Builders catch the wave of green building

Is the current trend of green building more than just a fad?


Construction that uses environmental and sustainable practices is in again, and may be here to stay. Green building has become the foundation for businesses like Sound Heating and Plumbing. Owner Mike Matheny said he strives to cater to the green crowd.


From pet rocks to low-carb diets, we sure love our fads. They come and go in cycles, often reappearing decades later. When it comes to “green,” many environmentally friendly practices were introduced in the 1970s on the heels of an energy crisis, only to be replaced with gas-guzzling SUVs and the bigger/better/more mentality of the 1980s.

Now being green is in again — hybrid cars are flying off lots faster than manufacturers can make them and the new buzzword is “sustainable.” But is this green movement in itself sustainable? One gauge is how ingrained the movement is in industry.

In the barometer of the building industry, the movement looks healthy. Local and state governments, along with business entities such as Starbucks, are mandating that new construction and remodeling meet industry environmental standards. Architecture and construction firms are gathering the know-how it takes to work on such projects. And the sustainable wave has had a ripple effect into suppliers, which are carrying the products necessary to meet green standards.

Perhaps the most telling sign that the trend is here to stay is those practices are becoming less specialized and more the norm.

“More and more people are becoming aware of environment and effects of construction,” said Bob Griffiths of Pearson Construction, who supervised the construction of Whatcom County’s first LEED silver-certified building, the Whatcom Educational Credit Union Business and Home Loan Center.

Much of that awareness comes from organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, which doles out four levels of certification of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for new and renovation construction projects. LEED certification is the industry standard for green building — both Bellingham and the Washington state Legislature passed measures in 2005 requiring LEED silver certification for all publicly funded renovation and new construction projects of more than 5,000 square feet.

Along with requiring public buildings to be LEED certified, Bellingham environmental planner Kim Spens said the city is trying to identify some incentives for private projects to strive for LEED certification. Seattle is able to offer monetary incentives, but Spens said Bellingham is not in a position to do the same.


Green-building movement growing stronger

While no incentives have been identified yet, Spens said the LEED movement is building a life of its own.

By law, all new construction at Western Washington University must be LEED certified. But the school is already ahead of the trend. The Wade King Student Recreation Center, finished in 2003, received LEED certification earlier this year. The new Academic Instruction Center is also aiming for certification. Both projects are managed through Dawson Construction, and neither was required to be LEED certified, as the projects were approved before the Legislature passed the green-building laws.

The industry is quickly gearing up for green-building projects. Griffiths said several LEED projects were recently brought to Pearson Construction, compelling the company to look at what is involved in the process. The new laws and increased industry demand mean more contractors are learning about green building. Griffiths said all Pearson’s supervisors have taken LEED classes.

“The contractors are forced to go that route if they’re going to bid on it,” Griffiths said.

Pearson Construction is currently working on three LEED projects — two more WECU branches and the new Community Food Co-op, scheduled to break ground sometime in September.

Local associations are getting in the act as well. The Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (BIA) developed the Built Green program, which aims to unite local contractors, suppliers and architects that have the ability to work on green projects, as well as certify those projects.

Part of Built Green is the creation of an educational demonstration facility in the form of the BIA’s new headquarters at 1650 Baker Creek Place, slated to start construction in September. The building will be more than a building — it will be an exhibition of LEED certification and green building.

“We’re actually going to let people see through the walls,” said Built Green Director Kristina Daheim.

Visitors will be able to see what makes the walls and floors adhere to green principles, and even the parking lot will have examples of pervious surfaces.

The BIA also has educational opportunities for green building, including a green-building conference Oct. 17 and 18.


More than construction

Spens said the nature of a LEED project is different from non-LEED projects.

“To do it, you have to plan on it from the very get go,” she said. “Everybody’s on board from the very beginning.”

When Spens says everybody, that means more than the architects and general contractors — it means subcontactors, local suppliers and manufacturers.

LEED requires documentation that includes how products are made and where it’s from.

For years, acquiring certified materials has been difficult and expensive. But that’s changing. Getting wood that met green standards for the WECU Business and Home Loan Center, for example, was expensive and Pearson had to order it from a company in Mount Vernon, Griffiths said.

But now, Griffiths said, suppliers have to give a lot of information to contractors about the materials, including aspects like where it came from and how much post-consumer waste it contains.

Griffiths said Pearson typically tries to use the same subcontractors — once they’ve worked on one LEED project, he said they know what to expect for the next.

The documentation required for LEED certification is extensive, but it’s becoming more routine as contractors, subcontractors and suppliers do more green projects.

“Typically they’re not used to doing that,” Griffiths said. “There’s a learning curve for all of our suppliers and subs because none of them have done it before.”

But some suppliers are basing their business on the green-building movement, including Sound Heating and Plumbing, a member of the Built Green program. Mike Matheny, who owns the business with his wife, Tami, said since the company’s inception in 1999, its focus has been on supplying green products. That focus has made Sound’s membership in the Built Green program effortless.

“We do everything they ask of us without making us do it,” Matheny said.


Green in demand

Initially, the price tag for building green can be much more than a non-green construction project. But systems Sound Heating and Plumbing installs have a long-term cost benefit, Matheny said.

Often new construction looks to cut initial costs, and putting in energy- efficient systems costs more up front. But Matheny said the systems pay for themselves because they last longer and lower utility bills.

Prices for other materials that meet LEED requirements have stabilized, Griffiths said.

For the WECU Loan Center, Pearson had to pay nearly double the price for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, which no Bellingham supplier carried. Now, places like Builder’s Alliance carry FSC wood, and Griffiths said it’s not much more per square foot than non-FSC wood.

Convincing people to take on the initial cost can be difficult, Matheny said. While more than 50 homes in Whatcom County are registered as Built Green, and many more are on the way, Matheny said most of the projects he works on are refitting homes — sometimes brand-new ones — with energy-efficient systems.

“Once they know it, they want it,” Matheny said. “Public knowledge isn’t there yet.”

Daheim said with green building gaining in popularity, there is some concern about “green washing,” where businesses take on the mantle of sustainability but do not actually contribute to the movement. Being green is highly marketable, and consumers often only see the green logo, whether the business actually is green or not.

“We must do more than sell a logo,” Daheim said.

Daheim said as people start researching what it takes for a green project, their business practices start adhering to green principles as well.

“They’re not just profiting from this,” she said. “They’re walking the walk.”

Sound Heating and Plumbing is walking that walk — Matheny uses biodiesel in his company vans and has learned everything he can about efficient heating and plumbing systems.

While selling those products is profitable, Matheny sees a more holistic picture to his business.

“It’s better for everybody all the way around,” he said. “It’s better for me, better for them and better for the environment.”


Whatcom County LEED projects


Certified projects

Wade King Student Recreation Center WWU, Dawson Construction


Registered projects

Chestnut Street Housing, Rafn Construction

WECU Business and Home Loan Center, Pearson Construction

Community Food Co-op Second Store, Pearson Construction

Bellingham Art and Children’s Museum, Ebenal General

Bellingham Food Bank

Gaston Bay Building

Meadow Ridge Park

New Whatcom Redevelopment Project

The Pickford Cinema

WECU Sunset, Pearson Construction

WECU Ferndale, Pearson Construction

Academic Instruction Center WWU, Dawson Construction

Boys and Girls Club in Ferndale, Doug Landsem Architects

Source: U.S. Green Building Council website

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