Green From the Ground Up

While some aspects of the “green” economy have proven to be trends that didn’t stand the test of time, elements of sustainable construction have grown to be strong, long-standing strategies for building owners and operators. We believe that the continued focus on sustainable building strategies is due to a combination of social demand and the fact that the resulting buildings typically have lower operating costs (due to more efficient heating, cooling, lighting, and water consumption).

We have found that universities and colleges are aggressive in their pursuit of sustainable strategies for several reasons. First, they are responding to the interests of their students and the community that supports them. These groups are progressive in establishing environmentally focused academic programs and implementing environmental strategies in building operations and construction. In addition, the professors who are working to expand sustainability and climate science academic programs are engaging in campus activities and influencing development goals.

Also, studies in the past few years show that students now look for a college’s environmental commitment when choosing an institution. It is increasingly important that higher education organizations consider implementing sustainable strategies in their current building upgrades and future construction projects.

Regardless of the factors driving the continued market focus on environmentally sustainable construction strategies, we have noted some recurring trends that continue to be popular. The following sections will briefly note each of these trends and some of the unique opportunities of their implementation.

LEED and Other Program Standards

We continue to see a maintained focus on LEED certification. However, we haven’t seen an increase in interest in this program over time. Usually the projects that are pursuing LEED certification have an active community that is pushing for the documentation, or the development is a major public project with ongoing media coverage. Thus, the certification is a verifiable way to communicate to the public or interested parties the strategies being implemented and investment in the long-term sustainability of the structure and surrounding community.

Outside of LEED, clients are pursuing other standards that incorporate similar goals but aren’t as rigorous as the LEED process. In Minnesota we have completed a number of B3 buildings, which means they adhered to the Minnesota Building, Benchmarks & Beyond Projects for Sustainability requirements. These alternative standards help clients to set goals for building sustainability and attain some recognition for their efforts without having to adhere to the more stringent LEED standards.

Local Materials

Owners and operators want to use local materials in the design of their buildings when possible. By choosing local materials, they support the regional economy and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions generated through the extended shipping of materials. If this strategy is a part of a LEED project, then there are requirements for extraction, manufacture, and the distance between the project site and extraction/ harvest/recovery.

Construction Waste Management

A major part of most sustainable construction projects is waste management and the diverting of waste from landfills. Usually these criteria are included as part of a LEED project and include goals of diverting a certain percentage of waste to recycling or reuse instead of to a landfill.

During a LEED project, we arrange for separate dumpster containers for metal, wood, fiber, aggregate, gypsum, and general trash in an effort to sort as much recyclable product as possible. The percentage of waste diverted from landfills is measured by weight, so weight tickets are collected for every dumpster a subcontractor picks up from the job site. Our extended project team works to find local centers that accept and reuse the recycled waste, and oftentimes even sort through the general trash container for any additional products that can be recycled.

Waste management diversion strategies are incorporated into all of our LEED projects. Most recently, programs were implemented to recycle or reuse 75 percent of the construction waste generated on the award-winning University of Minnesota Duluth Civil Engineering Building and Iowa State University Biorenewables Research Laboratory projects.

Low-Emitting Materials

All of the sustainable projects we have constructed in the last five years have had significant low-emitting material goals. These strategies are focused on reducing the use of materials that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which impact air quality.

The following materials can be procured in low-or no-VOC content version on green projects with low-emitting material goals: Adhesives, sealants, paints, coatings, carpet systems, composite wood, and agrifiber products. Usually it is difficult to choose all low-or no-VOC products, so we must also plan for an “off-gas” period after construction is completed but prior to occupation of the building. This time allows the materials to release their chemical emissions, and the HVAC systems then purify the air so it is clean and safe for when the building is occupied.

Recycled Materials

LEED and other sustainability construction programs encourage the use of recycled materials in projects because they require the creation of less energy and support the diversion of waste from landfills. As construction managers, we are able to support these goals by helping the architects and owners identify opportunities to incorporate recycled materials. We also suggest local, recycled materials we’ve used on projects in the past.

Efficient Design and Plans

Architects and owners incorporate efficiency into the building design in a number of ways, including: Heating and cooling design, lighting design and fixtures, and water efficiency design. These efforts result in a facility with a smaller environmental footprint and lower operating costs over time.

Heating and Cooling Efficiency

Many of our recent projects have included geothermal heating and cooling systems, which utilize geothermal energy generated from the earth. Another trend is to incorporate airflow management design, which encourages cooling airflow during times when the building needs to be cooled and warm airflow during times when it needs to be heated (passive ventilation).

Lighting Efficiency

Sustainable construction projects often feature “daylight” concepts. This means that the building is designed to utilize natural daylight and cut down on the need for artificial light. Occupancy and daylight sensors can be installed in rooms so that electric lighting is only used when it is necessary. In addition, super T8 and LED lighting fixtures can be installed to reduce the energy consumed by artificial lighting when it is used.

Water Efficiency

Water efficiency has grown to be an increasingly important issue in the last few years. The desire to decrease water consumption is usually reflected in low-flow appliances and water reuse systems. In addition, outside of the building, rain gardens and sustainable landscape design ensure that runoff from the building is sequestered into the soil and doesn’t result in erosion.


Ultimately, sustainable construction and design is all about building smart facilities that consume fewer resources and are more operationally efficient. The trends we mentioned in this overview are just a selection of the strategies we’ve seen consistently implemented on our own projects. If you’re interested in pursuing a green construction project, work with an architect and construction management company that has experience in this sector. Qualified teams will help your organization set goals and determine which strategies best align with your desires so that you can deliver a socially responsible facility that attracts students and is a welcome addition to the local landscape.  

Jessie Houlihan Bingen is director of Corporate Development for Stahl Construction Co. She can be reached at 952/767-2127 or [email protected].