Sustainability: What Does a Building Owner Want?

Jan. 1, 2007
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Many contractors are becoming involved in green and sustainable building projects, and exploring the opportunities and challenges presented by a marketplace that's increasingly concerned about the environment.

But what do building owners, engineers, and architects look for when it comes to selecting a contractor partner for a sustainability project? A look at a high-profile building project provides some valuable insights.

The Project
In June, 2006, Terry Townsend, president of Townsend Engineering, Inc., Chattanooga, TN, took the reins as president of the American Society of Heating, Air-Conditioning and Refrigerating Engineers (ASHRAE). He called upon the engineering society to become the global leaders in ensuring a sustainable future.

"We are the leaders the world has been waiting on," Townsend said as he accepted the presidency. "We are the innovators and entrepreneurs that the world has been seeking."

Planning for the renovation of ASHRAE's headquarters building in Atlanta, GA had been underway well before Townsend became president. However, his determination to make good upon "the ASHRAE promise of a sustainable future" cranked the stakes up a notch. Clearly, a boilerplate building renovation was not going to be the order of the day at this project.

"We want our newly renovated headquarters to reflect ASHRAE's built environment leadership and showcase ASHRAE's legacy," says Jeff Littleton, ASHRAE's executive vice president. "Not only is it our headquarters, it's also a demonstration project. We see it as a living lab and intend to maintain a high degree of transparency both during and after the project, so ASHRAE members and others can learn from our experiences."

Littleton adds that the parameters monitored at the building will include not only the system, its energy usage, its indoor air quality performance, and how system performance changes over time, but also the effect of the system on staff productivity and retention. "Our staff has every reason to expect that we'll provide them with a professional, progressive, and energetic environment," he says.

The Partner
ASHRAE's headquarters renewal will be a demonstration project for sustainable building renovation. The building's design and operation will be measured against several sustainability rating systems, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) new construction (NC), LEED existing buildings (EB), Green Globes, and the Building Research Consultancy Environmental Assessment method (BREEAM).

Finding partners for such projects isn't easy. How ASHRAE selected its architect partner provides some insights into the process.

First, the society clearly defined its requirements internally, including the rating system to be used and the goal (in this case, LEED Gold), the project's budget, and the schedule. ASHRAE then published data sheets and a list of questions and answers that clearly outlined its objectives, solicited an "expression of interest" in Atlanta newspapers, and mailed a solicitation to an American Institute of Architects (AIA) list.

Fifteen expressions of interest were received, leading to five interviews and three second interviews, before the Atlanta-based firm of Richard and Wittschiebe was selected.

Mark Brandli, a partner in Richard and Wittschiebe, says this project is very important to the firm.

"All of our architects are LEED-accredited," he says. "If anything, it can be difficult for us to find a good, educated client. In this case, we have a hypereducated client, and we anticipate that leading to a great project."

The Passion
What does a building owner look for in a contractor partner for a project rooted in sustainability? Bill Harrison, ASHRAE's treasurer and chairman of the committee that is managing the renewal project, says a contractor must have two key elements: experience and passion.

"Many companies have LEED-accredited professionals, and other qualifications that will enable them to produce a sustainable building," Harrison says. "But being able to do it and doing it with enthusiasm are two different things. We want a partner with a passion for sustainability, not one that views the project as simply 'achieving compliance.'"

It may seem strange that the society's treasurer is talking about passion rather than costs. However, Harrison believes that sustainable construction does not necessarily cost significantly more than standard construction.

"The costs are not significantly different as long as the project's goals are established early," Harrison says. "Costs only become a major factor when you decide to introduce sustainability late in the process. That's one reason why it's important for the owner to clearly and fully define the objectives upfront, and the partner to confirm those objectives."

Harrison also offers these insights into what building owners will look for in a contractor partner:

  • Teamwork. "These projects absolutely require a collaborative effort between the design team and the construction team," Harrison says.
  • Depth. "How deep does 'green design' go in a firm?" Harrison asks. "Many companies have one or two LEED-accredited professionals. But what about the people at your firm who are actually doing the work? Get them LEED-accredited also."
  • Experience. It's not a matter of how many sustainable projects a contractor may have done; what's important is the commitment of field leadership. "Let potential clients interview the project superintendent who will actually be in charge of the job, not just your firm's marketing person," Harrison advises.
  • Relationships. A building owner who is investing in sustainability will look for firms that maintain a working relationship with other sustainability enthusiasts. "Attend your local ASHRAE and USGBC chapter meetings," Harrison says. "Meet the people who are actually doing the work in your area."

ASHRAE Headquarters

• Built in 1965, purchased by ASHRAE in 1980, occupied in 1981; refurbished in 1990.

• The building will be gutted, and a 5,000 sq.ft. learning and meeting center will be added.

• Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold level for both new construction (NC) and existing building (EB) (for more information visit Everything must meet ASHRAE'S sustainability roadmap (for more information visit

• A dedicated outside air unit will constantly deliver dry air inside. On the first floor, ventilation air will be introduced downstream from VAV terminals, to ensure a constant flow of fresh air.

• The second floor will feature radiant ceiling panels and chill beams.

• The newly added learning center will have a single-zone VAV system with a dedicated air handler. Air distribution will be a displacement type made up of a series of very low velocity air distribution units at floor level.

• Ventilation will meet ASHRAE Standard 62.1 - 2004.

• Scheduled for completion March 31, 2008

Commercial Contracting Rountable

This article is based on the panel discussion, Sustainability: Finding the Right Partners in the Real World, which took place at the 2006 Commercial Contracting Roundtable, held in Atlanta, Oct. 25-26. The Commercial Contracting Roundtable, which also incorporates the Design/Build Seminar, is co-sponsored by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and Contracting Business magazine.

This year's roundtable featured 15 business management and technical sessions specifically tailored for commercial HVAC and Design/Build contractors.

For more information about the 2007 Commercial Contracting Roundtable, contact Richard Ware at ACCA, 703/824-8843, or visit