Building It Right

A large construction contractor discovers that
sustainable building practices put it a step ahead

One of the articles in Business On A Small Planet (IC#41)
Originally published in Summer 1995 on page 45
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

At first glance, the phrase "sustainable construction" would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Construction of new buildings is one of the least sustainable activities currently underway on planet Earth, accounting for 25 percent of deforestation and 40 percent of the total flow of raw materials into the human economy – some 3 billion tons of stuff per year.

Yet "sustainable construction" is, in fact, slowly becoming the new mantra of the industry. And the changes are happening not just at the small scale, but at the very large.

Take, for example, the case of one US company, the Turner Corporation, a holding company for one of the largest construction enterprises in the nation, doing about $3 billion in business each year. Turner now has a sustainability director, Seattle-based cost engineer Ian Campbell.

"I’ve had a very strong environmental passion my whole life," says Campbell, a wiry, bespectacled, intense yet upbeat person. "But I hadn’t found a way to integrate that into my job until we started doing recycling on the Oregon project."

The project Campbell is referring to is the Rose Garden, the new arena for the Portland Trailblazers basketball team. It’s an enormous structure rising on the east bank of the Willamette River. When Turner won the bid to act as general contractor, it agreed to implement a state-of-the-art recycling program. To date, the program has recycled over 95 percent of the construction waste – nearly 45,000 tons of concrete, steel, gypsum, paper, and other materials – at a savings of more than $150,000 compared to what landfill disposal would have cost. The job is probably the largest construction recycling project in the country, according to Campbell.

The key lesson here is that the client, the Oregon Arena Corporation, asked for the system, and Turner – a company that prides itself on meeting customer expectations – enthusiastically responded. In other words, the market sent the company a clear signal. Why did the Arena make the request? Because Debbi Allen, a consultant on recycling and resource use, cold-called them and suggested it.

Allen’s firm, River City Resources Group, Inc., noticed the Arena project was happening and convinced the company that recycling would save money. Then Allen worked with Arena staff to design the bid specifications. Now River City is working with the Trailblazers on a wide range of sustainable purchasing and materials issues. She and her partner, Wendy Frizzell, have a combination of business experience and environmental commitment that allows them to translate sustainability ideas into working, dollars-and-sense programs.

"I used to take my bags back to the grocery store back when people thought you were a communist to do so," says Frizzell. After a career in business, she fell into a job five years ago managing a recycling effort.

"It was the first time I ever made a salary working on the environment. It was like a light bulb going on in my head – ‘I can make money doing this! This is great!’" That light bulb of green entrepreneurship has kept 45,000 tons of construction debris out of Oregon landfills and even sent some scrap steel from site demolition around the recycling loop and back into the new arena buildings.

Empowering Sustainability

That brings us back to Ian Campbell at Turner. Buoyed by the success of the Arena project – and feeling empowered by a successful Total Quality Management program within his company – Campbell began a process of green intrapreneuring.* He floated ideas for promoting sustainable construction as a major service area within Turner and discovered that senior management was thinking along the same lines.

The term intrapreneuring was coined by Gifford Pinchot (whose contribution to this issue is entitled The Gift Ecomony) in his book Intrapreneuring: Why you don’t have to leave the corporation to become an entrepreneur, 1995, Harper and Row.

Other market signals were helping the process along and having a ripple effect throughout the company. Southern California Gas Company selected Turner to build its new Energy Resource Center in Downey, California. The Center is essentially a recycled building; Turner renovated a mundane office complex into a model of state-of-the-art energy efficiency and materials technology. Nearly 80 percent of all the construction materials are recycled; even the parking lot is paved with recycled tires. The building earned the EPA’s "Energy Star" – one of only 20 buildings in the country to do so – and saved the gas company $3.5 million.

Turner was also getting political encouragement. The company’s chief engineer Ed diTomas was impressed by a White House conference on sustainable development. He also attended a meeting of the US Green Building Council, which attracted power companies, materials suppliers, and universities, but no building contractor of Turner’s stature. DiTomas noticed that the company was leading the construction field just by showing up at meetings.

Turner now has a Sustainable Development Committee made up of senior executives that is actively marketing its rapidly growing expertise in sustainable construction. "We’ll set the standards," says diTomas, "because right now, there are no standards."

By leading the industry, Turner is helping to create the market. The firm is even educating its competition, on purpose. Ian Campbell is helping a group of Washington state government agencies develop an educational marketing piece for other contractors on how to buy recycled materials and operate more sustainably. "It might seem to go against our competitive position," he notes, "but it brings us goodwill and it helps stimulate the market, making it easier to buy recycled products."

While the environmental benefits and cost savings of recycling and energy efficiency are impressive, Campbell knows that they hardly constitute sustainable construction in absolute terms. "We’re on a very long path, a 20-year program at best," he estimates. Currently the practice translates to job-site recycling, sensitivity to the environment at the site, using lower toxicity products, and using recycled products whenever they cost the same or less. At the leading edge are things like artificial wetlands to help cool buildings.

But when it comes to the future of his industry, Campbell waxes visionary: "We have to start aligning the construction industry along the cycles of nature," he says. "This industry will ultimately move into renovation work as opposed to new construction."

To mimic the cycles of nature will involve changes in everything from tax policy (to help replace resource consumption with labor) to cultural patterns (to reduce the demand for so much personal space). Awareness of this change is still in its infancy, but Turner is one company that realizes that this is the way of the future.

You can reach Ian Campbell at Turner, tel. 206/224-4343. Alan AtKisson is president of AtKisson & Associates, Inc., a Seattle-based consulting firm that specializes in sustainable development issues. He is also a former executive editor of IN CONTEXT. Contact him at 206/784-5773.

Turner’s Sustainability Mission

Turner’s mission is to be the recognized industry leader in sustainable construction. We will achieve this by:

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