September 1, 2007

The Green Light

Initially reluctant to jump on the eco-construction bandwagon, industrial companies are playing catch-up.

Chicago Tube & Iron’s New Service Center in Romeoville, Illinois, may not include all of the latest eco-friendly bells and whistles such as a green roof, solar panels and geothermal heating. But with its energy-efficient lighting, it’s about as green as a service center gets. While that may not be much to boast about, given today’s eco-centric design world, it’s no small feat in an industry that barely participates in green design.

Working with the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC), a partnership between the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Chicago Tube & Iron (CTI) was well aware of green design possibilities as it began planning its new plant in early 2004. But the company had set a goal: a three-year payback for any eco-friendly construction components used in the facility. “Going green is good for the planet, but it has to make economic sense,” says Tom Moran, Chicago Tube vice president of information technology and internal project manager for construction. “The environment and the bottom line have to go hand in hand.”

In Chicago Tube’s case, they’ve been a good match. While the lighting system, which uses fluorescent rather than standard metal halide lights, added an additional $52,250 to the project’s cost, it is projected to save the company anywhere from $780 to $2,458 a month in energy bills.

The metals and industrial world has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to green design. Many plants are old and costly to retrofit. Relatively few greenfield plants are built. Even so, green consciousness is ever so slowly gaining currency in heavy industry.

One of the best-known green manufacturing projects is Ford Motor Co.’s $2 billion renovation of its River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The project included a 10.5-acre green roof, which uses vegetation to reduce heating and cooling costs, as well as a natural drainage system, which directs runoff back to the soil rather than through pipes and ditches. Those features cost $35 million less to construct than a conventional approach to storm water management.

Companies fortunate enough to have built new plants, such as Chicago Tube and Klein Steel Co. in Rochester, New York, have the opportunity to do their part for the environment while setting a new standard for metals companies and manufacturers. It’s an issue that metals companies will likely confront as they consider reinvestment in their facilities.

The industry is just in the preliminary stages of environmentally friendly construction. But Marilyn Grace, general manager of MC Steel Inc., whose new service center in Wheeling, Illinois, wasn’t designed with green standards top of mind, says that with utility costs rising so rapidly, manufacturers increasingly will opt for energysaving design. “We’re just beginning to understand the benefits,” she says.


A number of U.S. organizations—about two dozen in specific geographic areas around the country—want to make sure that green is top of mind. They aim to compensate for the fact that the U.S. has no federal regulations ensuring a minimal level of environmental sustainability in its buildings.

Environmentally friendly features often are initially more costly than the conventional alternatives. But research indicates there ultimately may be a higher price to pay for not opting to incorporate at least some green construction components, including building materials that are non-toxic, reusable or recyclable, such as stone and metal; energy-efficient machinery that optimizes heating and cooling systems; and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Essentially, building green is the practice of increasing the efficiency of buildings while reducing their impact on the environment through improved site selection, design, construction, operation, maintenance and ultimately demolition—the complete life cycle of a building.

The Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says commercial buildings account for about 18% of all energy consumption in the United States. (The group doesn’t break down manufacturing versus office.) Five years ago, the commercial sector consumed 17,400 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of primary energy—a 64% increase over 1980 levels. To put it in perspective, a 100-watt light bulb produces 341 Btu of heat energy. Lighting and indoor climate control consumed 59% of commercial sector primary energy.

The dominant player domestically in eco-friendly building development is the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Since its inception in 1993, USGBC’s message has been that efficient design can reduce a building’s energy and water costs by more than 30%, with a payback in fewer than five years.

Toward that end, it authored the voluntary Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which bestows certification upon buildings that meet USGBC’s requirements and performance benchmarks, or credits. Depending on the number of credits achieved, projects are awarded a Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum ranking.

USGBC’s roster includes close to 900 LEED-certified completed commercial projects, with 6,790 applicants under construction. But USGBC lists a mere 30 LEEDcertified manufacturing projects, only a handful of which are in metals-related industries. “In my experience, the steel industry isn’t striving to make its buildings more energy-efficient for the sake of the environment,” says Arthur Helt, president of the consulting firm AGH and Associates in Lake Forest, Illinois. “Green ideas are put in play if it means saving money.”

Achieving LEED certification adds an additional layer of fees and is more likely to be sought by a developer seeking tenants for an office building or industrial park rather than a manufacturer renovating or constructing a plant.


Chicago Tube figured it would be economic to opt for at least some eco-friendly construction elements at its $22 million headquarters facility, opened in October 2005.

To entice Chicago Tube to move to Romeoville, 33 miles southwest of Chicago, the village gave the company a list of organizations that could help in its relocation efforts. Included in that list was SEDAC. “We were looking for ways to reduce energy costs, but weren’t sure of the best way to go about it,” Moran says.

Founded in 2004, SEDAC’s mandate is to help small businesses in Illinois implement energy-efficient practices. SEDAC offers no incentives; its mandate is simply to reduce energy costs within Illinois and, at the same time, promote commerce in the state.

“Looking at buildings from an energy-efficient standpoint is a new ballgame for manufacturing, and with good reason,” says Alan Chalifoux, president of Champaign, Illinois-based Eta Engineers, a SEDAC-affiliated engineering firm that worked with Chicago Tube on its new building. “When you look at the profile of most manufacturing facilities, the energy used in the manufacturing processes themselves dwarves the energy used by the building. So naturally that hasn’t been a priority.”

