Green buildings are popping up everywhere, and many construction companies are acquiring the skills and certifications necessary to join the green wave. Tri-North Builders is not an exception. They, however, went a step further: not only are they experts in building green, but they decided to build their own Gold LEED certified office headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.I had the opportunity to ask Tom Thayer, Tri-North’s President and CEO, a few questions regarding their beautiful office building and their experience building it.
Tom Thayer is one of three founders of Tri-North Builders. His expertise is evident by the firm’s success as one of Wisconsin’s largest contractors, with annual sales of more than $175 million in 2006. Tom feels the prime ingredient for success is quality people. He is proud of Tri-North’s trained and dedicated team, from the managers in the office to the craftsmen on the construction site. As President of Tri-North Builders, Tom is responsible for overseeing accountingand project management activities. Tompersonally monitors the activities of projects and provides whatever resources he deems necessary for the project to run smoothly. His goal is to ensure successful completion and owner satisfaction.Tri-North Builders was established in Madison, Wisconsin in 1981 as a GeneralConstruction/Construction Management firm. Our services include GeneralConstruction, Construction Management, Design/Build, Independent CostEstimating and LEED® (green) Consulting services.
Cesar: Welcome to the Construction Bridge, thanks for being with us. What gave you the idea to build a LEED-certified headquarters building?
Tom: We’d already been encouraging clients to build sustainably for a number of years, so when we started coming up with concepts for a new headquarters, it only made sense that we practice what we preach. I believe we in the construction industry have a responsibility to do what we can to protect our environment and our natural resources, and I would have a hard time justifying asking my clients to take those measures if I wasn’t willing to do so myself. On top of that, there was the added bonus of truly understanding what it means to have a LEED-certified building. There is no better way to truly understand the various sustainable features, how they work, how they affect your environment and your people, and the return on investment than to actually have your own LEED-certified building.
Cesar: Why do you feel it was important?
Tom: I think this answer bleeds into my previous answer. First, I believe we should all focus on protecting our environment and minimizing our impact on the environment. The construction industry is not exempt. I have believed for quite some time that we at Tri-North have a responsibility to build as sustainably as possible. We encourage all of our clients to build sustainably, which many times includes pursuing LEED certification. However, even if a client doesn’t intend to pursue LEED, we present to them various sustainable options, often at little to no extra cost. We really try to help our clients understand how a sustainable feature will affect them, the cost of the feature, the return on investment, and how it will affect the environment. We want our clients to be smart purchasers of sustainable features. Even when our clients choose not to build sustainably, we emphasize construction waste recycling on every job site. Everyone must do what they can to change our world, and sustainable construction is a step in the right direction.Second, I believe as a contractor that encourages clients to build sustainably, it is important that we live the same commitment ourselves. It seems a bit disingenuous to tell our clients they need to spend a little more on sustainable construction if we aren’t willing to do it ourselves.
Cesar: It makes a lot of sense. How has your green headquarters been received? Can you give me an anecdote?
Tom: The response to our facility has been overwhelmingly positive. 5 years later, we are still regularly hosting tour groups interested in learning more about the sustainable features of the building. Everyone who visits seems to appreciate the openness of the building and its LEED features. Plus, now we have the ability to discuss in more detail the return on investment that we’ve seen over the last 5 years.The facility has also served as an excellent showpiece for clients interested in building green, and for those who never thought they wanted or needed to build green. As one example, there is a company located near us that makes scientific instruments. They had outgrown their current facility and were looking to build right around the time that we finished this building. Their owner hadn’t really considered hiring us because she thought we were probably too large of a company for their needs, and she certainly hadn’t considered incorporating sustainability into their facility, as they are largely a manufacturing company. However, she attended the open house we had when this building was finished and she and I spoke in-depth about the sustainable features of our building, the cost impact, etc. The end result was that she engaged us as the design-builder for their facility, which incorporated many sustainable features. Their beautiful facility has won a number of awards. And the great news is that they have continued to grow and she recently contacted us regarding expanding their facility.
Cesar: That’s a great story. Back to your headquarters, was it challenging to build it?
Tom: When we built our LEED building we were one of the first in the area to do so. We not only had to educate ourselves but the entire team from subcontractors, suppliers, field staff, architects and engineers. Quite a bit of the technology was still emerging so we had to be pretty careful to make sure the items we selected had the bugs worked out but still push the envelope on efficiencies. Also at the time we built our building many of the manufacturers only carried one line of finishes in 4 different colors so you didn’t get the variety you would if you were to build today.
Cesar: Well, the building looks great. Now, there has been some controversy on the value of the LEED certifications. Have utility bills reflected the value of the LEED certification?Would you have some statistics on that you’d be willing to share?
Tom: On our corporate headquarters building completed in 2006 we have currently lowered our utility cost per square foot from $2.37 to $1.72 by making adjustments to the current control system and fine tuning the mechanical and electrical equipment. Moving forward we hope to lower the utility costs to approximately $1.50 per square foot reducing our overall annual utility usage by close to 40%. By doing the initial audits of the building we were able to bring to meet the original energy model that was done for the building.
Cesar: It is great to learn of actual numbers, thanks for sharing that. Has your experience with your own building helped you secure more LEED contracts and helped you manage them better?
Tom: I wouldn’t necessarily say it has helped us secure more LEED contracts, as we already had been encouraging our clients to build sustainably for years. However, it has helped us give clients an idea of what they can do in their own facilities and helped us give them a better picture of the investment they would be making to build LEED or build sustainably. That has been invaluable. In terms of managing LEED contracts, approximately 95% of our project managers are LEED Accredited Professionals, so they already knew how to build LEED projects and how to manage LEED contracts, so I wouldn’t say that the building has helped them do that better. Our director of sustainable services, Holly Hawkins, who also was the project manager for our headquarters, certainly has learned a lot from building and maintaining this building.
Cesar: What advice would you give other owners of construction firms regarding investing into LEED certifications for their installations?
Tom: I would say that if you are going to encourage your clients to invest in LEED certification or if you are going to encourage clients to build sustainably, you probably want to walk the walk.
Cesar: Can you share a LEED-related resource you use with our readers?
Tom: We use both Greensource and website called BuildingGreen.com. The website is a great resource because they have sample projects posted from all over the country and what they did to achieve a sustainable or LEED building. There is also an index of materials by specification section which is helpful for finding multiple product suppliers/manufacturers.Thanks for answering these questions.
Cesar: That is a great resource. Thank you so much for answering these questions. It was fascinating to learn about your headquarters and your expertise in building green.That’s it for our interview with Tom Thayer. For more information on Tom Thayer and Tri-North, please visit Tri-North’s website.