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Trades Going Green

New training programs aim to change the mindsets of specialty contractors by teaching them about sustainable building systems and techniques.

January 2012
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Photo by Nick Minton

Specialty contractors work in the trenches of green building, performing the hands-on tasks that make sustainable buildings a reality. High-performance systems installed by workers in the field are critical to green goals, but not everyone recognizes the role of the trades in sustainability. New training programs aim to change the mindsets of specialty contractors, while familiarizing them with the emerging systems and techniques in green building.

Information used by permission of McGraw-Hill Construction Analytics from the Workforce and Green Jobs Study, conducted Sept. 1 to Oct. 6, 2011
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"Some of the big myths are that [trade contractors] don't matter in green buildings; that they only build from drawings; that they are a cog in the machine," says Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council in New York City. "The truth is, they make decisions every day that impact the performance of a project."

Within the burgeoning green education movement, much of the initial focus has been on designers, but an increasing number of green training and certification programs aimed at contractors have launched in recent years. In January, the Urban Green Council set out to tackle the issue with GPRO—a comprehensive training program that focuses on the people who build green projects. Initially established by Urban Green Council in New York, the program is already spreading nationally, adding programs in New Jersey, Illinois, Colorado, and Texas.

GPRO takes a two-pronged approach, providing instruction on general sustainability issues as well as trade-specific training. Its ten-hour programs offer trade contractors six-hour tracks in training in electrical, plumbing, or mechanical systems. In addition, all contractors receive four hours of "Fundamentals of Building Green." The course takes a broad look at sustainability, from climate change and environmental issues to onsite pollution prevention and waste management. Unger says the fundamentals course is intended to heighten awareness of the trade contractor's role in green building in the hope of addressing the "green gap." "We hear a lot about the gap between design and performance," he says. "GPRO can help close that."

Trade contractors trail behind designers in how they perceive their place in the sustainability movement, according to the Workforce and Green Jobs Survey conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction this fall. Fifty-one percent of specialty contractors reported that green is a norm for their profession, compared to 66 percent of general contractors and 76 percent of A/E firms. Interest in gaining green skills may be tempered by the fact that a limited number of people in the building trades believe that green jobs provide professional benefits. Thirty-four percent of survey respondents said green jobs provide "better career advancement"; 28 percent said "more jobs"; 21 percent said "more job security"; and 15 percent said "higher salaries."

Despite these perceptions, Unger maintains that trade contractors need to understand the issues to keep up with industry trends. For example, regardless of whether a student believes in climate change, Unger says, its impact on today's construction market is real. "We present the science and you don't have to believe it, but you do need to understand it because this is what is shaping our industry," he says. "It's about you being able to anticipate changes and get yourself ahead of the market."

Changing the culture is an important first step in training trade contractors to think green, says Steve Lehtonen, senior director of environmental education with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). "The most important thing to me is the psychology of what we're doing," says Lehtonen, who runs IAPMO's Green Plumbers training program. "We want them to buy into green practices." In the spirit of the plumber credo to "Protect the Health of the Nation," the program asks students to look at the big picture and see how their work fits into the water cycle as a whole. "We want them to see the plumber as a hero of conservation," he adds. "When we see plumbers recommending green products to a client, rather than just installing them [when specified by a client or designer], then we know we've made a difference."

That level of input is increasingly important as more teams look to integrate design and construction, says Ellen Honigstock, director of construction education at the Urban Green Council. "Unlike in the past, we see specialty contractors being brought to the design table on green projects," she says. "Contractors are feeling more comfortable with the process and people will listen to them."

Among the most common areas for collaboration are green roofs. In 2009, Toronto-based non-profit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) launched its Green Roof Professional (GRP) designation program to improve the delivery of green roofs. Jordan Richie, manager of education and accreditation at GRHC, says the program sees a mix of designers and contractors in roofing and landscaping. "We want to stress a collaborative design and installation approach to any green roof," he says. "We value contractors the same as designers." The GRP courses cover design and installation, allowing people from both disciplines to understand each other's perspectives. Richie says it also helps different contractors learn to coordinate their work. "Landscapers learn a lot about waterproofing, while the roofers learn a lot about plants," he adds. "This helps ensure that we have a qualified workforce for these projects. It doesn't help if a green roof fails. Everyone needs to understand the process."

Government mandates and incentives could also motivate contractors to go green. The Green Roof Professional designation program has garnered the attention of some policy makers. In August, the Devens (Mass.) Enterprise Commission voted to adopt a new policy for the construction of green roofs that includes the requirement that a Green Roof Professional must be part of the design team. The DEC's jurisdiction covers three counties. In Washington, D.C., projects are eligible for incentives if a GRP is used on a project. Calgary has required the use of GRP on some of its municipal projects.

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