Thursday, November 11, 2010

Green or Yellow?

Challenges of considering Environmental Benefits

‘Green Design.’  Truly, what does this mean?  I am not talking about lessening carbon footprints or lowering operating costs, over time, to recoup the investment – this is well-documented and is a moving, evolutionary model, as new technologies come online.  I am talking about the simple move to become ‘compliant’ with some accreditation model to enhance either your portfolio or add a ‘sales amenity.’  How does this truly serve the Client?  Many trade-offs and complete frustration can be built-in to such a Design and education becomes critical.

Over the past four years, when LEED© crept onto the radar for smaller, private Designs, I was confronted with the task of providing a compliant Design, to be submitted for accreditation.  Easy enough.  Connect A/C drain lines and gutters to a cistern, re-orient the building to accommodate the harsh, afternoon summer sun, consider the rooftop a ‘stage’ for solar panels, and incorporate native plantings on the site, including bioswales – the Design ideas were flowing, and the Owner loved the Concepts.  The Team liked them, in theory; however, the Design Process was underway – too late for some of the aforementioned, but not all…enter the CM.  This is when certain logistics and pricing data/cost unknowns (or what were expressed, over the phone, as ‘WAGs’ [a.k.a. ‘W.ild A.-- G.uesses’ as the Subcontractors referenced them]) came to bear.  Unfamiliarity with the construction techniques, supplier, you name it, resulted in these artificially-inflated numbers or ‘estimated costs,’ too high for the Owner.  Not one mention of a V.E. (Value Engineering) process or complete evaluation of the total Project costs were offered to the Client.

Not losing faith, the last aspect was still within reach and Design ‘control,’ due to my direct (and accurate) area-based knowledge and familiarity with the local plant palette, alternate groundcover types, and labor costs.  As the Project progressed and Construction Documents were finalized, the final budget was approved (unfortunately, the Design Team had limited access to those Contract numbers), and I was assured the 100%/Final Design would be constructed.

As dirt moved, and I noted pragmatic methodologies for incorporating minimally-green features (apart from the Planting Scope of Work), such as underground connections from the A/C and roof gutters to a ‘bubble-out’ in the landscape areas – providing for great, temporary water features and a method to water more hydric plant material, the ‘Construction Resistance’ began.  Easy enough to implement, just a Change Order is involved – this is where ‘Green’ became ‘GREEN [$$$].’  The CM authorized implementation of some but not all that could benefit the Environment in any way, shape, or form…in the end, more Design Elements had been V.E.’d without prior, written consent or approval, and more ‘Green Elements’ were eliminated.  In the end, the optimistic Client remained happy but relatively uninformed of the opportunities that were eliminated to accommodate an evidently preset budget.  Don’t get me wrong – if a V.E. opportunity had been presented, perhaps further analysis would have pointed to a reduction in plant sizing, materials change, construction method, or other item that would have retained Design integrity…

The struggles began to maintain the watering regimen, deal with constant weeds, and wonder why, in the first place, Green had such ‘high maintenance’ as compared to others with lush, green grass and flowering trees…Ultimately, with each V.E. and on-site Construction decision, came a real ‘consequence’ to the Owner – save a few hundred dollars here and there, spend that, on maintenance, within the first month.  Eliminate a centrally-located cistern with well ‘recharge,’ Specified Organic-containing Soil, and install less “groundcovering” Mulch.  No problem – but who benefitted from those Decisions?  More ‘Green’ ($$) was certainly considered…

and, in the end, I learned to more-acutely and more-timely engage an Owner, apprising them, directly, of options and to advise on potential cost implications, upfront, balancing with offset maintenance costs, long term.  This has become part of every initial meeting with an Owner (whether alone or in a Design Team) that I attend and two Certified Projects, with one Pending Review, under my belt.

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