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Green growth a natural for Merritt Properties

Carpeting made of recycled materials in a building by Merritt Properties, LLC - Arianne Teeple
Carpeting made of recycled materials in a building by Merritt Properties, LLC - Arianne Teeple

If you build green, the contracts will come.

If you own your buildings for the long-term, it makes sense to build the best buildings you can, but Merritt Properties is finding new incentives in the recession and recovery for it's sustainable building initiatives.

President Scott Dorsey says the recession gave Merritt's building and interior teams a bit of down time to hone their green building techniques. Teams not busy creating new business spaces are retrofitting Merritt's existing buildings according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Existing Building standards.

"If the economy had stayed solid, we probably would have just gone on building buildings," Dorsey says. "Maybe we wouldn't have developed these capabilities."

Dorsey says he expects LEED building and renovation experience to be an invaluable asset during the recovery � with more and more government and private contracts asking for or requiring LEED certification.

Project manager Josh Asbury says Merritt has always used top-level materials and techniques to building the buildings the company would manage for the long haul. When was asked to learn all he could about environmentally friendly and "healthy" construction, it wasn't that much of a stretch for the newly-minted manager.

He dove into the intricacies of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified construction.

"Five years ago we saw that it was something that fit into what we were already doing," Asbury says. "We saw it as a third-party certification that we were already ahead of our competition."

Growing requirements at the federal, local and state level for Energy Star or LEED standards in new government contracts as well as large-scale private projects is driving a construction industry makeover that benefits both workers and employers as well as those doing the building.

Merritt's construction team leaders like Asbury describe a ripple effect, where more and more builders and subcontractors are adopting LEED building techniques, materials and principles � even in non-certified projects.

Project manager Nathan Robb says initially it took some education, but "after a while, people were asking right off the bat 'is this a LEED project?' before you even ask them anything. Pretty much all our subcontractors we're working with now have it down."

Merritt has offered classes on LEED-friendly work practices and materials, and filled every seat.

Not every client asks for LEED certification, but all Merritt projects benefit from the attention. They use paints, plywood and other materials that emit fewer volatile organic compounds � VOCs or fumes � and use LEED-recommended safe worksite practices in every project.

"It's easier to just use one product line for paint, cabinets, everything," says Mark Mento, a project manager for building interiors. "It's easier to stay within the guidelines, than to use low-VOC paints for one project, and go back to toxic paint for other projects."

Though subcontractors initially had to slow down, rethink their practices and find new materials, he says "once we get them started � once we get their habits to change � they started doing it in all their projects."

Subcontractors also learned it's easier to have one standard than to go back and forth between LEED and non-LEED practices.

"A lot of people feel the LEED term will fade out altogether and become part of building codes," Robb says.

Retrofitting � 'the way of the future'

While many governments are requiring LEED or Energy Star certification in new projects, tax credits are the carrot to get older buildings up to the new green standard.

Robb calls retrofitting "The way of the future."

Merritt recently completed a full-scale retrofit of their former Annapolis athletic center. They gutted the inside of the building down to the shell, and stripped the surrounding land to re-grade and re-plant it to better capture runoff.

Mento says 96 percent of the waste removed from the site was recycled. Bricks were reused on another site and they sold the wood gym floor to a contractor who planned to reinstall it on another project.

In short order, Merritt signed two 8,000 square foot tenants, to the building, certified Silver under LEEDS Existing Building Operation and Maintenance program.

Cost of excellence

Developing or retrofitting a property for LEED-Certification adds a nominal amount, 5 to 7 percent or less, to the cost of the project, according to Merritt's records. New projects may cost $2 per square foot more than the $40 industry average. Retrofits have been accomplished for $2.40 to $3.11 per square foot.

Other costs were harder to quantify, especially the initial investment in adopting the new standards.

Managers spend more time documenting the quality of materials, recycling of leftovers, and even clean and neat workplace protocols intended to reduce health risks to contractors.

"Initially there's a learning curve with us or the contractors we work with. Once you know what you're going to do you can plan accordingly," Asbury says.

Then too, builders have to find new suppliers or products.

"Even just three years ago, when we were doing our first LEED Certified building, getting product makers to reveal their processes or where the product came from was very difficult. Now they're much more in line with it," says Robb. "Now, it's harder to find a carpet that's not low-VOC than to find one that is � same with paints. Codes are getting more stringent."

Intangible benefits

Some companies report a similar savings in improved performance from their staff in a LEED Certified building. Standards involving natural lighting, healthy ventilation systems and other factors are aimed at improving the health of building tenants.

A study by the University of San Diego's Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate and CB Richard Ellis showed that people who work in green buildings are more productive than those toiling in traditional construction.

The survey of 154 green buildings received responses from 534 participating tenants who had recently moved into a green building. 54.5 percent of those surveyed say workers were more productive in the healthier building. 45 percent report an average 2.88 fewer sick days per employee.

Employers quantify the annual benefit at an average $20.82 per employee in increased productivity and another $4.91 savings from fewer sick days.

Just 10 percent of the tenants, many of whom moved their companies into Energy Star buildings, reported an increase in sick days. Researchers attributed that to the fact that Energy Star � which requires buildings use less electricity or fuel than 75 percent of the nation's building stock � does not have any indoor air quality requirement.

Benefit to the builder

Some LEED requirements � those affecting construction techniques �reduce the risk of injuries and wasted time during construction, Mento says.

"Some of the things we were required to do with cleanliness and keeping things more organized � it's easier to do the job," he says. "Absolutely, field workers benefit from it."

Robb worked with Merritt during his summers off from college before starting with the company after graduation, and before the push for LEED construction.

"Having worked in construction five summers, once we learned there was a better way to do it � it's much nicer," Robb says.

Green building is a natural extension of Merritt's high standards, Mento says.

"We're just carrying on what our predecessors were doing," he says. "They were building great buildings before we got into green."

"Now we're just quantifying it," Robb adds.
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