New buildings can create architecturally pleasing skylines and yet leave construction debris in their wakes. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that construction and demolition debris accounts for more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste in the U.S.
Environmentally minded owners and developers are changing that statistic, however, with zero-waste approaches backed by certification. Encouraged by local ordinances as well as potential cost savings, owners are discovering ways to divert waste, improve safety on site and achieve certification that distinguishes their property in the marketplace. Despite construction’s outsized impact on landfills, zero-waste practices demonstrate the real estate industry’s commitment to a circular economy and suggest true reductions in the use of landfills and incineration.
The TRUE zero-waste program and certification is administered by the Green Business Certification, Inc., which also oversees the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the world’s largest building rating system. As such, the program benefits from peer review, experience in sustainability and expert resources.
TRUE certification requires more than 90% of waste to be diverted from landfills and incineration. Additionally, a project applicant must have a zero-waste policy in effect. A points system allocates approximately 10% to each of the following significant components: reduction, reuse, compost, zero-waste purchasing and training. In addition, TRUE requires an on-site assessment. Like other net-zero initiatives, data is predicated on documented performance, rather than initial intention or design. To achieve zero-waste status, owners use a tiered approach with precertification and certification phases, starting at the project’s inception.
Genesis Marina, a 550,000-square-foot life science development in Brisbane, California (just south of San Francisco), is the nation’s first precertified TRUE zero-waste project. The owner, Phase 3 Real Estate Partners, engaged the design and development teams early. Denise Braun, principal at All About Waste, a California-based consultancy, says “early decisions on schematic design and more importantly, on specifications, matter.” With drawings and specifications that note zero-waste aspirations, such documents work as a contract of sorts for the general contractor and trades.
A zero-waste mindset allows other early-bird decisions at the pre-construction stage, too. Braun cited an example involving concrete forms. Traditional poured-in-place concrete methods use single-use wooden forms. Sometimes, these forms are burned on-site after use. A waste-reduction strategy would design and create a metal form that can be used iteratively, as the floors are constructed. Even more progressively, contractors are experimenting with rammed earth to use as a form rather than metal or wood.
Reuse is an important part of zero waste, especially for deliveries and packaging. For instance, wood pallets typically litter a construction site. For Genesis Marina, the contractor stores its own wood pallets in a large warehouse and uses them to deploy equipment and materials to the building site. Once delivered, the pallets are gathered and sent back to the warehouse, ready for the next large-scale delivery.
Susie Westrup Vincent, director of client solutions for the U.S. Green Building Council, illustrates another example of reuse by building trades. In Charlotte, North Carolina, an electrical subcontractor reused large wooden cabling spools for a 48-story skyscraper by “using reverse logistics.” Rather than allowing delivery trucks to make return trips empty, the project team would transport empty spools to the vendor to be rewound.
Packaging can also be reduced by converting to fewer boxes and wrapping. Braun cites the example of a mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor who arranged for products to be consolidated into a single large delivery container. Previously, the contractor had dedicated one employee to opening and verifying box contents as parts arrived singly, in separate boxes. Freed from the labor-intensive job (which also included disposing of all those boxes), the contractor could allocate that employee to other tasks, saving time and expense.
Selecting a demolition and debris hauler is important, but presorting efforts facilitate the process. On the construction site, color-coded bins labeled in several languages create wayfinding, like signage in a building. This shorthand educates all the workers on site, so that an experienced team builds habits and can bring its knowledge to the next construction project.
Successful zero-waste construction strategies require training for on-site workers.
Vincent notes that for general contractors, the “owner’s goals are your goals.” Still, employing zero-waste policies in a top-to-bottom effort takes practice. Braun emphasizes the importance and value of superintendents and forepersons because of their leadership and presence on the construction site. Such employees communicate diversion efforts in a daily field crew meeting, sometimes just 10 or 15 minutes long.
One South San Francisco site, for example, is constructed on a landfill, making smoking a dangerous activity given the levels of methane gas. Of course, smoking is not part of any sustainable effort, but the crew leadership assures cooperation from workers. Companies offer recognition in the form of a bonus, employee award or social event such as a barbecue.
The construction trailer serves as another example in a zero-waste initiative. Genesis Marina’s jobsite trailer allows only reusables in the pantry, uses hand dryers in its bathroom, reduces plastic bottle usage, and repurposes catering carts into hydration and handwashing stations. Outside the trailer, a dashboard communicates the site’s progress and engages the crew in the collective effort.
Braun says that while there’s not enough data yet on the market value of a zero-waste certification, “waste is a waste of money.” Braun refers to the cost associated with hauling demolition debris, especially to landfills whose costs are on the rise and increasingly refuse to accept certain materials.
In another instance, the city government in Martinez, California, has circumvented hauling expenses by deconstructing and donating building components including light fixtures, furniture, door frames and even doorknobs. The result is a less expensive demolition-and-hauling line item for the city’s budget.
In addition, Vincent maintains that “a well materially managed job is a safe job,” resulting in fewer incidents and worker-compensation claims. Like the home garage filled with storage boxes that can fall or require lifting, a cleaner site can protect workers and reduce an owner’s potential liability.
Finally, the novelty of zero-waste construction can elevate a property’s profile, giving it a market advantage. Phase 3 Real Estate Partners and Bain Capital Real Estate have received attention at Greenbuild, the nation’s go-to sustainability conference, by virtue of having the first pre-certified TRUE zero-waste building in the country — indeed, in the world.
“We are proud to be at the forefront of this growing movement and believe Genesis Marina could be a model of how TRUE can be successfully implemented at premier projects,” says Phase 3 Leasing Manager Becka Studer.
Although Studer recognizes there is a challenge to “ensure the sustainability goals met throughout construction continue to be supported as the building is occupied,” tenants who share like-minded corporate environmental and social governance directives will find the space and its goals desirable.
As is often the case, regulatory guidelines accelerate the adoption of more progressive building practices. While less rigorous than TRUE standards, San Francisco has adopted a construction and demolition ordinance. In brief, the ordinance demands an overall minimum 65% recovery rate and reporting of mixed construction and demolition debris. San Francisco requires a permit for debris boxes and a list of permitted transporters for such containers and hauling, as well as registered facilities for processing of such debris. These registered facilities must use certified scales integrated with an automated record-keeping system to measure each incoming load of construction debris.
Other cities that have made commitments to zero waste include New York City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis, reflecting a national focus on the issue.
Alice Devine is the author of the award-winning “Suite Deal, the Smart Landlord’s Guide to Leasing Real Estate,” and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.