Chicago Tube elected to consider the building itself an energy issue anyway. “We decided to pick the low-hanging fruit first,” Moran says. From an environmental standpoint, that meant lighting.

Originally, CTI had designed the 400,000-square-foot building with metal halide fixtures, but SEDAC suggested using high-efficiency fluorescent lighting instead. It turns out that it may take longer than three years to recoup the investment, but Moran says the advantages are compelling. The phosphorus in fluorescent fixtures provides more lighting output per watt than halide lights. The lighting output of fluorescent lights decreases about 6% over time, compared to a 24% decrease from metal halide lights.

Moran notes another advantage to fluorescent lighting. Because it is more diffused than metal halide lighting, employees find it easier on the eyes for work purposes such as reading blueprints and labels. Chicago Tube also opted to install fewer lights in areas with fewer employees, such as storage spaces. CTI further enhanced efficiency by controlling the lighting through motion-detector sensors, installed at the end of each row of overhead fixtures. “Some decisions were just common sense,” Moran says.

Other green measures were just too costly. While Chicago Tube installed insulating foam between precast panels that comprise the building’s shell, including the foundation and roof, it drew the line at SEDAC’s recommendation to use heat exchangers, which extract energy from the air leaving the building and transfer it into the air entering the building. Because the building was designed to pull in air from roof-mounted heating units and the building is kept cool in the winter, the savings incurred from heat exchangers would have been insignificant, Moran says.

The company also rejected SEDAC’s suggestion for geothermal heating. Moran said he wasn't comfortable with the data presented and didn’t have the time to do further research on geothermal’s cost effectiveness.

Chicago Tube explored environmental options without SEDAC’s help, including a natural landscape and green roof, but eventually rejected both ideas. Yes, a landscape of native grasses and wildflowers would have eliminated the need for pesticides to control weeds, watering, fertilizers and mowing. But as Moran notes, “We have to live with our neighbors, and we knew that, come winter, our grounds would have looked like a bunch of dead weeds.” The company did choose to use water from the ground’s large retention pond for irrigation, saving the cost of pumping in city water and adding the environmental benefit of recycling untreated water.

But a green roof, with a roster of environmental plusses that includes thermal-energy absorption and building insulation, was vetoed. Chicago Tube decided the structural steel required to carry extra weight of dirt, plants and water would be too costly. A conventional roof costs $3 to $9 per square foot, while a green roof costs $10 to $24 per square foot, depending on variables such as soil depth and plants, says Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that promotes green roofs in North America.


Klein Steel knows the cost issues of building green firsthand. When constructing its now three-year-old plant, CEO Joseph Klein wanted the 132,000-square-foot structure, as well as the 75,000-square-foot addition now under construction, to be a showcase green facility. “It was very difficult and very frustrating,” Klein recalls. “To build it to LEED-certification standards would have raised the cost excessively and slowed the project dramatically. In the end, we just couldn’t do it.”

Klein instead elected to include only a few green elements: fluorescent lighting, insulation in the building shell and a computer system that monitors internal temperature. “We’re not at the cutting edge of green design, but we’ve made an effort to embrace the concept because it’s a good business decision,” says Al Mangiamele, Klein’s chief operating officer.

When Earle M. Jorgensen Co. (EMJ) built an addition to its service center in Schaumburg, Illinois, more than four years ago, it took a more conservative approach to energy efficiency. It installed fluorescent lighting in the addition, and is replacing lights in the existing structure with the same lighting. The company also added windows to allow natural light. “It may not seem like much, but we’ve found that even those small changes have saved us money,” says Tony Granata, EMJ director of operations. “I believe that everyone will have to drop their resistance to spending up front for energy efficiency because, ultimately, it makes economic sense.”

Grace sees another issue aside from manufacturing’s resistance to the cost of going green: a lack of knowledge about the benefits of green buildings. “We went into our project knowing very little about green construction,” she says. “It wasn’t really part of the discussion.”

However, the 54,000-square-foot facility did end up including several sound energy-efficient components. The precast concrete shell is inherently green-friendly because it provides significant additional insulation. The office portion of the building faces east, taking advantage of natural lighting. “Of course we’re all for making choices that are good for the environment,” Grace says. “But this plant was built because we had to move out of our former location to make way for an airport expansion, and we couldn’t find an existing manufacturing building with high enough ceilings. Green construction wasn’t front of mind.”

Green design is on the rise globally. Last year, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) formed an alliance of leading global companies, including United Technologies Corp. and Parisbased building materials producer Lafarge Group, to determine how buildings can be designed and constructed so that they are energy self-sufficient and can be built and operated at fair market values.

The WBCSD wants to transform the way buildings are conceived, constructed and operated. Its goal: By 2050, new buildings will consume zero net energy from external power supplies and produce zero net carbon dioxide emissions, yet be economically viable to construct and operate.

USGBC considers this goal one of the most far-reaching and accessible steps toward integration of environmentally progressive work environments in the U.S.

But before that transformation takes place, manufacturers will have to see the economic incentive. “Saving money is the key for industry,” Grace says. “If you can help the environment at the same time, all the better.”