USACE Promotes Sustainable Construction Practices on Last Frontier
BY RACHEL NAPOLITAN, ALASKA DISTRICT
Each year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Alaska District constructs projects for the military valued in the millions of dollars to support readiness, training, and quality-of-life initiatives for service members in the far north. For each of these endeavors, the agency works to meet sustainability goals by ensuring the construction practices and new facilities are as energy efficient as possible.
“It’s a good practice,” said Jerry Ouzts, sustainable program engineer at the district. “It’s good for us, it’s good for the military community, and it’s good for the environment.”
Since 2006, the Army has mandated that its facilities meet the environmentally friendly standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) rating system. The third-party certification program provides a framework and validates compliance with specific requirements for sustainability from design to construction to operation of new facilities or the remodeling of older buildings. Over the last 10 years, the district has certified 42 buildings through the model.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District achieved the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating on the 354th Operations Support Squadron’s F-35A weapons intelligence facility at Eielson Air Force Base. USACE uses LEED to ensure sustainable construction of military projects as it promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by providing a framework for the design, construction, and operation of facilities.
“We were already doing a lot of these practices, but the formal program simplifies and documents it now,” said Monica Velasco, chief of the Construction Branch. “When we first started, it was a new system and large effort [went in]to really mak[ing] sure we implemented it correctly. As the years have progressed, it has become part of what we do naturally.”
The U.S. Green Building Council recognizes the degree of achievement in sustainable design and construction practices by assigning a LEED rating to each facility. Projects are categorized into four levels: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. For new construction, USACE buildings must at least meet the silver level.
“Programs like LEED help us do the right thing from day one of a project and ensure the new facility meets energy and sustainability requirements,” Ouzts said.
This practice is no more evident than in the district’s delivery of the F-35A bed-down program at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Construction began in 2017 to support the arrival of two new F-35A aircraft squadrons along with assigned airmen and their families.
So far, one project achieved LEED gold, nine earned silver, and one, a remodel of an existing facility, secured a certified rating. Another three buildings accomplished certification under the Green Building Initiative’s Guiding Principles, which is the Air Force’s new preferred model for authenticating environmentally friendly building practices.
The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design plaque is displayed in the entryway of the F-35 Flight Simulator Center on Eielson Air Force Base. USACE’s Alaska District constructs military facilities to meet the standards of the program at the silver level using sustainable construction practices.
Velasco highlighted the effort of the Alaska District to simplify the requirements for contractors to make it a part of standard operations.
“We have embedded the requirements into our process, so it is something our contractors just do now,” she said.
Strong working relationships with the construction industry and shared expectations for project delivery are critical to the successful execution of sustainable building practices. Velasco also pointed to the importance of including the need for a LEED-accredited professional, someone with expertise in green building and the rating system, in the initial contract. In addition, the project delivery team must ensure that the facility earns certification credits in key areas like site selection and waste management.
The Alaska District uses sustainable practices to avoid the depletion of natural resources and minimize the impact on future generations, while meeting the needs of today’s military. From the beginning of a project, site selection ensures that a green approach is factored into construction.
Workers engage in construction activities for a satellite dining facility, Sept. 20, 2019, at Eielson Air Force Base. The Alaska District delivered the project in support of the installation’s F-35A aircraft beddown program. It is the latest district-built facility to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED silver certification for its sustainable design and construction practices, that include factors like site selection, waste reduction, recycled products, and more.
“We need to be smart about where we are building buildings,” Ouzts said.
To do this, the district looks at the full life cycle cost of using land, minimizing the footprint of buildings, and leveraging existing space in previously developed areas.
“Waste management stands out because people ask how we are going to decrease waste,” Velasco said. “If you need a stud, we encourage contractors to buy the right length instead of cutting a larger piece of wood and having the excess go in the landfill.”
They also try to minimize negative impacts on air quality by preventing the accumulation of dust inside facilities during construction.
“A lot of the dust prevention has to do with ventilation systems in the new buildings,” Ouzts said. “If dust from the construction work gets into the system initially, it blows all over and into the air. Keeping sites clean as we go prevents the issue.”
Additionally, they address air-quality concerns by incorporating low-emitting materials like paint and composite wood to further ensure LEED certification for the facility. And, it is easy to tell if a site is using low-emitting products.
“Anytime there’s a strong smell of paint or solvent, it’s not low emitting,” Ouzts said.
Materials used for construction are sourced locally whenever possible. Insulation, concrete, and gravel are often acquired from local companies to cut down on the emissions used to transport the supplies by barge, plane, or truck from the lower 48 states. Contractors also use recycled building products like sheetrock and metal where feasible.
Every aspect of the decision-making process for design choices and product selection is based on sustainable standards. Examples include everything from separate light switches that conserve energy, to enclosed janitor closets that prevent fumes from entering the building, to low-flow toilets that save water, to energy-efficient windows that retain heat. This focus reflects the district’s commitment to investing in enduring solutions that benefit both people and the environment.
“The more we reduce our energy consumption, the less we have to use; the less we have to use, the less we need,” Ouzts said.
Though implementing this in construction can be more expensive up front, it helps with the long-term costs of maintaining a building by keeping energy costs down and operations efficient.
“LEED is specific to construction, but sustainability touches everything we do,” Ouzts said. “Even in our everyday lives, we can support some piece of it in ways like choosing to use duplex [double-sided] printing and participating in recycling programs.”
Other suggestions included turning off the lights, adding a recycle bin to your desk or house, and finding small elements across everything you do to be a little more environmentally conscience.