The Contractor Connection
Swinerton demolishes the environmental-construction barrier
Joe Carter -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Straw bales estimated to provide an R-30 wall insulation value at the Presentation Center's dining hall in Los Gatos, California.
A Kalwall translucent roof system that supplies 100 percent of daytime illumination at the Puente Learning Center, Los Angeles.
Sunlight softened and diffused by ceiling-mounted deep-cell parabolic diffusers before it arrives in the center's main lobby.
Energy-efficient Founder's Hall at Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California.
The university library, featuring the first naturally ventilated smoke-evacuation system in the U.S.
A rendering of San Francisco's M.H. de Young Museum, clad in copper with an 80 percent recycled content.
Recycling 75 percent of demolition debris during the renovation.
Swinerton Builders isn't trying to be trendy when it proclaims its mission "to be recognized as the premier 'green building' contractor in the West." The 116-year-old San Francisco construction giant likes to point out that it was putting up buildings with living roofs and daylight-friendly step-back designs way back in the '70's, 20 years before the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council.
These days, green projects account for 20 percent of Swinerton's port- folio. The company has completed over 50 such jobs in the past decade—for clients including Sony, Pacific Bell, and Gap—and two dozen more LEED contenders are in the works. Daniel Smith & Associates Architects, a Berkeley firm, has hired Swinerton to construct a straw-bale dining hall for the Presentation Center, an interfaith retreat in Los Gatos. For the $135 million renovation of San Francisco's beloved M.H. de Young Museum, Swinerton is working with Pritzker Prize winners Herzog & de Meuron.
"We see green building as a service that all our professionals provide, as opposed to having a separate group," says operations manager Bill Krill, who makes sure that the company's 15 satellite offices are working from the same green playbook. "We've recruited people across the company—accountants, engineers, superintendents, estimators. At this point, green building isn't so much a market as a delivery method."
Those methods have helped Swinerton reap major health and financial benefits for itself, clients, and the community. As a member of the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley, the company is engaged in research to evaluate the effectiveness of under-floor air distribution, task and ambient lighting, and operable windows in addition to their impact on worker productivity. The company even turned its own 67,000-square-foot headquarters into a laboratory for studying environmentally sensitive, energy-efficient construction techniques.
Swinerton tore the building "back to the shell," says Krill, to demonstrate how demolition offers prime opportunities to employ sustainable strategies—as long as it becomes part of the design and construction process early on. "Because we sent all of our debris to Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling, we didn't get charged a premium for materials separation at their landfill," Krill says. "When there's no extra cost, it's a no-brainer."
Communication between the construction crew and the hauler was key to accurate documentation. As a result, 70 percent of the materials were recycled into products, an achievement that the USGBC recognized in awarding the project a LEED-EB gold rating upon completion.
"Seeing our employees in the new headquarters, with the abundant light and improved air quality—there's a definite change," says chairman and CEO Jim Gillette. "Everyone is happier." Certain green strategies can make the numbers-crunchers happier, too, saving money in the short run and reducing costly liability in the future.
Take duct systems and airborne dust. "Make sure all ductwork is capped," Krill cautions. "You can also phase construction, so you don't have lots of trades creating dust when you install the ducts."
An even greater threat comes from moisture's mold potential. "Keeping water out is very important in a green building. We're putting dehumidifiers in some of ours for just that reason," says Krill. "If you get mold in your ductwork, the remediation costs and liability potential are staggering. Dehumidification costs far less."
Amazingly, these critical details are sometimes given short shrift by designers, which is why the 1,200-employee company considers education a major part of the mission. In May, Swinerton cohosted its first Green Building Summit. Eco guru William McDonough gave the keynote address, telling his audience of architects, designers, scholars, and officials that—despite the "next industrial revolution" resulting from environmentally beneficial policies and technologies—a new approach to building would have to succeed on traditional terms. "We use the same criteria that most people do: cost, performance, and aesthetics. But to this we've added: Is it ecologically intelligent? Is it just? And is it fun?" he says. "We have to come up with a strategy of hope."