What Does Sustainability Mean to You?
As I travel around the country, it is more common than not to
hear most people feel it is important to incorporate
"sustainability" into their work practices. Because of the
widespread use of the term, it intrigues me that our industry still
has no set definition.
There are some that use "sustainability" in terms of longevity
for their firms, looking to maximize profits while securing backlog
to sustain their businesses during these rough economic times.
There are others who look at sustainability as a means to save the
planet, trying to reduce the amount of materials used, or wasted,
while delivering a "green" project. Some people are still not sure
exactly what sustainability means, but it is a buzzword in the
Architectural, Engineering and Construction (AEC) community, so
they use it to stay current. These few examples are by no means a
definitive list of definitions.
The multiple uses and definitions of sustainability are no
different when you apply the concept and talk specifically about a
sustainable building. You might hear the terms green building,
high-performance building, net zero or living building all used to
describe a sustainable building.
Roles and Responsibilities
For those in the AEC community, the term sustainability, or to
be more specific, a sustainable building, typically is defined as a
building project that will seek some sort of third-party
certification indicating the level of sustainability that has been
achieved through the facility's design and construction. While
there are multiple systems available to rank sustainability
efforts, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system is
still the most widely used.
It is easy for someone to say they are working on a green
project, but what does that really mean? Once you start working on
this green project, what is your role? What is your responsibility?
What is your liability? Recently I had an opportunity to speak with
a group of construction professionals about sustainable building.
The discussion's focus was a subtopic that specifically focused on
liabilities and responsibilities of the contractor when working on
a sustainable project. There is a myth inside of the construction
industry that if you follow the plans and specifications, you will
fulfill your contract. While this may be a true statement for a
traditional, "non-green" project, it is seldom the truth when it
comes to a project that is incorporating some level of
The reason why simply following plans and specifications is not
enough on a green project is that even though teams have been
delivering sustainable or green projects for more than 10 years
now, the attention to the requirements of the documentation and
support of a third-party certification effort are usually not
clearly defined in the standard contract documents. Rather, the
specification will speak in specific terms to a point or credit
inside of a particular rating system that is to be achieved, but
it's best to leave it to the contractor to investigate the rating
system to find out what is actually needed to fulfill the
requirements of the rating system. A general contractor's use of
specialty subcontractors and "trickle-down" or flow-through clauses
of a subcontract complicates this situation even further.
As an example, let's look at a situation where a specialty
contractor is furnishing and erecting steel for a new building. The
contractor is asked to provide a quotation for the steel. The
contractor looks briefly at the general conditions and notices that
a section called, "Sustainable Design Requirements," indicates that
Divisions 01 through 33 will provide the LEED requirements specific
to the work of each of the related sections and that the
requirements may or may not include reference to LEED. Knowing that
this will be a LEED project and the requirements related to the
structural steel scope of work will be called out in the section
that covers his specific work, the contractor turns to that
division of the specifications. The contractor finds a specific
reference for a submittal that will pertain to LEED Materials and
Resources Credit 4: Recycled Content, which relates to the amount
of recycled content of the building materials purchased for the
The specification instructs the contractor to prepare a
submittal indicating the amount of recycled content, measured by
weight, and include a statement indicating the cost for each
product having recycled content. The contractor prepares his bid
and wins the project. In the course of providing his services, he
completes a submittal indicating that the steel purchased for the
project consists of 85 percent recycled content. He also provides a
breakdown of the cost of the materials furnished under his division
of work. As the project proceeds, our steel contractor receives a
notification from the general contractor (GC). In addition to the
information already furnished, additional information is required.
The GC is now asking for documentation for where the steel was
manufactured, the extraction point for the base materials used to
create the steel, an execution plan detailing the low-VOC paints or
coatings that will be used on the steel and a detailed schedule for
just-in-time delivery because the LEED requirements for protecting
open space will not allow for any type of laydown or staging area
for the steel before it is installed.
Our steel contractor is both puzzled and upset. The second set
of requests was never mentioned in the specifications governing his
work. He responds to the GC's request by asking why this
information is required if it was not called for in the
specifications. The answer received is that all elements of the
contract documents apply to his scope of work per the flowthrough
clause in his subcontract. The general conditions of the
specifications included a LEED scorecard for the project, which
indicated the designer's intent to meet the applicable credits and
all contractors are required to conform to the requirements of
Even though the contractor was not aware that he would be
required to furnish this extensive information, the contract
documents place the responsibility of documentation of
construction-related LEED credits onto the contractor. The
flow-through language in the subcontract places the identical
responsibilities onto the subcontractor as was accepted by the
general contractor. It is the responsibility of each bidding
contractor to understand the obligations and requirements explicit
or implied by the specifications.
Your Meaning of Sustainability
If you're a subcontractor working on a green project, you may
wonder what your role is. It's probably more than what your
specification indicates. What is your responsibility? The only way
to be sure is to know and understand the requirements of LEED and
what the general contractor has agreed to in the contract. What is
your liability? This will depend on the language used in the
contract. If you don't ask, you will not know, but it's almost
guaranteed it is more than what you found on the last "non-green"
project you worked on.
Thomas Taylor, a 30-year veteran of the
construction industry and noted expert on sustainability, is the
general manager of St. Louis-based Vertegy. His recent book, "Guide
to LEED 2009: Estimating and Preconstruction Strategies," provides
step-by-step information about the LEED 2009 for New Construction
process. To learn more about Vertegy or Taylor's new book, visit
www.vertegyconsultants.com for more information.