Some Green Building Pros Shrinking From LEED

It’s always interesting to see a new survey about green building. Even if you don’t pay attention to who was in the survey, or what the survey was measuring about green building, just the idea that someone bothered to poll some people and find out what they thought about things is pretty cool.

Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP, the Constructive Technology Group, Inc., and Green Building Insider completed a green building survey in December 2008 and just released the results after doing telephone followups with respondents during January.

Topping the list of findings was that huge numbers of design pros, contractors, subcontractors, construction and planning managers, consultants and owners agree that it is worth the time and effort to build green. A little more than 93 percent agreed with that statement, although that number is about 3 percent lower than the responses from a survey in 2007.

The surprising thing that came out of the survey was that fewer people thought LEED certification was worth obtaining. In 2007 there were 77.4 percent of respondents saying LEED was worthwhile, while in 2008 that number dropped to 66.4 percent.

The survey authors suggested a few reasons why LEED may have drawn a lower percentage;

  • Difficult financial times may have been making people more sensitive to costs
  • Other certification schemes could be pulling people away from LEED
  • Carbon footprints and greenhouse gases were not included in LEED at the time of the survey

Old Hands May be Staying Around Longer

Of course, no sooner did I publish the post yesterday about the coming shortage of construction people and how retiring boomers were one of the reasons for the shortfall, then a report comes out saying 75 percent of boomers don’t believe they will ever be able to fully retire.

Scottrade came up with that number from a survey this year. Although the sampling could be somewhat suspect since it was from a “representative sample of 1,000 Americans 18 years of age or older.”

Still, there has to be some truth to it since many retirement accounts have nosedived and home values have tumbled. It’s going to be up to astute managers to figure out how best to capture and inspire this growing pool of experienced workers. Some of the techniques I’ve read about include:

  • Offering flexible hours
  • Fine tuning job descriptions so they include work the people are interested in doing
  • Offering training on aspects of the business the person is attracted to
  • Encouraging communication so this pool of experience can express and help solve business problems

Kansas Organizations Take Construction to the Masses

According to most accounts the construction industry is poised to experience some large shortages of people. This is partly because many boomers are going to be retiring, and also partly because the country hasn’t really made a serious effort at attracting young people to the trades.

But there are many organizations that are working on this front. One effort that I read about recently was a construction learning center that has been set up for a couple of years now at the Kansas State Fair. Members of the Associated General Contractors of Kansas, the Kansas Contractors Association, the Kansas Construction Careers Association and the National Association for Women in Construction, put together exhibits and helped 2,000 children participate in activities like building blocks, PVC pipe bridge building, operating remote-controlled front end loaders, and operating a computer simulated grader. Oh, and they had drill guns too. One of my favorites.

The exhibit drew more than 3,000 parents, grandparents, teachers and counselors. On top of that 600 people tried their hands at backhoe golf – dropping three golf balls into a cup within 90 seconds earned them T-shirts.

These kinds of efforts no doubt get some people thinking about construction as a career and that’s where it all begins.

Prevailing Wage Battles Re-Loaded

The current economic crisis, which is nothing more than a cyclical devaluation necessary to keep the currency from bottoming out, is causing states and municipalities to make decisions about prevailing wage legislation.

In Cedar Rapids, IA, a bill that sets a prevailing local wage, benefits and overtime, is waiting for one more vote in order to become law. In Colorado, a bill that would have established a prevailing wage for employees of contractors was defeated in committee. Some voices in Washington state are calling for the repeal of its prevailing wage law.

Prevailing wage largely affects public works projects and is often credited with driving up the costs of those projects. Although it isn’t really clear that’s the case, even when that idea is advanced by an opponent of prevailing wage. Here is how Mark Latimer, president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors explained it:

In some cases, the prevailing wage is lower than the going rate at the fair-market system. These are decent-paying jobs. We believe the prevailing wage artificially inflates [wages] and drives up the cost of construction. It will hurt the economic stimulus and restrict the free market.

So, if prevailing wages in some cases are “lower than the going fair-market system,” and they are “decent-paying jobs,” how are they going to “drive up the cost of construction?” More to the point it just may be that when prevailing wages are in effect contractors can’t make as much on reselling that labor without pricing themselves out of the market.

Since a person’s labor (expressed as time) is largely the only thing most people have available to sell for their livelihood, perhaps contractors should try to find more value somewhere else in the resources under their control. After all, what is often overlooked in the discussion of prevailing wages is that people are going to spend those wages in the community. So if they have a little extra that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

The other point often advanced by prevailing wage opponents is that the free market does a great job of setting wages. But you have to ask, great for whom? It’s probably true that the free market sets a great wage for a person who is buying the labor, but if you ask a lot of the people supplying the labor they might disagree.

Those on the government side, who propose prevailing wages, sometimes see them as a tool to control those who are eligible to bid on projects. As one legislator in IA put it:

Without it, the state would see fly-by-night, out-of-state contractors coming into Iowa underbidding our standard of living.

So, could it be that prevailing wage offers government a chance to minimize due diligence while it qualifies contracts and enforces building codes and contract delivery? Especially in these times of diminishing budgets having a “safe” pool of bidders could save time and money.

It seems that when you get to the bottom of the prevailing wage issue you find it is simply a manipulation of an already over-manipulated economic system, with proponents and opponents squared off over who will benefit and who will lose. This is no different than most other issues that have economic gravity. Perhaps it would be better to establish a scorecard system where one economic interest is served one time, and another is served the next. That way, at least things might stay a bit more balanced.

