Education Blog

Smith Relishes Challenges of Construction Industry

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Colorado Real Estate Journal — July 15-August 4, 2015

by Jennifer Hayes

Donna Smith

Donna Smith admits she always has been drawn to male-dominated industries—not for the challenge of being one of a small number of women within them but the challenge they presented to her.

“It’s always been an environment I’ve been comfortable in and a world that suits me, so I don’t even think about being one of the only women,” said Smith, vice president of business development at The Neenan Co., who as a self-admitted tomboy grew up working in the garage at her father’s Chevrolet dealership.

“I’ve always been bent on a male-dominated career,” laughed Smith.

An East Coast native, Smith visited Colorado as a junior in high school and fell in love with the ecology of the Rocky Mountains—so much so she decided to attend Colorado State University to study forestry before switching her major and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a minor in economics, and a master’s degree in land use economics.

In her 17 years in economic development, Smith worked for a variety of municipalities and counties in Colorado, including Adams County, Broomfield, Brighton and Loveland. It
was also during this time she met and became friends with Ray Pigg, vice president of business development at Neenan, who insisted she should try the construction industry.

“He always said I should do this and I kept on saying that I don’t know anything about construction,” recalled Smith, who, in 2004, took the plunge and embarked on a career in construction with Neenan. “But really, what I still do, is work with businesses and economic development, just from the private side.”

“It has been fantastic for me,” added Smith, who relishes the chance to find a physical solution to help companies support their business goals.

“It’s all about supporting their business, them hiring more people, paying a better wage. It all starts with a plan. I love that side,” said Smith.

“My favorite days are the days we do work sessions with clients, when we flesh out things; the energy and interactions we get to be a part of,” she continued. “I love that we help clients figure out and see how a building can help achieve their goals.”

It is these work sessions, Smith admits, that are some of the most challenging aspects of her role at Neenan, in being open and honest with clients and their wish lists. “These sessions are most like economic development in that you don’t want to provide incentives, in other words build their project, if it’s not going to succeed, and ultimately, be the demise of the business.”

Smith’s honest approach to clients comes from her father’s lessons of teaching her not to sweat the small stuff, she noted.

“He taught me to control what you can, treat others the way you want to be treated and everyone can teach you; you just have to be open to that kind of learning. You never know it all, no matter how successful you are,” she added.

Over her career, Smith has worked on a variety of projects and multiple situations from meeting with 15 attorneys from Kmart during her economic development days to at Neenan helping transform the YMCA of the Rockies to the development of the LEED Platinum Powerhouse Energy Institute at CSU.

Her two careers also have afforded Smith the introduction to “the best individuals in the business,” whom she considers family, including Holli Riebel, Becky Hogan and Debbie Tuttle of the economic development world as well as her mentor, David Shigekane of Neenan.

“David has been an amazing picture of leadership. He supports you, is very patient, thoughtful and honest. He is a great leader by example.”

Smith also hopes to expand her leadership role at Neenan, to support and mentor the youth of the company. But she doesn’t plan on making a third career switch.

“I just love what I do,” said Smith.

Smith also relishes the “work” she does outside the office, including participating with Habitat for Humanity, Humane Society, United Way, American Cancer Society, NAIOP, Downtown Denver Partnership and Denver Chamber of Commerce.

Like the dichotomy of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, her hobbies too reflect a similar contrast. Smith enjoys making jewelry as well as being a DIY’er handling tile and plumbing projects. She also enjoys hiking, camping, biking, traveling, spending time with her family, friends and yellow lab.

Construction Industry Leaders Share Insights

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Construction Panel

John Beeble Chairman and CEO, Saunders Construction Inc.
 Ed Haselden Chief Executive Officer, Haselden Construction edhaselden@  David Neenan Chairman, The Neenan Company david.neenan@  Maja Rosenquist Chairman, Vice President and General Manager, Denver Operating Group, Mortenson maga.rosenquist@
John Beeble
Chairman and
CEO, Saunders Construction Inc.
Ed Haselden
Chief Executive
Haselden Construction
David Neenan
The Neenan

Maja Rosenquist
Vice President and
General Manager,
Denver Operating
Group, Mortenson

Recently, an esteemed group of construction industry leaders presented a panel discussion during CREJ’s Development & Construction conference. Topics ranged from taking care of the client to doing things “better, faster, cheaper” (and the new construction and technology solutions that enable it), from collaborative efforts to the labor shortage, and from funding to how a midsize company can grow and compete against the big and the small companies.

