Sustainability for Contractors — What Have You Been Waiting For?

By Jessyca Henderson, Esq., Owner, The Law Office of Jessyca L. Henderson LLC

February 17, 2023

Increasingly, investors and lenders are reacting to climate risk by looking for greener buildings and companies that have a strong environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) record. Contractors that prioritize ESG issues may have better access to capital, lower borrowing costs, and improved financial performance.  You may have the impression that this revolution in the industry  is all about the big firms, but with robust incentives coming online in multiple sectors, contractors of any size can make an impact and benefit by being prepared when even previously uninterested customers come calling for more efficient, greener and resilient projects.

Start With the Basics:

Reduce waste. The US EPA estimated that 600 million tons of Construction and Demolition debris were generated in the United States in 2018. In the office and in the field, take charge of waste as part of a comprehensive waste reduction plan. Contractors can practice waste reduction and reuse methods, such as sorting recyclable materials and finding new uses for materials that would otherwise go to waste.

Use energy-efficient equipment and materials. Contractors can invest in energy-efficient equipment and materials to reduce the energy consumption of the construction site, while reducing noise, pollution, and negative health impacts of conventional machinery. A new generation of electric construction equipment is changing the landscape. Electric Off-Highway Equipment Market revenue is expected to exceed 4.5 Billion by 2028, according to Global Market Insights, with major market players like Caterpillar, Inc., leading the way.

Promote water conservation. Potable water is a critical resource for construction sites, and increasingly scarce in parts of the country and around the world.  Contractors can reduce water usage by using installing low-flow fixtures, rainwater collection systems, and drought-tolerant plantings, among other well-known techniques.

Level Up:

If you are ready to dig in deeper, here are some advanced strategies to explore:

Passive design. Passive design is a way to optimize a building’s energy use by taking advantage of natural light, ventilation, and insulation, featuring an ultra-tight envelope and minimized mechanical systems. Basic passive design techniques include analyzing orientation for optimized solar gain, strategically sized and placed high performance windows, shading devices and plantings, among other techniques. Understanding passive design will make you more attractive as a builder for owners seeking to drastically reduce energy bills, and the design professionals that bring those plans to fruition.

Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is a digital tool (often, a suite of tools) that can be used to plan, design, and construct buildings more sustainably. Perhaps most importantly, BIM is meant for deep collaboration. At a minimum, BIM can help contractors identify conflicts between trades, areas where energy efficiency can be improved,  and where waste can be reduced.  Firms like Chanos Construction employ BIM as part of a comprehensive carbon emissions reduction strategy.

Modular and prefabricated construction. Modular and prefabricated construction involves building components in a factory and then assembling them on site. This can lead to less waste, improved quality control, and faster construction times, which can have beneficial cost and environmental outcomes.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  Life Cycle Assessment is a tool that assesses the environmental impact of a building over its entire lifecycle, from materials extraction to construction to use and disposal. LCA can help contractors deepen their understanding of the embodied carbon, energy, and water of the materials they use and the construction methods they employ. The Carbon Leadership Forum publishes a guide for design professionals and builders to understand the basics of LCA.

Plant and Grow Sustainability in Corporate Culture 

“Culture eats strategy for lunch” could not be more true when it comes to changing old corporate habits. For new construction firms, understanding and committing to sustainability can be baked into the organization from the beginning, but for those that have been around for many years, the struggle to change is real.  Whether it is moving to a paperless operation, recycling, renovating the office and facilities to cut energy and water use, making visible changes will establish that the firm leadership is committed to environmental stewardship.

Establishing sustainability as a core value of the company, benchmarking, setting goals, and tracking progress is not an easy lift for existing firms without a track record for sustainable practices — but focusing on how it all links back to customer value may make the path a little clearer.

Many clients and customers now expect sustainable practices, and that is a growing expectation — but taking a look at the actual quality and savings that may be extended to your customer may bring real value back to the firm. Large construction companies like Hensel Phelps and Skanska are leading the way to both benefit the environment and boost revenue.

Best practices for a corporate transformation  include having an internal team dedicated to sustainability, offering frequent training for employees and subcontractors in new techniques, and utilizing building life cycle assessment and energy modeling tools, many offered for free from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. Finally, you can plan for success by first  having a plan — from there it is only limited by creativity what you can do to make a difference in your business and in your community.

Jessyca Henderson is an attorney and architect based in Maryland, providing legal services and consulting related to sustainable design, building science, and environment.

Working on a sustainable project? AIA Document E204-2017 Sustainable Projects Exhibit, has been developed for use on a wide variety of sustainable projects, including those in which the Sustainable Objective includes obtaining a Sustainability Certification, such as LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), or those in which the Sustainable Objective is based on incorporation of performance-based sustainable design or construction elements. E204–2017 addresses the risks, responsibilities and opportunities unique to projects involving substantial elements of sustainable design and construction (sustainable projects).

AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.