Sustainable Lumber At What Cost?

You don’t have to look any further than the current posturing and worldwide legislative initiatives over illegal wood imports to see how good environmental intentions often end up creating un-sustainable practices.

Last year the amendment to the Lacey Act was passed in the U.S. Congress that makes it illegal to sell illegally-harvested wood and wood products within the country’s borders. This change in the law goes into effect in April much to the pleasure of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) a primary proponent of the legislation, as well as a primary benefactor. Less illegal wood products means those who want wood flooring will be paying higher prices since the illegal stuff is sold cheap. This is just an example of using the latest in environmental spin tactics, and it seems everyone is on this band wagon.

The European Union is now struggling with proposed legislation on this issue as some members feel the way the legislation is crafted will make it hard on small European timber harvesters, and it won’t be easily enforceable. Still, from across “the pond,” a Canadian forestry official says the forest products industry in Canada is in favor of the currently proposed legislation partly because cracking down on illegal products, which are cheaper, would open the EU market to Canadian timber.

If the EU legislation makes its own timber producers less competitive so that EU countries start importing more Canadian timber from across the ocean, is that a very sustainable model? And what if, depending upon where the illegally-harvested lumber originates, it is actually a more sustainable option by the time shipping is factored? Do we just substitute one un-sustainable practice for another depending upon who is profiting and how large the profits are?

Use Tools To Track Insurance Requirements

One of the challenges of our time is to stay out of court. It’s great that we live in a nation of laws, but when people intentionally cause an accident with one of your trucks because they know you probably have a lot of insurance it seems the spirit of the law is being violated.

But less sinister than people throwing themselves in front of your vehicles is the creeping danger of subs with expired liability, worker’s comp or unemployment insurance coverage. These are difficult things to keep track of and many businesses have someone assigned to the task. But there are automated solutions that interface with your accounting system, or are a part of your accounting system that will alert you when your subs’ insurance is expiring.

One example is Sage’s Peachtree accounting software which warns you when you try to pay or enter a transaction for a subcontractor who’s insurance has expired. Turtle Creek Software’s Goldenseal Contractor Software includes a similar feature that allows you to pay, not pay, or pay with a percentage deduction.

Greg Kirk, president of Universal Construction Software The Power Tools in Orlando, FL, developers of PowerTools Software Suite makes a case for construction companies to consider adopting accounting software that is specifically written for construction in order to get the most functionality.

When new clients start using our system they often comment on features like the ability to track insurance expirations. With integrated systems the accounting department can receive warnings on each subcontractor’s insurance, or unsigned change orders, or even that a critical letter such as 24-hour notice was written. Our system issues a warning when invoices are entered and before a check is written.

Are Prefab Homes Another Solution to the U.S. Decline in Manufacturing?

The handwriting may be on the wall spelling the gradual end of inefficient home construction. Inefficiency in home construction begins and ends with the processes that have been used to build homes. Nowhere are those inefficient processes better shown than in site-built homes.

Handicapped right from the start because building operations must face the vagaries of the weather, the process of building on site also means there is a large expenditure of fossil fuels just to get workers and materials to the job site over an extended period of time. Then there is the waste disposal factor where all that waste has to be carted away using even more fossil fuels.

Probably the only reason site-built homes have been constructed for so long is because fossil fuel has been cheap and abundant. There have been alternatives to building on site for many years but in the last two years there have been major strides in taking the “mobile” connotation out of modular and pre-fab.

One case in point is EcoSteel Building Systems‘ approach using prefabricated panels that are assembled on site. The company claims the finished homes can produce their own energy, and have amenities like roof gardens for food production. Joss Hudson, president of EcoSteel says the prefab business has been booming in the midst of the building downturn and he goes one step further saying:

The prefab product shift out of traditional construction methods could be the next industrial base that brings the U.S. back into a force of manufacturing and export. If we could begin supplying buildings to the rest of the world, U.S. automakers could quickly add a prefab housing division to their factories. The prefab building movement is a threat to most builders; in my opinion, 2009 marks the death of carbon-copy suburban architecture known as The McMansion.

Time will tell, but one thing is perhaps becoming clearer and clearer – building homes on site will either need to get a lot more efficient, or the practice will soon be dying a quick death.

The Mystery of Clean URLs

This might be of interest to others who run WordPress blogs and Web sites. As is often the case when things go awry in computing it is hard to track down just how they went awry. A lot of times that is true simply because in our zeal to get things working again we make changes and then don’t test the results before moving on to the next change.

The problem I had yesterday with this blog ended up being all about SEO and clean URLs. Basically, a clean URL is one that is descriptive like:

rather than

From a search engine’s perspective, and from readers’ perspectives, the descriptive, or clean URL is better.

But this is where things start to get a little fuzzy. My blog has always used clean URLs and so I was surprised when Blue Host’s tech support brought my blog back to life by making a change to my .htaccess file. But after a little research I discovered that while WordPress allows you to choose clean URLs in the interface (look under Settings>Permalink Settings), it doesn’t always add some code to .htaccess that is supposed to make this all work the way it should.

I still don’t know though why the installation of the plugin I was doing caused all of this to come undone. But then, maybe it’s better if some things just remain mysteries.