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Green Construction

by Joshua Brustein, Oct 04, 2006
 

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When Paul Stein pushed for thick windows and fancy air filters for his new office in lower Manhattan soon after 9/11, it was mainly because he was worried about lingering contaminants from the collapse of the Twin Towers.

But these measures have also wound up protecting him against a different kind of pollution -- pollution that Stein, who works on safety issues for his union, says his office at 90 Church Street is "surrounded by": pollution from construction. It is a problem that goes far beyond lower Manhattan.

From the proposed Atlantic Yards project in downtown Brooklyn to the water filtration plant in the northern Bronx, critics almost always complain not just about the project itself, but about the inconvenience, pollution, noise and dangerous accidents they will face during its construction.

The construction downtown is unique in that the contaminants from Ground Zero are still an issue. In late September, the Environmental Protection Agency finally approved a plan to demolish the Deutsche Bank Building adjacent to the site, after a long debate over how best to ensure that the asbestos and other dangerous chemicals in the building are not released into the air; the building will come down over the next year. Similar issues must be resolved for other buildings that are either known or suspected to be contaminated. The huge scale of the development downtown also ensures that there will be more pollution than in a project of conventional size.

But, in varying degrees, the same problems face construction sites throughout the city. And, increasingly, those involved are finding solutions in the movement being called green construction -- a nationwide effort to build in a way that is sensitive to the environment. Within the last several weeks both the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been bringing more focus to policies that will encourage the city to build greener.

GREEN BUILDINGS, GREEN CONSTRUCTION

The enthusiasm for green buildings among developers, public officials, and environmental activists is palpable. While the word generically refers to buildings that are environmentally friendly, it has also become shorthand for a set of standards put out by the United States Green Building Council called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, system. LEED puts priority on using energy efficiency, employing innovative construction materials, and recycling.

The plans to make Ground Zero a model of environmentally friendly construction are ambitious. All of the buildings on the site of the World Trade Center will meet a high level of LEED Standards, say Governor George Pataki and Larry Silverstein, the developer in charge of much of the construction there. Before these green buildings can exist, though, they must be built. And construction is a dirty process.

While green building standards are primarily focused on the final product, there is also increasing interest in making construction itself less harmful to the environment.

This can be seen in lower Manhattan, where between 5,000 and 10,000 trucks are expected to travel each month for the next four years or so, participating in $10 billion worth of construction projects in and around Ground Zero. Each project will cause noise, pollution, and traffic. But various efforts are being made to minimize these problems, mirroring what some describe as a fundamental change in the construction industry.

Less Truck Traffic

Environmental advocates are discussing strategies to reduce the overall amount of truck traffic coming to lower Manhattan.

One calls for better coordination between construction projects. Common areas could be established where trucks would drop off concrete and materials for more than one project, instead of having each project arrange its own deliveries. Another plan would establish a radio dispatcher to coordinate trucks coming downtown.

The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center – a government agency formed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki in November 2004 – would be in charge of this if it were to happen. The center says it is considering such plans, but a spokesma describes them as "just ideas" at this point. If such coordination works downtown it could serve as a model for other areas handling multiple development projects, says Tom Stabile, the editor of New York Construction News, a trade magazine.

But Michael Deane of Turner Construction says that such coordination will be difficult to replicate in other areas because it would require competitors to cooperate in unusual ways.

"It would have to be an altruistic thing," he said.

Buying Locally

A more likely way to reduce the environmental impact of trucks, Deane says, is for construction companies to make efforts to get their materials from nearby suppliers. While this doesn't necessarily reduce the impact on the area of construction itself, it can make the overall process much cleaner.

This is already happening for two major reasons. First, it makes economic sense, because carrying heavy materials long distances costs money. Second, the LEED rating system gives points to builders who use local materials.

Action by the city government is turning LEED incentives into requirements. The city's new green building law, which will take effect on January 1, requires city-run construction projects worth more than $2 million to comply with the LEED standards (projects over $12 million are also required to meet energy efficiency standards). About $12 billion in construction is likely to be affected over the next ten years, according to the City Council.

Adam Friedman of the New York Industrial Retention Network sees more than an opportunity for cleaner air. The New York Industrial Retention Network is working with the City Council to connect construction firms with manufacturers in the city that make so-called green products like low toxic carpeting, solar panels, and high efficiency light bulbs.

Recycling Construction Materials

Construction produces a greater percentage of the garbage that ends up in the country's landfills than any other activity. For every square foot of building space created, 2.5 pounds of waste are produced, says Randy Croxton, the architect in charge of the environmental guidelines for Ground Zero. By this calculation, the original Twin Towers created 12,500 tons of waste. "You're dealing with one of society's largest issues in terms of waste stream," said Croxton.