How does your company take care of the client? What specifics can you share? Why do you think it makes a difference?
JB: At Saunders, we work hard to define the success of the project through our customers eyes. In fact, not only our customer, but the entire team. By understanding what that success looks like and what unique obstacles we need to overcome on each project, customer care happens as a natural outcome.
EH: For over 40 years, Haselden Construction’s purpose is and has always been to “fulfill our customers needs completely” Every one of our team members recognizes the importance of doing the right thing and is empowered to make decisions, which ultimately results in a better project outcome for our customers. At the end of the day, we do what we say we’re going to do. It makes all the difference in the world and in a highly competitive marketplace, commitment is king.
DN: In an industry where reputation is everything, you need to make darn sure that everyone in your company is putting the client first. If you satisfy 50 clients but upset one, you are back to rebuilding your reputation.
Early in a project, we engage clients in our Collaborative Design Process to listen to their needs – and help them make good decisions. As projects progress, we complete three client satisfaction surveys – to learn how we are doing and what we could do more effectively. This is how we learn. We gather actionable feedback through a robust in-person interview rather than employing a digital survey or push-poll.
The Neenan Company has designed and built numerous successful projects. We don’t point fingers; we take responsibility, meaning we are also accountable to our clients. This is in sharp contrast to our wasteful, litigious industry.
MR: Our goal is to be more than a builder – we strive to be a business partner. We have made significant strides in bringing more value to our customers, from the ability to offer broad development and financing solutions to real estate and building assessment or looking at overall organizational and facility operations on an energy-efficiency and operational cost basis through Mortenson’s Center for Sustainable Energy.
Our highest goal is achieving our customers success factors. The initial efforts in setting up the team and creating a collaborative environment are crucial to a successful project. It makes a huge difference because not only is there a lot of financial impacts, but also impacts on both individual and corporate reputations as well as overall impacts on the community as a whole.

How can the industry do projects “better, faster, cheaper?” (How does technology fit into that equation? What elements contribute to this outcome? Where does collaboration fit in? Self-performance?)
JB: Innovation has been a key strategic driver for Saunders for some time now and we firmly believe in the advantages and efficiencies it brings to design and build processes. However, bringing teams together and developing high-functioning collaboration among all team members has the highest impact to building better, faster and cheaper. The most state-of-the-art technology or innovation can fail if the project team is functioning poorly and communication is breaking down. Project success is brought about by first building a strong and highly functioning team and then implementing the best strategies with the most effective tools and techniques available. While it might be a bit “old school,” it still works.
Alongside high-functioning teams utilizing innovative tools and techniques is the integration of the design and construction process. Streamlining design and incorporating modeling techniques to flush out inefficiencies and conflicts earlier lead to a quicker design cycle, fewer delays in construction, and lower overall costs.
EH: When Haselden built the University of Colorado Hospital’s new tower and critical care wing, we utilized multitrade pre-fabrication and modularization to build the project better, faster and cheaper. In fact, our competitors said it couldn’t be done and we beat both the schedule and the cost. We had the big national contractors touring our project to learn from us. Technology has changed how we build Virtual design and construction reduces errors and issues before we’re placing a shovel in the ground. That eliminates rework and waste, and substantially increases the quality. Haselden also has a large self-perform crew that allows us to drive the schedule. As the old adage goes, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” We truly believe our ability to self-perform certain trades gives our customers a better building.
You can learn more about that project on our website: www
DN: Most people think it’s the technology that helps us work better I think it’s a combination of technology and humanities. After a failed project in 1976, we learned that the ontology is as much or more important than the technology. Ontology is a “way of being” in the marketplace. Technology can give us tools to improve client satisfaction, but we cannot forget the tool users. Technology plus carelessness equals trouble. Good character, concern for humanity; positive attitude and strong work habits are vital attributes that allow us to meet our clients’ conditions of satisfaction. Leadership focused on philosophy; psychology and ethics help us to retain clients and employees.
Cheaper is not the solution. You want better and faster, but you want the buildings to perform. For us, it is not the building but how the building performs for the client and the building occupants. When a CEO needs and asks for a building, his/her concern is usually much deeper (ie., what the building will enable in the company’s future).
We are in an industry where integrity is often broken. Some builders have been known to take the low bid even when they know the bid is missing scope. I think most anyone can build a cheap building, and that’s not what we want to do. An apples-to-apples comparison is a misnomer. Buildings are not commodities. At the end of the design-build process, clients typically find little value in the delivery of cheap buildings. Our reason for existence is to create an experience that is designed to add value for our clients. The odds of that happening are much improved by engaging all parties upfront in a spirit of collaboration.
MR: It’s not about being the cheapest, though cost is certainly a critical factor in any major commercial project – it’s about focusing on the highest value we can bring to our customers by being “smarter’’ as well as better and faster. We all know being “cheaper” in one area might not end up being the most cost-effective solution in the long run. For many of our customers, time is money and collaboration is key to having the right product at the right price at the right time.
Collaboration is key and setting the right tone and getting buy-in from all parties at the beginning is what helps us best leverage our expertise in technology. For instance, the use of  Bluebeam Studio facilitates collaboration virtually; regardless of whether the team is local or remote.
Our self-performed capability enhances our ability to control the pace of the project and deliver the highest possible quality. We have more than 400 craft workers in Colorado and they are known for their adaptability; exceptionally high quality of workmanship, and attention to detail.

