Why training is essential to the future of Green Building

Monday, July 15, 2013 9:36
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    Green buildings receive a lot of positive attention these days. The green building paradigm – lower to net-zero energy and water consumption, healthy indoor environment, connection to nature – is increasingly winning recognition and support with the public and the government.  On the economic side, green buildings are projected to make a big portion of all new construction and retrofits.

    What the picture is of
    According to a study by USGBC and Booz Allen Hamilton, between 2000 and 2008, green construction supported more than 1 million workers.  USGBC projected that this figure will grow to 3.3 million by 2013.  Even after the housing market crash of 2007-2009, as the demand for traditional construction dropped, green building was enjoying growth.

    All in all, green building can be considered a blessing for the building industry.  Workers displaced by the decline in the traditional construction sector could move to green construction, but they need retraining.  Governmental policies, financial incentives, regulations, public support can do little without availability of skilled workforce.

    According to the assessment of the International Labor Office, the growth of the green building sector is greatly hindered by the lack of skills.

    Traditional occupations will need to learn new skills to be able to properly implement green strategies in buildings.  There is also a growing demand for wholly new occupations, such as energy efficiency analyst.

    Why skill training is so important

    Green building industry is going through a critical time right now: the awareness and support are there, but a lot is still riding on theory and estimates.  Green building performance is coming into a focus, with commissioning and Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE).  It is very important that green buildings make good on their promises.  If buildings do not live up to expectations, there is a risk of green backlash – loss of support for the whole concept.

    Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests, that performance, as intended by design, can be easily compromised by construction professionals’ lack of necessary skills.  For example, the energy performance of a green building greatly relies on quality insulation.  But if an electrician punches holes in the air barrier, either because of not understanding the design intent and the effects of his actions, or simply lacking the workmanship required for green application, as soon as the building is in use, the condensation from the escaping water vapor will feed mold on the inside of the walls, and just like that, a green design became a sub-par building.

    This is why specialized training in green practices is important for all in the green building industry.  Of course, different occupations require different amounts of training.

    Design professionals – architects and engineers – require the most training.  They need a fundamental understanding of principles, technologies and processes that make buildings green.  In addition to having exhaustive knowledge in their own area of expertise, they also need to have at least basic understanding of how every aspect of design and construction works.

    Specialty trade workers – plumbers, electricians, various installers, painters, glazers, roofers – need training in new techniques required for the successful implementation of their part of construction.  However, it is also important that they are able to have a basic understanding of the design concept and how their trade role fits in it.

    Construction laborers might require less specialized training, but they would also benefit from general understanding of the green concepts.

    Training strategies

    Just in the last few years, educational institutions that offer training and certifications for specific sectors of green building, as well as LEED courses, proliferated in the US and Canada.  However, many of these courses still don’t give skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the integrative design process*, which is crucial to successful green design and operations, and is a pre-requisite for most LEED certifications.  Much of the available training for tradespeople is too limited, too general, and not sufficiently practical.

    *integrative design process is a design workshop that happens at the programming and predesign phase, in which stakeholders – architect, developer or building owner, general contractor and trades professionals – gather to set goals and identify strategies for achieving the desired outcomes.

    A report prepared by BuildingGreen for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) (subscription only), outlined a number of successful training strategies:

    Customize content:

    One of the biggest challenges for construction training is that there is no “one size fits all”.  If a construction professional takes a class, but feels that the content is too general and not relevant to their specific area of expertise, they may lose interest in the whole idea of training. The “big picture” training can be great to give understanding of where the industry is going, but it is not sufficient for tradespeople in the field.  Therefore, it is necessary to customize the anecdotal stories and case studies.

    Enable cross-disciplinary communication:

    In order for the integrative design process to work, all project participants – architect, engineer, general contractor and tradespeople – need to be able to communicate effectively to each other.

    The increasing specialization trend makes it more difficult for professionals to see the big picture.  Therefore, training should provide a basic understanding of the building as a whole.  Everyone should have a grasp of how their area of work interacts with others.  Architects could benefit from some knowledge of energy modeling.  Envelope consultants need to think of interior design, as, for example, interior blinds can trap heat against the glass and thus affect the envelope performance.  General contractors, who already do a lot of cross-disciplinary work, need to be able to make accurate bids and decide on the labor involved in less familiar, constantly evolving cutting edge technologies.

    Create “Green” mindset:

    Understanding of why green buildings are important can be very motivational.  Interviews with a wide range of building-related professionals have shown that helping people understand why they should care, makes them more invested in training and want to learn more.  Awareness motivates people to pursue green approaches in a way they wouldn’t have previously. 

    Federal support for green building training

    Federal programs are very important to green building training.  Knowing that the funds will be available, will help institutions prepare relevant programs.  For example, a green design requirement could be included into architecture departments’ design studios.

    Section 111 of the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013, the Shaheen-Portman energy bill currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate, would provide grants to colleges and universities not only to improve their own buildings but also to “establish building training and assessment centers to train engineers, architects, building scientists, building energy permitting and enforcement officials, and building technicians in energy-efficient design and operation.”

    Certification and Licensing

    Currently, no states mandate or license workers to work on green buildings specifically.  However, such certifications are very beneficial, as they demonstrate professional standards of excellence and competence in the green building applications.  There are a number of private certifications available for different types of building occupations.  The most prominent are USGBC’s LEED, AEE’s (Association of Energy Engineers) GBE (Green Building Engineer), BPI (Building Performance Institute) Energy Auditor Certification.  Certifications are typically earned by passing an examination, gaining work experience, receiving training, or some combination of the three.

    Looking into the Future

    Green construction can provide jobs to people with a broad range of education and experience levels.

    However, in a way, everyone in the green building industry, regardless of their profession, education and skill level, is in the same boat.  Green building is a field in a state of constant change.  It is not enough to just know all the technologies of today, if that’s all you have, you are already out of date.  It is no longer possible to learn something once and be set for life.  Green design is a way of thinking that requires the understanding of the underlying principles.  Green building concepts and technologies evolve constantly and everyone has to keep pace, or risk being left behind.  Lifelong learning is the order of the day.

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      Katja Guletsky

      Katya Guletsky is an interior designer who believes that good design is sustainable design. She is particularly interested in the economic and social contexts of sustainability of built environments. She has a degree in Interior Design from FIT and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.