Market and government forces encourage recycling in much the same way that they encourage the use of local products, because LEED places a priority on doing so. Some states – such as Massachusetts and California – are also passing laws saying their landfills will soon no longer accept construction waste, creating more incentives to find ways to recycle it.

City officials here are also looking to get involved. Both the mayor's office and the City Council are looking to remain aggressive on their environmental policies. Councilmember James Gennaro has introduced a bill that would require the city to form a comprehensive sustainability plan, and the council's committee on environmental protection held hearings on it last week. The administration is backing the effort. Bloomberg recently set up an office of long-term planning and sustainability, which will develop a long-term development plan for the entire city and then "integrate sustainability goals and practices into every aspect of that plan."

Cleaner Diesel Fuel

Much of the attention on green construction is focused on the fuel needed to run the machinery and vehicles involved. Trucks, bulldozers, and backhoes all run on diesel fuel, which has been linked to asthma and other health problems. Fitting these vehicles with filters, and running them with fuel that has low levels of sulfur, can drastically reduce the amount of pollution they cause.

The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center has established a set of environmental guidelines, which include limiting the amount of time a truck can stand with its motor running, and requiring on-site construction vehicles to use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.

"The largest fleet of retrofitted diesel construction machinery in the US is now in lower Manhattan. And it's really serving as a model for other places," said Andy Darrell of Environmental Defense, which advocates nationwide for the use of cleaner diesel fuel.

City Hall and Albany have also both passed legislation requiring both trucks and construction equipment to use such fuel while working downtown. But the laws currently only apply to construction vehicles working on the site – not the trucks that deliver materials.

Critics say this undermines the laws' stated intention of addressing the post 9/11 rebuilding process in lower Manhattan.

"The peak construction years are the next four years," said Julie Menin, chair of Community Board One. "We don't want to wait."

Developer Larry Silverstein, who suffers from asthma himself, is trying to step up during that time. The trucks he used to build Seven World Trade Center used ultra-low sulfur fuel. Silverstein announced in early September that trucks for his construction projects – which include all four towers planned for Ground Zero – would also use this fuel.

Praising the move, Community Board One recently passed a resolution calling on the public agencies and other private developers working downtown to make similar commitments. The construction command center signed its support onto the resolution.

The push for cleaner diesel fuel is taking place nationwide. Federal law has been passed that will soon require trucks to use low sulfur diesel fuel, and place even tighter restrictions on newly manufactured trucks. Like the city and the state, Washington's law will phase in over time, giving trucking companies time to adjust their fleets.

There are, however, barriers to getting such protections in place immediately. It may be tough to make sure that the trucks are actually using the fuel, according to Charles Maikish, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center's executive director. Further, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel may simply not be available yet in the quantities need. "I don't think we're going to see everyone switch all at once, because of a supply issue," said Maikish.

But increased demand is already beginning to change the diesel fuel market, say construction companies.

"When manufacturers and suppliers perceive a demand for products they'll create them," said Deane of Turner Construction.

DEMOLITION AT GROUND ZERO, AND FEAR OF FURTHER DAMAGE

Some workers and residents downtown do not see construction in and around Ground Zero as an opportunity to set a new environmental standard, however. Instead they worry about the potential to compound the environmental disaster of 9/11.

For the past five years, two buildings have sat within a block of Ground Zero, cloaked in black netting, filled with many of the same dangerous contaminants that sickened thousands of rescue workers and, critics say, unknown numbers of nearby residents and office workers.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan to decontaminate and dismantle one, the Deutsche Bank Building just south of the site. A large crane is perched on the building, prepared to start what the head of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center describes as a yearlong "surgical deconstruction process". The approval process has been contentious, with critics questioning the quality – and criminality – of the firm contracted to clean the building, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently expressing concern that the building might collapse.

Local activists say the public review of the Deutsche Bank demolition plan has improved it, although they are still unhappy about the lack of a plan to mobilize the community in case of an accident in which contaminants are released. They are also concerned that the destruction of the other building – Fiterman Hall, just north of Ground Zero –will not be subject to similar scrutiny. Further, it is unclear how many other buildings may still be contaminated, or whether future demolitions could lead to the spread of such contaminants.

For Stein, the man working at 90 Church, this atmosphere has led to a feeling of distrust that leaves him wary of the nearby construction. He worries about the cumulative effect of construction pollution, since many projects will likely be built simultaneously over the next five to six years. Even if it is green, so much construction is bound to be dirty.

 


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