Four of Alabama’s most successful construction companies attest government contracting is a fast track to developing green building skills.
Brasfield & Gorrie built the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse in Birmingham.
Photo by Walter Hinchman
Fite Building Co.
For the past three years, 35 percent to 40 percent of the business of Fite Building Co. has been made up of federal government work. This year, government projects represent only 5 percent to 10 percent of projects for the Decatur-based company, but Fite continues to employ on every job the sustainable practices learned and perfected on government projects.
Working on government contracts has “forced us to be educated and up to date with sustainable building practices,” says Jack Fite, president of the company.
Before pursuing major government contracts at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Fite Building personnel started learning as much as possible about green building and the highest standard in sustainable construction practices—the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“We became members of the Green Building Council, read the LEED manual cover to cover, took courses and went to Boston a couple of times to the Green Building Conference,” says Mike Raths, project engineer at Fite. “I just had to get my hands in it, and once you get in the mindset, it kind of falls into place and you start thinking that way. When you’re ordering materials, you think, ‘Where did the wood come from? What can I do with the waste drywall? What can we do with the trash?’”
After learning the ropes, Fite won contracts for two phases of the System Software Engineering Annex (SSEA) at Redstone. These projects, completed in early 2009 and late 2010, respectively, were under the umbrella of the Army Corps of Engineers, which had its own green building certification, SPiRiT, very similar to LEED. (The Corps has since replaced SPiRiT with LEED standards.)
While working on the SSEA projects, Raths says he learned to research ways to use job waste and do more recycling and reusing. For instance, he found a study in which researchers ground waste drywall and mixed it with soil to help grass grow better. “Peanut farmers have done this for decades with dry gypsum, but we’d never thought about doing it with drywall,” Raths says. “You just have to open up your eyes and put those green goggles on.”
Raths and his team have taken many of the practices they perfected on government projects to be used on every job, whether it’s LEED-certified or not, just because they make sense. For instance, Raths always puts out an extra trailer for metal recycling. “It puts money back into the project,” he says. And he always breaks up the dry wall, because “when the landscaper comes in, we know that it will be beneficial to the soil,” he adds. “Anything we can recycle or reuse, we do, such as donating unused brick to Habitat for Humanity. It’s beneficial to everyone and it cuts costs for waste removal.”
Two years ago, Birmingham-based Hoar Construction wasn’t working on any government contracts, but today, government work represents about 10 percent of the company’s revenue. “We’ve had some success in a short amount of time,” says Randall Curtis, Hoar’s vice president of government services.
That success wasn’t accidental. Three years ago, the company started very deliberately pursuing government work by pushing its staff to become LEED accredited. It started at the top: Hoar’s president and chief operating officer were two of the first to take the LEED Accredited Professional (AP) exam. Now, more than 60 Hoar employees are LEED APs, which gives the company “a good foundation” for pursuing government projects, Curtis says.
The sustainability requirements inherent in federal projects represent a continual learning curve, allowing Hoar professionals to develop creative solutions on an ongoing basis—and often those are “common-sense solutions” they’d never have considered otherwise, Curtis says. One current example is the Vance federal building in downtown Birmingham, where Hoar is converting a 100-year-old structure into a modern, energy-efficient building. There, Hoar is building a 20,000-gallon cistern to be installed below the parking lot to harvest rainwater to be pumped for irrigation and toilet flushing.
Creative, LEED-inspired solutions like that require extra upfront costs but pay for themselves in spades over the lifetime of the building, according to Curtis. “The federal government holds on to their buildings for a long time, so they have that vested interest in making sure they are sustainable,” he says.
And now other building owners are following the government’s lead: “Most of our business-savvy customers are asking for green building now, too,” Curtis adds. Thanks to federal contracting experience, Hoar knows how to meet those requests.
Unlike some of the Alabama contractors who are relatively new to government work, B.L. Harbert International relies on government contracts for 90 percent of its business. And the government portion of Harbert’s business continues to grow, says Allison Floyd, LEED AP, sustainability/design coordinator for B.L. Harbert International.
Even before the government required all construction projects to be LEED-certified, Harbert was “already implementing sustainable construction practices,” Floyd says. “However, since it has become a contract requirement, we have gained significant experience with the LEED rating system specifically and now consider ourselves to be leaders in the green building arena.”
Some of the best practices Harbert professionals have learned through their work on government projects include recycling and reusing construction debris and participating in “enhanced commissioning, [which] includes the commissioning agent or representative in the early stages of design and submittals, in order to ensure that equipment will ultimately perform as expected and designed,” Floyd says.
Becoming experts in green building has been important for Harbert’s image and for its bottom line. “In a tangible way, recovering a profit or saving on dumping fees for what would have been considered waste is always good,” Floyd says. “But more than that, all of our sustainable efforts combined contribute to a better built environment for the clients who ultimately determine the future of our company. Following sustainable design and construction practices has raised the profile of our company, and that can only help our bottom line and future plans.”
Brasfield & Gorrie
At Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie, government contracts make up about 12 percent of current business volume, and that percentage continues to grow, says Patricia Lindsey, senior project manager at Brasfield & Gorrie. And working on government projects has led to increased education in green building.
“Most federal government projects are required to achieve a minimum LEED silver certification,” Lindsey says. “Our project teams must fully understand all aspects of sustainable strategies to achieve the credits necessary for the project’s LEED certification.”
Brasfield & Gorrie has served as the design/build contractor for several federal government projects, and in that position, the company’s team is required to create a building design that incorporates sustainable features that will achieve LEED certification and meet the specific needs of the user, such as increased energy efficiency.
“Many design/build projects do not include a road map regarding sustainability,” Lindsey says. “The project team members must engage, through in-depth brainstorming and interaction across disciplines, to develop sustainable goals and strategies to meet those goals. This requires increased knowledge and a deeper understanding of sustainable strategies and the ability to work well with a team of professionals. In addition, we must maximize each individual’s expertise, understanding and input. The submission of successful design/build proposals rests significantly on our ability to create outstanding sustainability plans.”
To get up to speed on sustainable building practices and learn how to develop acceptable sustainability plans, Brasfield employees have undergone extensive training, including becoming certified in LEED practices. Currently, more than 225 Brasfield employees are LEED APs. And all this knowledge and experience, gained through work on government projects, now also informs the company’s work for non-government clients, as well.
“Our private sector clients are benefiting from our increased awareness and expertise in sustainable building, whether they are pursuing LEED certification or not,” Lindsey says. “The knowledge gained through LEED accreditation, combined with our experience of building sustainable facilities, enables our professionals to assist private owners with energy and cost-savings suggestions. We are able to provide our clients with expertise on all aspects of sustainable construction including on-site renewable energy, green roofs, construction waste recycling, green building materials, indoor air quality, and efficient and cost-saving building systems.”
Brasfield & Gorrie’s work on sustainable government projects is paying off for the company. In 2010, Engineering News-Record magazine ranked Brasfield & Gorrie #24 in its list of Top 100 Green Contractors in the country, and the company’s portfolio of sustainable projects continues to grow.
“We have embraced sustainability as positive, necessary and a growing trend in our industry,” Lindsey says. “We anticipate the continued growth of sustainable projects as a percentage of our overall volume. Brasfield & Gorrie is also committed to ongoing training of our personnel to stay current with new green materials, systems and strategies.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Florence.