How is the industry combating the labor shortage stemming from the exodus during the Great Recession?
JB: Certainly the growing lack of skilled labor is driving innovation in the areas of prefabrication and other solutions that allow for more efficient use of labor on the jobsite. In the long run, however, this challenge will only be solved by doing a better job of messaging and recruiting young people into our industry. This is a serious long-term issue that requires changes in how our industry is perceived and understood by young people considering their career options. AGC Colorado and other organizations supporting our industry in the state have been collaborating on, legislative solutions such as HB. 15-1170, Postsecondary Workforce Readiness, currently under consideration. More importantly; tools have been created to assist job sourcing and provide a one-stop shop of industry opportunities. www.BuildColorado gives job seekers a place to quickly find the opportunities and develop a sense of the types of careers available in construction. Finally; through these same organizations and as individual companies, our industry is reaching out to middle and high schools, community colleges, and trade schools to promote the crafts and educate young people on the opportunities that exist in the field.
EH: Finding and retaining talented team members is a challenge for all firms. The market is extremely flush with activity; which in turn drives (some) people to consider a job change. Thankfully; Haselden hasn’t really experienced that type of attrition. We’re proud of the fact that Haselden is taking the opportunity to mentor young professionals and grow our workforce, especially in the trades we self-perform. We also have a robust training program, Haselden University; which gives our team members the ability to learn new skills. Giving people the opportunity to create their own destiny and not pigeon-hole them, so to speak, in to one particular path has proven successful.
With the uncertainties of the oil and gas industry at present, new workers are entering the construction workforce, which is helping with the labor shortage as well.
DN: When the industry cycle gets hot, everybody has to scramble to find qualified subcontractors, material suppliers, and others essential to the process of designing and building a successful project. As an integrated design-builder, we enroll our subcontractors and others as partners earlier in the process to get a jump-start on project information. Through this involvement, the team can make cost and schedule commitments to our projects well in advance. Trust is a big issue, and we do our best to build trust with our partners. In return, they find the talent necessary to get the job done. Without trust, the only way to get people to work together is by power and obedience. This is distrust, and it is a very expensive way to coordinate action.
MR: I think the interest in careers in the construction industry can be cyclical. We are currently see the gas and oil industry in a counter cycle and there may be opportunities to tap labor markets there, especially as Mortenson broadens its reach into the civil and horizontal markets. Throughout our 34-year history in Colorado, we have developed and consistently maintained organized outreach and internships with our educational institutions, from K-12 through college. We engage with the Construction Industry Training Council and Architecture, Engineering and Construction Mentorship programs to ensure a strong talent pipeline understands the opportunities in our industry.

