The World's Greenest General Contractor Talks About Our Efficient Future

By many measures, Webcor Builders is the greenest general contractor of any significant size on the planet. With $3.5 billion in 2009 revenues, Webcor derives 85% of its revenues from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects -- the highest percentage of revenue of any large builder. In 2010, Webcor expects to get 99% of its revenue from LEED projects, a stunning statistic for California's largest builder of hotels, office parks, high rises and other large projects.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% In fact, Webcor now only builds or plans LEED projects, even when the customers have not requested that level of environmental awareness and sustainability. Webcor also recycles, reuses or donates 99% of the waste stream from its large products. That's compared to a less-than-40% recycling rate for the industry as a whole.

Beyond putting up green buildings, Webcor has also taken on a role as a key player in the green building technology ecosystem. When venture capitalists want feedback on whether a green building product is ready for the market, they talk to Phil Williams, Webcor's vice president of sustainability and systems engineering. When budding entrepreneurs are looking for venture capitalists to back their green-building ideas, they talk to Williams. And Williams and his team have become key information providers on green products for the various tradesmen and subcontractors that work with Webcor regularly.

I recently met with Williams in the company's headquarters across the street from Giants Stadium in San Francisco. Here are some excerpts from our long conversation:

DailyFinance: I'm curious. How many ideas for new green-building products or new products ready to be tried come across your desk?
Phil Williams: Three years ago, it may have been one new product per quarter. Now, I typically will talk to two venture capital firms a week with a different product or a different series of products. And one other product comes to us each week from an inventor or CEO. It's quite a dramatic change in terms of innovation and companies making green products for the building industry.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for venture investment? What are the largest inefficiencies in building today?
I think the building envelope -- the external glass and skeleton and walls -- [is] a huge opportunity. It's like your skin. The building envelope determines how efficient the rest of your systems are going to run. The interior systems are totally reliant on the outdoor environment. The building's purpose is to provide comfort -- to keep rain out, not too hot, not too cold, not too dark. How hard the interior systems have to work, how efficient they will be, depends on how well the envelope can insulate the interior from heat or cold.

In that vein, we think glass or glazing right now is a penalty to the building in terms of its energy efficiency. Glass makes buildings hotter in summer and colder in the winter. But glass can be dynamic: It can be lightened and darkened or changed.

We think glass will soon be equal to a standard brick or concrete wall in terms of energy efficiency. There are some early products in the field from Sage and Serious Materials, among others. Right now, they are roughly twice as efficient as standard glass. But we think there will be a day when advanced glass will more more efficient -- maybe even 10 times more efficient than standard glass. At that point, it will be easy to put high-efficiency glass on buildings, because it will pay for itself very quickly, even at a higher price point.

Are you talking about glass on new buildings or also retrofitting old buildings?
Both. The glass on old buildings often gets replaced after a period of time. It starts to look bad, or the seams go. It's not always a mandatory replacement, but it is common. With high-efficiency glass, you can make the decision to replace old glass a very easy one, rather than holding off for a few more years. Because at those levels of very high efficiency, better glass will have lots of other effects.

For example, with the new glass, a building's air-conditioning system may only have to work half as hard. That could mean a smaller air-conditioning unit that uses less power. Or if the glass holds heat in better in the winters, then maybe a building owner won't have to replace replace all three boilers when they wear out. They will only need one boiler.

And this ties into a general theme. As much as new construction is interesting and sexy, the older buildings that we are not going to tear down and were not built to be efficient are the ones in greatest need of improvement. And that is going to be an enormous market for green construction technologies.

Give a few examples of what you mean.
We talked about glass. Another area is lighting and lighting controls. Right now, most commercial buildings lights on a floor have two settings -- on or off. So you could have one person working late using the lights and wasting an enormous amount of energy. Lighting controls that let someone control the lights right over their desk or for a row of cubes or for parts of a floor are now available. They allow control right from a desktop computer.

And increasingly these controls are also wireless. Copper corrodes, and wires are an enormous hassle. If a thermostat is set in a bad place on a wall, but you have to rip up a ceiling over someone's desk to get to the wires to move the thermostat, then the thermostat usually stays. This is true for lighting, too.

But once you get rid of the wires, then it's very easy to build in sophisticated control systems. You can just put a device on the end of a light ballast that can regulate the current and allow lights to dim or brighten or turn off, and do it without ever pulling copper [wire]. Some of the wireless names out there that we have looked at include Adura, Archrock and Cypress [an offshoot of Cypress Semiconductors]. Anything wireless that can be integrated into building controls has high potential.

What are the next steps beyond just using more efficient and environmentally friendly materials, and some things like lighting controls?
We are coming to a time where we need to not only judge the efficiency of the building envelope, but also efficiency as it relates to occupancy. You can run a LEED gold-certified building, but if it's only 15% full, then it's wasteful. So we need to look more closely at the right kind of mixed-use buildings where people live and shop, but also that buildings be right-sized for maximal occupancy.

We may need to physically judge how a building performs not only in aggregate, but on a per-person basis, since sheltering people is the primary goal of a building, not keeping an enclosure warm. So maybe this will mean more efficient use of space and more hoteling of people in and out. I think it will also mean a rising use of occupancy sensors.

But we also have to change how we judge a building to be efficient. Right now, if buildings are occupied over 55% of the time, that's considered a high use factor. If you bumped that up to 85%, then the building would actually have a higher per-square-foot energy usage and under current standards be considered less green, even though it might mean we don't have to build and run another building. That will require a different type of energy efficiency measurement.
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