustainability," says Hoffman. "That could help more people choose careers that relate to sustainability in the future. One field that is currently providing more and more green construction jobs, as well as green engineering jobs, is the area of renewable energy. The current economy is alerting consumers to the cost savings in energy and water efficiency, which could also spur an increase in green construction jobs, especially when coupled with government incentives for green buildings."

Brian Hendrickson notes, "Green industries ranging from agriculture to building technologies to energy production have the potential to rebuild a manufacturing base in this country. Smart industry leaders will be the ones that plug into local green technologies."

Author Information
Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, VA.