What are the funding options for commercial real estate projects? PPP, joint venture, private development – please elaborate.
JB: At Saunders, we see innovation and change not just in process and techniques but in project delivery as well. Similar to the design and build processes, blurring of lines between developer, institutional owner, public agencies, designer and builder continue.
Public-private partnerships are continuing to move beyond just large transportation (horizontal) projects and toward vertical building and relatively smaller endeavors to achieve the most viable and efficient options to fund projects. New and different partnerships at all levels of the delivery stream are becoming more and more common as collaboration between all parties takes on unique and creative forms.
EH: Funding options for development deals vary on the size and type of project. We are seeing everything in Denver from private equity; institutional equity; large funds, etc. Denver has become a very appealing market for development investment and, as a result, a variety of structures are available depending on the risk profile, desired returns and hold periods. Construction deals and development deals are very different and, thus, the risk is completely different. When managed correctly; the can be very profitable and complimentary to both the development arm of the company and the construction arm of the company.
DN: The LEED Platinum Powerhouse Energy Campus at Colorado State University was a public-private partnership We developed a proforma to help our client understand the financing and other vital considerations necessary to make the project a reality. This project was a success. ENR Mountain States awarded this the top green project and one of the top three regional projects for 2014. Concerning funding, banks have new limitations on lending and despite low rates, financing is far more difficult to secure today The Dodd Frank Act has not helped.
MR: We believe there is a bright future for PPPs in Colorado. We are exploring several options related to PPPs. Certainly; the PPP structure is more conducive to governmental work higher education and infrastructure but we are exploring how it may work on other product types like hospitality and health care.
Mortenson is excited to be able to offer our clients a variety of options when it comes to financing their projects. We have augmented our presence in this area by adding staff who are solely responsible for finding the appropriate equity and debt partners
for our projects. We are able to offer related services of site analysis and selection and development cost-benefit analysis services to ensure our customers have a holistic real estate solution. Mortenson Development is also investing its own equity in certain opportunities, which allows us the flexibility and creativity to provide true alignment with our customers and partner’s needs.
Our platform allows us to work with existing land owners who want to remain in the deal or who want to keep the asset in the family for generations, providing flexibility and creativity. Combining construction and development allows us to guarantee price and schedule for these partners, thereby reducing their overall risk on the project.

Finally, how can general contractor firms grow and compete? Is there room for the midsize guy?
JB: At Saunders, we believe that we are better able to serve our customers and achieve success for our organization and its people through collaboration and partnerships. As a midsize regional contractor, it is often too easy to feel caught in the middle of the widening gap of large national and international firms and small “Mom and Pop” companies. We have formed partnerships at the project level that have allowed us to compete and grow into larger more complex projects and gain the experience and knowledge that come with performing on those projects.
Also, we have established long-lasting business relationships with peer companies in other major markets that allow us to deliver construction services on a national platform. Through our affiliation with the Citadel Group, we have the reach of a $25 billion work program in most major metropolitan areas around the country.
There is still a place for the midsize firm in our business but only to those that are willing to leverage their relationships and partnerships to compete at every level.
EH: Being nimble, listening and then responding to the market is the key to growth. Knowing what you excel at (and what you don’t) and sticking to your business plan also is crucial. Chasing “shiny objects” can be detrimental – if it looks too good to be true, it likely is. We pride ourselves on aligning our firm with customers who value what we have to offer. In turn, we strive to act as an extension of our customer’s business and truly offer them a superior experience to that of the competition.
We also do our own development, which creates opportunities for our construction company. This, too, has allowed Haselden to grow This has been primarily in senior living and multifamily; along with core office buildings.
DN: Smaller firms can leapfrog the traditional industry because they are nimble. We have always been a relatively small firm, and that has helped us focus on the client with our integrated design-build model. After nearly 50 years, we are still learning and having fun. It’s important to have happy clients and employees, but there are real challenges in any company.
Almost every industry is integrating except the construction industry. The construction industry needs innovative pioneers with courage to make the shift to design-build integration in the face of much criticism from those who represent the status quo.
Life occurs as a complex whole. When we can’t comprehend something in life, we break it into parts in an effort to understand what’s going on. In so doing, we tend to get lost in the parts. For example, if we want to know how a clock works, we break it down into the parts. This is called analysis. Our post-secondary education system specializes in teaching the parts. Most students are taught that their part in the building industry (design, engineering, field, etc.) is the most important.
As a result, when there is a breakdown, no single entity takes responsibility for the whole. The client gets stuck trying to understand what to do with the parts. Our challenge is to unite the diverse parts into a comprehensible whole for the benefit of the client. This is called synthesis. When our industry can do this effectively; it will be a new day.
MR: We encourage entrepreneurship and new ideas and support this culture with formalized internal training and mentorship programs as well as external mentoring efforts and outreach to minority; women, small and disadvantaged businesses. As one of the pioneers of BIM, Mortenson has a long ingrained history/culture of leveraging innovative technologies and we continue to do that into the 21st century. We are taking our expansive expertise with prefabrication and lean practices to deliver a higher-quality product to our customers, in a faster and safer environment.
This culture of innovation and “building what’s next” is made even more valuable when we look the ways we’ve been able to augment financing and development services, in addition to other programs such as energy use analysis and modeling. It’s about offering a complete and holistic solution and being a value-added partner.

