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New initiative urges contractors to work with owners to reduce building emissions

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Dive Brief:

  • With a nod to the increased focus on climate policy under President Joe Biden’s administration, the Associated General Contractors of America unveiled a new climate initiative to cast construction as part of the solution for a lower-carbon future.
  • The initiative, which was shaped by 18 member firms starting this spring, focuses on advocating for policies that lead to lower emissions from the built environment, jobsite practices to shrink contractors’ carbon footprint during a build and spurring contractors to push their owner-clients to specify more climate-friendly buildings. Representatives from firms including Lane Construction, Clark Construction, Whitaker Construction, Swinerton and McCarthy Holdings are among the task force members.
  • “How we build is far less of the problem than what we build,” said Les Snyder, president of Pittsburgh-based infrastructure contractor Shikun & Binui America, and the chair of AGC’s climate change task force that shaped the initiative, during a virtual news conference Tuesday. “While the construction industry has traditionally had little to say about what our clients, both public and private, want in terms of construction, it is time for that to change.”

Dive Insight:

In a 16-page roadmap of the initiative, AGC pointed to the fact that while construction activity accounts for just 1% to 2% of U.S. manmade greenhouse gas emissions, buildings themselves consume nearly 40% of the nation’s energy, and are the source of 31% of its emissions, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

“Finding ways to make the construction industry more efficient will have, at best, a marginal impact on overall domestic greenhouse gas emissions,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, AGC’s CEO.  “Whereas finding a way to ensure that what our members build is more efficient will have a significant impact on climate change. That’s why our new initiative includes a series of measures designed to influence what gets built.”

The initiative goes beyond buildings to include highways and transportation, federal markets and utility infrastructure and comes as the Senate debates a $1 trillion infrastructure package, with a follow-on $3.5 trillion spending bill focused on social and environmental programs waiting in the wings.

From a policy perspective, AGC’s initiative takes aim at expanding the 179D energy efficient tax deduction that allows owners, designers and builders to write off $1.80 per foot for reducing building emissions by 50%, fast tracking carbon-reducing projects in the entitlement and permitting process and encouraging policymakers to prioritize the modernization of federal buildings, among other measures.

The federal government alone, which the AGC referred to as “the nation’s landlord,” has $3.9 billion worth of unmet maintenance and modernization needs, according to data from the General Services Administration included in the roadmap.  

Jobsite changes

On construction sites themselves, the initiative highlighted anti-idling policies for equipment and recycling programs for building materials, as well as the use of solar-powered construction trailers and energy-efficient lighting as key areas where contractors can reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the AGC’s roadmap pointed to one member company that saved $800,000 on a project after implementing an anti-idling policy.

“If you think about how much fuel is purchased for $800,000, that gives you a pretty good indication of the significance,” said Sandherr.

In terms of pressing their owner-clients to specify more climate-conscious buildings, Sandherr said many owners and developers are already embracing the concept despite higher upfront costs, which have only been exacerbated by material price surges and shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Owners, particularly private owners, want to signal their support for reducing greenhouse gas and are looking for innovations and for contractors and designers to help them meet these objectives,” Sandherr said. “I think we have a good story to tell in how we can get them to invest in structures that will provide for more energy efficiency in the long run through efficient operations where their capital expenses are going to be reduced.”

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