A new LEED User Group helps accredited builders connect and achieve their projects’ full potential.
TITLE: The Niarchos Foundation­–Rockefeller River Campus adds two acres to the Rockefeller University’s East Side Manhattan footprint by erecting a 900-ft, three-story structure over the FDR Drive. Once complete, the platform will serve as the foundation for three buildings: a two-story, 136,000-sq-ft research facility, a 20,500-sq-ft Health & Wellness Center, and a 5,000-sq-ft Interactive Conference Center. Photo courtesy Turner Construction Company ABOVE: Michael Deane,  vice president and chief sustainability officer at Turner Construction Company, on site at Rockefeller University. Photo: Jonathan Auch

Michael Deane, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Turner Construction Company, on site at Rockefeller University. Photo: Jonathan Auch

Solar photovoltaic panels. Liquid-applied air barriers. Drain water heat recovery. In just 20 years, green design technology has brought energy-efficient construction into the mainstream.

But even the most advanced green designs—those targeting U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification—are only as effective as the contractors who build them. From New York to Shanghai, commercial builders are turning green concepts into energy-efficient hospitals, factories, schools, and residential buildings. They’re creating healthier cities and suburbs, workplaces and homes. And they’re facing age-old challenges as well as unfamiliar hurdles.


To better navigate the journey from green designs to green outcomes, USGBC recently launched the LEED User Group: Commercial Contractors. The group brings together 19 of the nation’s leading commercial contractors, providing a forum to share best practices, address project management and product issues, discuss changes in LEED certification guidelines, and provide vital feedback to USGBC.


“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the product, and now we can focus on the process,” says Michael Deane, one of the group’s members and vice president and chief sustainability officer at the New York–based Turner Construction Company. “That to me is the opportunity for this group and for contractors everywhere to tackle. Builders have a real role to play [in the success of green designs].”


Commercial Contractors is USGBC’s fifth LEED User Group, an initiative that began in 2012 with the LEED User Group on Industrial Facilities. The program’s launch coincided with an influx of industrial and manufacturing projects, along with feedback from sector leaders who needed additional guidance and support.


“We were definitely seeing some struggles,” says Rhiannon Jacobsen, USGBC’s vice president of strategic relationships. “But we were also seeing larger numbers of public-facing companies [embracing LEED], so we saw an opportunity to partner with them.”


The first LEED User Group became a trusted resource for industrial leaders who wanted to effectively implement LEED and learn best practices from each other. It also became a resource for USGBC, providing insights into the successes and challenges of implementing LEED in the field.


In the years since, green design projects have spread across market sectors, and USGBC has responded with a new class of LEED User Groups. Today, 137 leaders from 84 companies participate in groups for Industrial Facilities, Retail and Restaurants, Hospitality and Venues (for hotels, convention centers, stadiums, and entertainment facilities), and Commercial Real Estate. USGBC will soon launch the LEED User Group:Higher Education, providing a collaborative forum for bringing LEED and green design to campuses across the nation.


The Commercial Contractors LEED User Group is not only unique for being the first of its kind. The group is also comprised of a majority of women, which is a big step for an industry that has lagged behind other nontraditional industries in increasing ranks of women over the past few decades.

Percentage of women in all occupations in the U.S.:


Percentage of U.S. construction workforce comprised of women:


Percentage of Commercial Contractors LEED User Group comprised of women:


Yet across all LEED User Groups—and across LEED projects in every sector—contractors are, in fact, leading the way. The formation of a group for contractors to gather and collaborate is long overdue, according to Deane. Since he first participated in the LEED User Group:Industrial Facilities four years ago, he admits to being a “squeaky wheel” in USGBC’s ear.


“We hear a lot about the architects and engineers and owners, and I sometimes say that a lot of people think the elves come in at night and things magically go from ideas to a real building, and no one appreciates what it takes to get it built,” says Deane.


Turner Construction Company has projects across North America and 16 different countries, and since 2000 the firm has become a leader in the green and LEED building industry. The company has more than 500 LEED-certified projects under its belt, worth an estimated $20 billion.


Despite the firm’s success, collaborating with other commercial contractors—even competitors—has been invaluable for Turner Construction. The group helps the firms avoid “having to reinvent the wheel,” says Jacobsen.