Students break ground at new school

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Mineral County Miner

Posted: Thursday, May 29th, 2014
By Lyndsie Ferrell

CREEDE—The Creede School joined representatives from Neenan Company and Consilium Partners for a celebration and groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday.

Ominous clouds stayed at bay long enough for the ceremony to take place before moving in from the west. Creede students gathered around to hear about their new school. Brand new shovels were placed around the area to be used for the groundbreaking part of the ceremony. School Board President John Howard spoke to the crowd, “As I have said from the beginning of this project; we don’t need a new school. We need a new building to put our great school in. We already have a great school.”

The new building will be what is called a 21st Century school. The idea was to bring fresh air, natural light and green energy into the plans to enhance learning and take full advantage of the beautiful landscape surrounding the school.

Modern day technology will be placed throughout the building allowing learning throughout the halls, classrooms and other facilities. The school will be self-sufficient and run mostly on recycled energies, such as solar power. The building design has been drawn according to the needs and wants of the community.

Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb said, “This is a great day for the county, kids and the community.” The excitement of getting started emanated from the crowd as shovels were passed around and everyone took a turn digging into the soil that would soon become the new school. The children stepped forward and were able to participate in the groundbreaking as well.

Construction on the school will begin in June and should be finished in August of 2015.

For the complete article see the 05-29-2014 issue.

What’s the Buzz around Neenan?

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As a new school year begins and summer winds down, we wanted to share a few of the projects that The Neenan Company was awarded over the past few months. All of these projects have very tight schedules, requiring Neenan’s integrated architecture and construction staff to jump right into design and get started. The projects range from a small renovation to a new $30 million hospital, check out the highlights below:



Start – November 14, 2013

End – January 8, 2015

Size – 60,000 square feet

Type – Healthcare, Rural hospital

Location – Prineville, Oregon

Description – Currently in the design phase, the health care campus project for St. Charles Health System, will replace their current facility, Pioneer Memorial Hospital, and will be renamed as St. Charles – Prineville. The new facility will be slated as a Critical Access Hospital and will feature an Emergency Department, imaging and laboratory services, two surgical suites, 12 inpatient beds, a retail pharmacy and more.


Senior Center

Start – October 21, 2013

End – May 26, 2014

Size – 14,000 square foot addition

Type – Municipal, Community center

Location – Fort Collins, Colorado

Description – The City of Fort Collins Senior Center expansion is currently in the design phase. At this time, this public project is working to raise funds through a campaign committee. The project consists of an expansion of the current Senior Center, located on Raintree Drive in Fort Collins, Colorado. The new project will accommodate the ever-expanding senior population, and will house fitness and wellness facilities for the users of the center and will also add additional parking spaces.


Ridgeview Classical School

Start – June 3, 2013

End – August 30, 2013

Size – 7,600 square foot renovation

Type – Education, Charter school

Location – Fort Collins, Colorado

Description – Currently in construction, Ridgeview Classical School is a public K-12 Charter School, chartered through Poudre School District. The challenging renovation was initiated due to growth in the school. The renovation of the stand-alone building will provide six additional high school classrooms and a conference space.

Carrying out small by design school spaces

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In 2011, we wrote about Big Ideas for Small Schools and the small school movement. Mapleton Public Schools’ small by design educational model is one where greater attention to students and increased choice on the part of students and parents, ultimately leads to greater academic success. This educational model was translated into school facilities at the Skyview Campus and our design team created dynamic spaces to intentionally serve the students, here’s a few:


Clayton Intervention

Specialized intervention spaces were developed throughout the building to encourage small group learning and individual assessments.  These transparent spaces provide a window into the development of children while encouraging staff to learn from each other.  Providing locations throughout the building allow for ultimate flexibility.


