Best Practices Pave the Way to Sustainability Goals: Five Key Lessons Learned

Fall 2013
Hitt Contracting applied many of the lessons it has learned in other projects to the planning and construction of its own four-story, 147,000-square-foot, LEED Gold headquarters in Fairfax, VA, which was completed in 2009. ©Maxwell Mackenzie Photography.

Hitt Contracting has delivered more than 100 LEED projects totaling more than $2 billion in sustainable project billings — and learned some valuable lessons about best practices in sustainable construction along the way.

Over the years, the firm has seen how seemingly good intentions and strategies can derail or impede the realization of sustainability goals. As a result, Hitt developed several processes to help enhance building owners’ efforts to attain green goals. These processes originate in a detailed preconstruction effort that starts with a holistic approach to evaluating a project’s sustainability goals, and continue through and beyond project completion.

Lesson 1:
Begin with a Focus
On Sustainability

Recognizing that personnel must have a clear understanding of LEED requirements, Hitt created a sustainable construction department in 2005. The department’s initial focus was on navigating the paperwork associated with LEED projects and assisting members of the project management team in obtaining individual LEED accreditation. The firm found, however, that integrating a “sustainable manager” into each project team created valuable continuity.

Before 2005, project managers completed the required LEED paperwork for their individual projects; little information was shared and the company was essentially reinventing the wheel on each project. Now, sustainable managers, who are focused solely on sustainability issues, bring a wealth of information to each project, drawing experience from Hitt’s entire portfolio.

Lesson 2:
Cost the Data

To help decide which LEED level a client should pursue, Hitt developed a preconstruction process for costing out LEED points. This involved developing a matrix of formulas and a database to cost out decisions. Hitt starts with the LEED scorecard during conceptual design and develops a first round of anticipated construction costs associated with each point — for example, the cost to build out locker/shower room facilities. The preconstruction team determines whether any existing building materials can be salvaged and, if so, what the cost savings will be. Then it analyzes a variety of building systems, looking not only at first costs, but also at ongoing return on investment. Synergistic credits, such as stormwater management and heat island reduction credits, are identified for efficiencies of pricing: for example, can two or more LEED points be obtained for one first-cost construction item?

After the data is captured, Hitt meets with the client and its design team to engage in a discussion about how their sustainability goals will impact the project’s cost and schedule. While this process can be carried out at any time before construction begins, it is most effective during the earlier preconstruction phases. Each time a drawing is updated, Hitt reviews the documents for any changes that may affect the scorecard and communicates this information to the client and its design team. Ultimately, during the subcontractor bid, Hitt calls out specific sustainability requirements to the corresponding subcontractors and works to capture all requirements upfront to avoid budget adjustments later.

Lesson 3:
Understand the Building
Performance Implications

Sustainability features ultimately affect maintenance needs and building performance. As interest in sustainable construction practices has grown over the past 15 years, so has interest in virtual construction/building information modeling (BIM) technologies. About three years ago, Hitt recognized the important synergies across these two functions (which are separate departments at Hitt) and began researching how BIM technology could facilitate meaningful sustainability analysis.

headshot of Kim Roy

Kim Roy

After Hitt teams were trained in the use of Integrated Environmental Solutions software and other virtual construction sustainability tools, they used data to generate reports that serve as base documentation for the submission of numerous LEED points. The firm began examining not only how a building performed at the time of delivery, but also how it would function during occupancy. For example, slight shifts in where a wall and a glass office front are located can generate more or less natural daylight within that office. Hitt looked at how this data could add value to early design discussions and, ultimately, help it think about how each project was constructed.

While most sustainability practices have health and bottom-line value, they sometimes have unintended consequences. For instance, Hitt learned from one project that attaching waterless urinals to copper piping could cause the pipes to erode, because of the waste’s high acidity. When it installed waterless urinals in its own new headquarters, Hitt used PVC piping instead.

Lesson 4:
Mandate Regular Site Visits

Filling out a LEED online checklist is a great way to organize and document a project’s progress, but true compliance happens on the job site. Hitt factors in regular, mandatory site visits by its sustainable managers into all project schedules. In addition to continuously inspecting for LEED compliance, the sustainable managers work hand-in-hand with Hitt’s project superintendents as a second set of eyes to check many aspects of the project, such as confirmation that approved materials are being installed. They also verify that construction waste is being properly handled and there is proper ventilation.

These hands-on site visits can help confirm that sustainability criteria and specifications are being met throughout the construction process. Another advantage is that when substitutions have to be made in the field, on-site verification by a sustainable manager can help prevent the installation of inferior or noncompliant products.

Lesson 5:
Share What You Learn

After a project is complete, Hitt follows up by scheduling a debrief session with the client to see if and how the sustainability features are holding up. Keeping in-house data on what works and what does not has proved invaluable in educating both managers and clients. This kind of information is especially important as sustainability strategies become more mainstream and issues such as energy consumption take center stage.