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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

Let's say your organization has put you in charge of a new building project, and you're supposed to make sure this project follows green building standards and is done in a sustainable way. Who are you going to call on to do the job?

Architects, developers and building owners are becoming more aware of the advantages of green building, says Jim Wavada, sustainable building specialist with the Department of Ecology, but many are reluctant to specify projects as "green" because of a perceived lack of training among construction superintendents and skilled tradesmen.

"On more than one occasion, I've heard a general contractor or architect say, 'I'd like to do these buildings, and I'd like to recommend them to my clients, but we really don't have the skill sets available [in Spokane] to do it,'" he says. "Or I hear from architects, 'I've done designs like this over on the coast, but there's nobody here who wants to build that stuff.' But if you spec it, it happens."

Finding local contractors and workers in the building trades who are fluent in the language of green design will become easier soon, however, thanks to a new training program in the works. Funded by a grant from Foundation Northwest, the REBAR (Resource Efficient Building and Remodeling) Council and the Spokane Alliance are teaming up to offer a series of workshops in green building principles and techniques. Wavada, who is part of the REBAR Council, is working with Steve George, a construction profession with the Spokane Alliance, to develop the sessions as part of the trades' apprenticeship training programs both through unions and through the community college system.

Making the decision to build green is just the first step in the process. First, a building must be designed from the ground up as sustainable; that takes architects and engineers who are well-versed in the principles of green building. Green building materials have to be available, preferably from local suppliers; buying local reduces the "embodied energy" or fuel cost and usage required to get the materials from the manufacturer to the work site. Finally, the contractors who create the building must be familiar not only with green building materials and technologies but with the techniques of working with them. The project manager and superintendent have to understand green building specifications in order to sequence the job properly and determine whether subcontractors have built according to specs. Electricians must know how to install photovoltaic solar panels; painters need to know the distinctions among the low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint products on the market and how to minimize exposure during application. Heating contractors should be familiar with radiant floor heating. All of the trades have to understand the importance of a tight building to the efficiency of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems.

"The details matter in sustainable design," Wavada says. "The systems are so interdependent that the education of the subcontractor is on that interdependence, showing that the success of this project really depends on [the subcontractors] as much as on the architect. One of the biggest frustrations for people trying to build green is when the subcontractors don't understand the concept. Because they've never been exposed to it, they don't get that one little action can screw up a whole system."

Training for the trades is currently in development, but the first session for superintendents, estimators and specification writers is already scheduled for March 25 when Chris Dixon of Mithun Architects in Seattle presents a workshop on writing green building specifications.

"Traditionally, what's been happening over the last ten years is when an architect wants to do a green spec for a project, he takes general conditions, number one, and puts in all these environmental goals," Wavada explains. "But what does that tell you about how you're supposed to build the walls? What Chris says is, 'Let's get specific about where this goes in the spec.' He gets down to nuts and bolts so that when you write something in the spec, you can reasonably expect that what you wrote in the spec is what shows up on the job."

Ultimately, Wavada and the other participants would like to see Spokane become branded as a community that's the place to go if you want to build green.

"After the program's done, we want to end up with contractors, architects, and tradespeople who know how to do green building," he says. "We hope it becomes a market development tool for all these participants as well, so people say, 'You want to do a green building? Go to Spokane, they've got the people to do it.'"

For information about the workshop with Chris Dixon, contact Jim Wavada at (509)329-3545 or [email protected]

Publication date: 1/29/04

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