Project Center

A campus library, utilized by all schools, encouraged Mapleton Public Schools to transform a traditional library within each building into a project center.  Sharing the space between two schools increased flexibility and allows for multiple uses.  Maximizing day lighting, providing a connection to the outdoors and furnishing the project center with flexible furniture allows for presentations, book studies, robotics, painting, individual study and community meetings.   The project center became an integral piece of each school.


Clayton Classroom Extension

In collaboration with the design team, Mapleton converted every square inch of each of the new spaces into usable learning environments. Circulation space is designed to become an extension of classrooms for team building, group meetings and peer to peer development.   The space is at the end of a hallway that connects two wings of the single facility.  This large space transforms into a hub for learning.   Daylighting from large windows increases student comfort and provides connection to the outdoors.  Hard surface flooring and flexible furniture allow for changing activities.


MESA Multi-Use Space

Every space is a learning space. Integrating the large interior classroom windows throughout the corridor encourages students to take their learning beyond the walls of their classroom, while still providing visual control and supervision. MESA students learn through the arts, this learning style formed the building design. Hard surface floors are integrated for multiple activities, walls are covered with self-healing tack boards to encourage display of student art and adjacencies were designed with other subjects, further encouraging connection and collaboration between subject areas.


The attention to the detail, both large and small, at Mapleton Public Schools enhances learning at every turn.  Students within the District have fabulous spaces to learn and grow thanks to their small by design model.

Improving student performance in Alamosa

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Beginning in the fall of 2011, students filled the hallways of the new Alamosa Elementary Schools for the first time. The project began as a way for the school district to improve academic performance and developed as a way to blend traditional culture with 21st century opportunities.

Student comfort and performance guided the design of these 72,500 square foot schools. Through design work sessions with the staff and community, the Neenan design team developed a variety of teaching spaces, display areas, kid niches and community areas.  The buildings are broken down into components reducing the scale for young students. Inside the school, textures and vivid colors of the surrounding environment inspire and invigorate the students and staff. Nearly every space has daylighting and outdoor views, which is proven to increase student achievement.

Did these innovative designs actually impact educational outcomes in Alamosa?

We asked the elementary school leadership, this question and were excited to learn their answers. They noted several academic celebrations since their move into the new facilities:

•  Outscored the state in reading and math in 3rd grade assessments

•  Growth increase in 6out of 10 academic areas

•  Closed the gaps for the English Language Learners faster than the state average

•  Student attendance rates are above 95%

•  Influx of parents who participated or were  involved in parent engagement activities that included concerts, academic nights (reading/math), and physical education activities

•  Staff attendance was at an 95% yearly average

•  Gave 100% of our students “proud moments” and an academic award for individualized citizenship and academic achievements

A building cannot teach, but the environment will influence the learning that happens.  By focusing on the children as the client, we created a space where students want to learn and do learn.

As a result of the superior education outcomes, the Alamosa School Campus was awarded the 2012 Merit Peak Award from the Rocky Mountain Region of the Council for Education Facility Planners (CEFPI). This award recognizes K-12 projects with an outstanding planning process, learning and physical environment, and community involvement.

Alamosa Design Team: Ann Marie & David

Embodied Energy and the Built Environment: An Interview with Brian Dunbar

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As part of our blog series on Neenan’s collaboration with the Powerhouse Energy Institute, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Brian Dunbar, a LEED Fellow and Executive Director for the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University on the topic of embodied energy.

 Professor Brian Dunbar (Image courtesy of CSU)

The Institute for the Built Environment was created in 1994 as an inter-disciplinary, research based, group of faculty, students, and off-campus professionals with a mission to foster stewardship and sustainability of the built and natural environments through inter-disciplinary research and education. The Institute often consults on sustainability and green building and has trained over 1000 professionals on green building and LEED through its outreach programs. Here is what Brian Dunbar shared with us on the topic of embodied energy.

Q: How would you describe the relevance of embodied energy to design and construction today versus 10 years ago?

“Some in the engineering and design profession caught on to the concept over 30 to 40 years ago during the energy crisis. I think it became a relevant topic then but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the conversation ramped up with increased interest in energy modeling and material selections in projects.”

Q: Who are leading thinkers and doers with regards to modeling and quantifying embodied energy in the built environment and construction industry as a whole?

