Cementing a sustainability message

In 2005, after completing its first LEED project, Webcor Builders identified green building’s high quality and efficiency characteristics as client benefits and adopted a company-wide focus on sustainable construction. Its decision was not based on politics but rather on being a better company.

Webcor wanted to run a sustainable construction company that focused on both what it builds and how it conducts business. It was that desire that led the company to adopt sustainability as a core value and treat it as a company standard, just like safety. “You don’t have safe and unsafe jobsites; safety is something you do all the time in construction. We do the same with LEED building,” says Phil Williams, Webcor Builders vice president and head of its Sustainability Group. He adds that by requiring the same sustainable practices on every jobsite, the company improved its sustainable construction skills and gained efficiencies.

Last year, 98.6 percent of Webcor’s revenue stemmed from LEED projects, and more than half of its projects were built to LEED Gold or LEED Platinum standards. The company utilizes BIM on every job, offers complimentary LEED paperwork processing for clients, and strives to reduce waste through an integrated engineering approach that eliminates premium pricing for sustainable construction.

Here are more ways Webcor Builders is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a sustainable construction company:

  • LEED education. Webcor pays the study and testing fees for employees who pursue LEED AP or LEED GA accreditation.
  • Office supplies. Webcor works with major office supplier Staples to identify the highest recycled content office supplies during the online buying process.
  • “Click Green.” Click Green is an online jobsite sustainability test every worker on a Webcor project must pass, just like the company’s safety test requirement.
  • Waste-reducing initiatives in the office. Webcor offices offer recycling and composting bins, Webcor-branded water bottles that eliminate the need for disposable cups, and notebooks made from recycled blueprints.
  • Waste-reducing initiatives in the field. Webcor requires construction waste recycling on each jobsite, with clearly marked containers for a variety of construction waste.
  • Mass transit compensation to employees. Webcor compensates employees for bus, train and ferry passes when they utilize mass transit to and from work. “It’s an employee perk,” Williams says, “but the company benefits because we furnish less parking for employees.”
  • Cash incentive for smaller trucks. Webcor offers a $1,500 cash incentive to its employees who choose a mid-size, company-furnished truck over a full-size truck. Webcor saves money in the long run because they pay less for the truck upfront, and with the more fuel-efficient mid-size trucks Webcor pays lower fuel costs. About 40% of eligible employees take advantage of this incentive.
  • $200/month bike-to-work maintenance allowance. Webcor offers employees who choose to bike to and from work a $200/month maintenance payment for bicycle upkeep, roughly the same cost as the mass transit employee allowance. To counteract the reluctance some employees might have about lacking a vehicle at work, Webcor offers a free taxi ride in case of emergencies.

The future of sustainable construction

As sustainable construction evolves, the practices the industry considers progressive today will become commonplace and the industry will identify new practices that will define green building in the future. Williams sees new terminology on the horizon for the sustainable construction community:

  • Embodied Energy. The amount energy required to manufacture a product. Or in the case of concrete manufacturing, the amount of CO2 emitted when you bake limestone.
  • Environmental Product Declaration, or EPD. An environmental metric that lists carbon content, water intensities and other resources used to produce a product. Williams says in the future, construction materials will include EPDs, similar to a list of ingredients you can find on the back of a cereal box.
  • Net Zero Energy Building. A building that produces as much operational energy as it consumes annually. “Once you turn your operational energy to zero, embodied energy will become more important,” Williams says. Sustainability will turn to reducing energy consumed in building and construction and increasing strength and durability of the structure, he adds.

Webcor is already looking toward these future practices and striving to attain them within the company. While LEED is a solid metric for green building in the U.S. and globally, Webcor views it as a baseline and sets its standards higher. For example, LEED looks at embodied energy in regard to how many miles a material is trucked or shipped and its recycled content. But Webcor takes its carbon accounting further. It was the first construction company to report Scope 1 (fuel consumed) and Scope 2 (utilities purchased) requirements through the California Climate Action Registry. Now it reports Scope 3 requirements, which includes carbon reporting on everything the company subcontracts, or purchases, including concrete, steel, pipe duct, and so on. Through this reporting, Webcor found 99.6% of its greenhouse gas use was in its supply chain.

“We recognized the biggest impact we could have was not in double-sided copies in the office, but through our supply chain and looking at ways to reduce the amount of carbon we are putting into our buildings,” Williams says. “When you start to do carbon accounting on this level, you realize that a material’s 600-mile trip might use less carbon than a 100-mile trip depending on the details. Looking at carbon this way is a more sophisticated process [than the embodied energy measurements in LEED].”

Armed with this information, Webcor now offers carbon accounting for some of the clients they build for, reporting on the amount of carbon that goes into the building based on the materials used to build it. As the number of net zero buildings rises and the percentage of operational energy moves toward zero over the course of a building’s life, sustainable construction’s goals will shift toward carbon accounting and reducing embodied energy.

Webcor’s decision to adopt sustainability as a core value was based in business. It was what its customers looked for in quality construction and Webcor saw opportunities to increase efficiency, and in turn money, in doing so. As a leader in sustainable construction, the company continues to explore programs that will help it become more sustainable, for instance through a paperless jobsite pilot program and the development of a metric that will allow the company to track lumber use on a project. But it also supports the sustainability message beyond its own walls by taking a leadership role throughout the sustainable construction community, working to develop sustainability standards on city and state levels and being heavily involved in the USGBC.

To read the full story, click here to download the Winter 2012 issue of Sustainable Construction.