Katie Rothenberg, director of sustainable construction and corporate responsibility at HITT

Katie Rothenberg, director of sustainable construction and corporate responsibility at HITT

“We wanted to create a space where we saw competitors openly aligning and participating together and learning from one another,” she says. “Where they weren’t going to have to worry about reverse engineering.”


So what do group members discuss in monthly teleconferences, meetings, and email exchanges? From the first brick to the final brushstroke, every project that is LEED certified requires meticulous attention to detail, effective communication with construction crews, and a deep understanding of products, technologies, and certification guidelines. These topics and the various challenges associated with them are always on the table for conversation.


The first issue flagged at last summer’s inaugural meeting was the need to educate subcontractors about green design standards. The complexity of a major urban project is enormous, so even the smallest subcontractor misstep or miscommunication can affect a building’s certification, as well as cost- and energy-savings potential.


The classic example cited by group members is also one of the simplest: caulking. When a green design requires zero-VOC sealants, a LEED AP contractor has the product knowledge to choose caulking that meets certification standards. But what happens when the subcontractor runs out of caulking and has a deadline to meet? What happens if that product is out of stock, and a seemingly similar product is available?


“We’re nothing without our subcontractors,” says Katie Rothenberg, a group member and director of sustainable construction and corporate responsibility at HITT, a nationally ranked general contractor based in Virginia. “The common challenge is getting your subs to provide documentation in a timely manner and confirm that what they are using is a LEED-compliant product. It’s finding ways to work collaboratively so [that process] doesn’t hang up the project.”

Educating contractor staff and subs on the principles and application of LEED is critical to delivering green buildings.

Beth Giltner, sustainability coordinator at rand* construction and a founding member of Contractors Leading the Way.

Beth Giltner, sustainability coordinator at rand* construction and a founding member of Contractors Leading the Way.

Ensuring compliance means educating everyone about LEED specs and standards, from contractors to project managers to supervisors to subcontractors. To that end, LEED User Group builders say they are creating standardized educational materials for their subs.


But achieving a project’s overall vision also requires shared buy-in. Creating that culture of environmental awareness and sustainability—especially on a construction site—can be challenging. Commercial Contractors members say regular site visits are vital to improving their crews’ understanding of the how and why of green designs and products.


It’s a holistic approach to commercial construction, and one that’s directly aligned with LEED v4, the latest evolution of LEED. The new guidelines, which became mandatory this past October, seek to fully integrate the technologies, resources, and human players involved in making LEED buildings function at peak efficiency.


“LEED v4 is a resetting of the bar,” says Jacobsen. “Some of the more significant changes—areas like our materials credits and how we approach waste— commercial contractors have a vital role to play in terms of how we approach the new rating system.”


LEED v4’s water efficiency guidelines, for example, take into account indoor use, outdoor use, specialized usages, and metering. New standards account for every drop, from cooling towers to appliances, fixtures to fittings, process water to irrigation. The new version also emphasizes the use of recycled water—wastewater, gray water, condensate, and managing runoff on construction sites—as part of a building’s overall resource palette.


Another challenge that LEED v4 presents is in construction site waste management. The previous iteration of LEED—LEED v2009—considered crushed-up drywall as alternative daily cover (ADC), meaning it could be used instead of biomass to cover landfill. That meant that drywall tonnage could be counted as diverted waste and would not factor into a LEED site’s overall waste production. Under LEED v4, that’s no longer the case.


In Washington, D.C., where most haulers use drywall as ADC, the change amounts to significant tonnage that can no longer be diverted. Companies like *rand construction corporation, a national firm specializing in interiors, renovations, retail, and ground-up construction, are tackling the change head on. They’re using LEED User Group to collaborate, innovate, and advance the industry.


“We’re already having conversations about how drywall can be used in a different capacity—what other recycling we can implement, what other stakeholders we can engage to determine where this drywall can go outside of ADC,” says Beth Giltner, rand*’s sustainability coordinator and a founding member of the LEED User Group: Commercial Contractors.


Of course, meeting LEED v4’s enhanced standards is part of a larger vision of sustainability. The evolution of LEED, along with cutting-edge advances in green technologies and designs, promises to reduce the environmental impact of commercial development across the globe. It’s a vision that requires collaboration at every level, and the LEED User Group: Commercial Contractors is proving to be an invaluable resource.


“The timing of the User Group couldn’t be better,” adds Giltner.