“A government agency, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) created BEEs, which have been around for 20 years to try to quantify embodied energy in materials in production and manufacturing. Then there is a private group called the Athena Sustainable Materials institute based in Canada, looking at building systems for embodied energy. NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) in Golden, CO has also furthered the concept of embodied energy. And, SOGES (School of Global and Environmental Sustainability) at Colorado State University has brought together like minded individuals such as Keith Paustian and his work with the Carbon Footprint Group Metric Group, who are recognized researchers in carbon emissions in natural environments and are now translating their work to the built environment.”

Q: What role do entities like the Institute for Built Environment, the newly formed National Academy of Environmental Design, and the USGBC have in furthering discussions of embodied energy as it relates to the built environment?

“What we need very quickly is a heightened awareness and education. We’re in need of hard data that comes in a readily usable form that built environment professionals can use to make informed decisions about embodied energy on projects. USGBC has helped to further the conversation yet there is a lot more to be done. There are few credits that address embodied energy in the USGBC’s LEED system, for example. But we also need tools and resources that are user friendly so project teams can decisively implement the concept of embodied energy in their project decisions.”

Q: How do you see industry rating systems like the LEED rating system and Cradle-to-Cradle assisting in informing the public and industry professionals about embodied energy in the built environment?

“LEED and related systems have done a remarkable job of bringing so many different sustainable building concepts to the minds of the project decision makers. Now we need to think about how and where embodied energy will be a more relevant and pertinent part of the decision making process once the rating systems more overtly define embodied energy as a central part of that process and put it in front of design teams.”

Q:  Finally, what trends do you see emerging around the concept of embodied energy?

“What I have begun to see, thanks to the USGBC and many other partners, is an overall effort towards transparency. There is a growing nucleus of professional leaders pushing for radical transparency where design professionals and industry leaders open their books and show us what is in that product or material. Then embodied energy will be part of a transparent and open materials selection process. I think we will see a growth in materials transparency and selections for design systems and I am anxious to see this process grow to the point where industry leaders consistantly demand more informational transparency as well.”

As you can see, from our discussions with Professor Dunbar, a lot of good work has been done, but more needs to happen. We would like to thank Brian for his time and insights, not to mention his continued efforts to improve the built environment. So what do you think the future of the embodied energy topic in the built environment will be?

Bill Petersen


Emerging technologies, emergent design:

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We have seen, through the rapid democratization of technology over the last 10-15 years, an increased access to computing power, manufacturing advancements and shared knowledge for a growing segment of the global population. These advancements in access to computing power and knowledge sharing have enabled individuals and businesses to also develop their own ideas and technologies. The World Economic Forum, for example, has created several initiatives that enable individuals, groups and organizations to utilize design and emerging technologies to develop their own creative solutions to the pressing issues we face.

With a laptop, rapid prototyping technology, and 3D printing, individuals can now design custom components for replacement parts, develop their own ‘backyard’ R&D company to solve unique problems and share those technology advancements with the larger world. At the same time, universities and industry are developing nanotechnologies to create new materials that have the potential to impact the built environment with superlight building materials that are stronger and use less material than ever. These materials also outperform today’s technologies.
Architects and designers are also applying integrated design methodologies to design carbon neutral buildings that push the envelope in sustainable design and material applications across a wide variety of project types. The Pixel building by Grocon in Melbourne, Australia for example, captured headlines earlier this year with its carbon neutrality, vacuum toilet system, anaerobic digestion system and water self sufficiency. The building also features “pixelcrete”, wind turbines, a living roof and tracking photovoltaic roof panels.

Photo: Gavin Anderson

Such advances in technology and methodologies enable building professionals to design, develop and deliver more advanced building solutions. These solutions provide clients with greater efficiencies, project specific customizations, better performance, and lowered fabrication costs while minimizing the material demands and environmental impacts.

Which emerging technologies and methodologies will you apply to your next project?


Bill Petersen, Jr. AIA

Playing While Learning Together

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Today’s classroom designs reflect an on-going evolution in how teachers and schools communicate necessary knowledge, critical thinking and applicable problem solving skills to students.

ES Classroom - The Neenan CompanyHowever, school design remained largely unchanged until the last decade. Prior to the Internet and growing interactivity of learning materials and knowledge, classroom environments and design reinforced and reflected a very top-down approach to teaching. Many of these learning environments were designed to purposely focus the students’ attention towards the instructor located at the head of the classroom, dictating knowledge to students for rote memorization with rigor and discipline. Space making and school design were inherently designed to be hermetically closed environments in which the students were confined for their day’s lessons. Instructors were also disinclined to encourage non-hierarchical learning methods.

