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Green By Example

The design and construction of Green Building Services’ new LEED Platinum space teaches lessons on what to do—and not do—as the process gets underway.

Elaine Aye, IIDA

The design and construction of Green Building Services’ new LEED Platinum space teaches lessons on what to do—and not do—as the process gets underway.

Green Building Services’ new LEED Platinum space in downtown Portland, Ore.

Experience is undoubtedly the best teacher. As we here at Green Building Services (GBS) recently prepared to move into a new space in a historic downtown high-rise in Portland, Ore., we were eager to benefit from our 10 years of sustainability consulting. We found that working for ourselves drove home the importance of several processes we commonly recommend to clients, and understanding and careful monitoring of the construction practice emerged as major themes of our experience.

essential primers
Before beginning any tasks, you need a clear understanding of your client's needs, priorities and goals—not only for programming and design but also for a healthy working environment. It's the designer's responsibility to provide the best space that the budget will accommodate. Accomplishing this requires you to move past generalities and discover exactly what's important to your client. GBS was committed to earning a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) Platinum certification, but we needed to pinpoint what that really meant for us. We solicited staff input about where to relocate and asked employees which LEED points they thought were the most important to achieve.

Strong team integration is also a consistent hallmark of a great project. You must rally your resources right from the start to create a holistic process. We held a planning meeting that included the owner's property manager, building contractor and all design team members. This brainstorming session allowed us to outline our goals and expectations, and collectively set the TI's direction. If your project is seeking a high LEED rating, you need to have an owner willing to collaborate on achieving the array of criteria. We were fortunate to work with Unico Properties, who was committed to making sustainably oriented improvements to the building and became a true partner in our TI. And while eco-charrettes are critical when pursuing LEED, they can provide value to any project. An important part of this meeting is to provide education; in our situation, it was our first chance to make sure the contractor understood its role and obligations in meeting the LEED requirements.

If you aren't working with a LEED consultant, the responsibility to confirm that the contractor lives up to the established green building criteria falls to you. As you create green tenant improvement specifications, make sure they serve as clear guidelines for the contractor to bid and build out the space effectively. We knew the contractor operated at the overall level of the construction process, so we considered what the subcontractors would need as well. We created toolkits that explained LEED and green building, and included information sheets that identified material cost, VOC limits, and where the product was manufactured and extracted.

GBS' specifications and educational initiatives included environmental aspects such as:

  • Our acceptable VOC levels for products and materials.
  • The planned reuse of existing building materials within the project. For example, we reused a large amount of furniture from our prior space and repurposed wood samples from our materials library into lobby art. We also installed large, wooden sliding doors on a conference room that originated from a school's deconstruction.
  • Encouragement to find opportunities to reuse building materials and products in other projects to reduce demand for virgin materials and reduce waste.
  • An understanding of the life-cycle impact of building materials used. We emphasized using recycled materials, Forest Stewardship Council woods and composite woods without urea formaldehyde.

As the TI proceeded, we carefully reviewed the contractor's submittals to ensure they met our green specification requirements.

work the plans
LEED for Commercial Interiors requires that contractors submit a construction waste management plan and a construction indoor air quality management plan, and that commissioning is performed on the project by an experienced commissioning agent. It's too late if you find out after the fact that these plans weren't properly completed, so you need to understand the requirements, outline the plans for the contractor and supervise the process to be sure they're done right.

The construction waste management plan delves into the details. Components of this plan should analyze the project's proposed construction and demolition waste, and identify alternatives to landfills for the materials. It should also target opportunities to recycle materials during the course of the project and provide a list of materials that have been recognized as recyclable. The plan will need to provide a description of the material handling procedures, including how the materials will be protected from contamination, and the procedures the contractor will implement to ensure the materials used are consistent with the sorting/recycling facilities' requirements.

The construction indoor air quality management plan also has several facets. First, the owner will need to designate an indoor air quality (IAQ) coordinator. Russell Construction was our project's IAQ coordinator. They ensured that the space was free from contaminants and met the LEED requirements. The IAQ control measures implemented during construction must address HVAC protection, source control, pathway interruption, housekeeping and scheduling.

HVAC protection means the contractor should shut down systems during heavy construction or demolition, seal all return openings with plastic in construction areas, provide temporary filtration and replacement, and ensure nothing is stored in mechanical rooms. Specific filters must be installed when the system operates during construction and at occupancy. Prior to occupancy, the contractor must inspect ducts and clean them if necessary.

Source control covers the use of low-emitting materials. Despite our best communication efforts and constant reminders to subcontractors—including large on-site posters that ours was a LEED project complete with a list of allowable materials and products—a chance site visit revealed just in time that a subcontractor was about to install a countertop with an adhesive that was not LEED compliant because it did not meet the required VOC limits. They were instructed to stop work and return with a correct product, along with its material safety data sheets. After that, we made frequent visits to the site to continuously verify that they adhered to our criteria.

Scheduling under the contractor's IAQ management plan dictates that high-VOC materials and finishes should be installed prior to VOC-absorbent materials like carpet and ceiling tile. The contractor also needs to provide a two-week flush out period prior to occupancy.

To ensure that our space operates the way we intended, we educated our employees on how to use the new systems. The efforts we put into our offices through both the design and construction processes have resulted in an exceptional work environment for our employees. We can see a difference in employee morale and in their support to make it a better workplace overall. They are excited to share our mission with clients and lead by example. Our holistic approach and strong team integration paid off, and we were thrilled to receive a LEED-CI Platinum award in April.


Elaine Aye, IIDA, LEED AP O+M, BD+C and ID+C, is a principal at Green Building Services Inc., one of the most comprehensive sustainability consulting firms in the nation. She helps organizations throughout the United States achieve their green building objectives and create healthier working environments. Elaine can be reached at (866) 743-4277 or