Interaction and interactive learning was unknown and underdeveloped until the early 2000s. But as learning curriculum and delivery platforms have rapidly evolved in the last 5 to 8 years, school design has changed considerably in response to conflicting requirements of evolving school curricula. One primary concern has emerged — how to provide safe, secure learning environments and school communities separate from the larger community, while at the same time create and design schools that are beacons of community involvement, interactive learning, adaptive space use and rapidly changing technology and content platforms? Architects, contractors and education professionals must now balance these conflicting and seemingly disparate needs into a singular built environment that fosters evolving methods of community-based, collaborative learning environments, as well as individual learning opportunities.

Contemporary school designs are responding in creative ways that foster non-traditional learning spaces and environments outside of, and complementary to, traditional school hierarchy and classroom design. These new designs create break-out spaces for impromptu learning opportunities, quiet window seating and outdoor space for individual learning, as well as interactive spaces for group play and collaborative problem solving and learning.

As the internet, digital media and interactive learning continue to evolve and become more prevalent in classroom and school environments, school design must continue to evolve and provide adaptive and transformative spaces that can serve the current and future needs of students, educators and communities. Schools are fast becoming the incubators of creative learning methods with collaborative approaches to knowledge gathering, playing by learning, and community-based curricula.

What do you think the future shape of learning and of our schools will be?

William G. Petersen



Reframing Sustainable Design in Education and Healthcare

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Since 2008, the rate of construction for new public buildings, hospitals and public schools, has lagged significantly due to its capital intensive nature. What has this lag meant for sustainable design? What will the continuing yet slow economic recovery mean for sustainable design in the healthcare and education sectors specifically?

1. A wide view. Healthcare and education decision makers need to take a wide-view approach on how to achieve long-term goals such as, reducing life-cycle operating costs, attracting high-quality staff and faculty,  as well as improving patient wellness and student learning. Reducing capital investment expenses for improvements with the least amount of expenditure and expense to investors and/or tax paying citizens, remains a top priority. This set of conditions, coupled with federal and state governments formulating and enacting tighter energy codes and enforcing compliance, means sustainable design will continue to be a necessary part of the design equation.

Elementary school addition in Edgard Louisiana

2. Keep pushing the envelope. While many in the construction industry see the benefits of sustainable design, healthcare and education decision makers are often still reluctant to commit to building LEED certified buildings. Lagging unfamiliarity, perceived expense, and time involved with the certification process combined with stakeholder doubts, can undermine the pursuit of sustainable design. But, rapid improvements in applied technologies, planning strategies and sustainable design can also focus decision maker attention on developing capital project solutions that meet the growing demands of stakeholders and occupants for healthier buildings with lower long-term operating costs.

Children’s Hospital Addition in Birmingham, England. Photo by Elliot Brown.

3. Think adaptive reuse. Growing numbers of sustainable design projects in both healthcare and education  show increased benefits for building occupants that encourage decision makers to embrace sustainable design. It is now common to see projects that implement sustainable design goals without necessarily seeking LEED certification. Instead, these projects make use of other metrics to meet long term sustainability goals that decision makers set for their project. In a recovering economy where decision makers find it difficult to repeat the “Bilbao-effect” of a few years ago, many are addressing capital improvements needs through additions, adaptive reuse, and renovations of existing building stocks. Adaptive reuse in particular (2010 study), has enabled education and healthcare decision makers to continue improving operating goals with less-capital intensive projects over the lifetime of the institution, while also implementing low-cost technologies and passive strategies to existing building stocks. In the U.S. and abroad, design professionals, industries representatives, and academia are actively integrating sustainable design across disciplines to address the growing need for sustainable design solutions.

Nokia Headquarters – Adaptive Reuse in Sydney, Australia

In summary, sustainable design is no longer just a marketing trend. Instead, it provides a serious design methodology and framework that can be utilized by decision makers to help deliver healthier buildings in a market with tighter construction budgets and schedules, increasing construction costs, rising energy prices and climate change impacts. As a result, sustainable design continues to improve and inform the design process to deliver buildings serving the long-term goals of decision makers and provide better working, living, and learning environments for all.

How will you embed sustainable design into your next project?

William G. Petersen
Images by author except where noted.