The Highest Standards of Sustainability

GCI General Contractors
Written by Mark Golombek

Established in the early nineties, GCI is a leading general contractor covering the San Francisco Bay area. The majority of the company’s work involves general contracting, pre-construction estimating, sustainable planning, and construction, along with construction management. It seems that GCI has always been at the forefront of sustainable design projects, even before it became trendy.
GCI prides itself on having developed a stellar reputation in the industry, a reputation that is demonstrated through the many LEED projects and accreditations under its belt. We spoke with Emily Naud, its sustainability manager.

GCI was founded in 1992 in San Francisco, California. The original business concentrated on commercial tenant improvements in Class A buildings in the San Francisco financial district. Professionally managed Class A buildings are the newest, highest-quality buildings in the most desirable locations.

With strategic hires and the advantage of some unique project opportunities, GCI steadily grew and captured a market share based on its ability to complete complex projects at a high level. Over the years it has diversified into in full building renovations, capital improvements, MEP upgrades (MEP), labs, biotech facilities, and commercial interiors for some of the Bay Area’s most renowned organizations.

The company is involved in a considerable number of sustainable design projects. “It came mostly through project experience. In the late nineties, we started to recycle all metals on our job sites in order to self-fund project lunches and afternoon barbecues. When we realized how easily metals could be source separated and how many vendors were willing to pay us for the scrap metal, it became a standard practice by our site superintendents. By 1999, we were recycling almost one hundred percent of all metals on our job sites.”

Around that time, GCI began experimenting with job site air filtration systems to minimize the impact of construction dust on critical facilities and adjacent spaces. It was only by chance that the company discovered that using a combination of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) and carbon filters on its air machines would minimize not only dust but also eliminate the odor from off-gassing new material.

GCI’s indoor air quality system is greatly respected and standard on its job sites. The company brings freshly filtered outside air into job sites while exhausting filtered air out of the work areas. The flexibility of its system creates a clean workspace for its tradespeople during construction as well as for clients before and after move-in.

This technology allowed GCI to perform projects flawlessly in critical facilities such as server rooms, data centers, and broadcast facilities. Recent critical projects for YouTube, KQED-TV, and Dolby were completed using this air filtration technology.

In 2002, the company received an opportunity through a local architect to pitch its services to an organization which at the time was unknown to them: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The project had a goal of getting certified under the LEED-CI pilot program.

“While preparing for our project presentation, we realized that we usually exceeded the LEED-C1 Pilot construction waste diversion and indoor air quality requirements on most of our projects, and we presented this to the NRDC. They selected GCI based on this experience, and this became our first completed LEED project when it was certified LEED-CI Gold in 2003.”

During the project, NRDC encouraged GCI to get involved in local and regional material sourcing, as well as asking for GCI’s recommendation on unusual materials containing recycled and rapidly renewable content. It was at this point, that GCI recognized how it could have an enormous impact on a sustainable project – beyond the typical construction credits usually assigned to the general contractor. GCI began to drive the process and pushed the limits. The internal goal became to surpass the original sustainable goals on each project.

“With this success, we have built on the unique relationship between our general contracting services and environmental organizations. We have now completed facilities for the Environmental Defense Fund, Climate Works. The Wilderness Society, Save the Redwoods, the Nature Conservancy, Next Generation Climate Action (NGCA), and most recently, the Sierra Club’s move to Oakland.”

Several of these projects have pursued ‘petals’ under the Living Building Challenge™ new building certification program. Since the challenge features a flower as its symbol, its performance categories are known as petals. GCI just completed a renovation for NRDC under LEEDv4 and its Living Building Challenge Petal Certifications included the notoriously difficult Materials Petal. The project was also built under Well Building Standard guidelines.

The NRDC San Francisco office was, according to Emily, the most challenging yet rewarding project she has worked on to date. “We had an amazing team, and that was the glue that kept us on track and made the project successful. Communication was central, and everybody was willing to go above and beyond their individual roles to push through the rigorous construction schedule and the many unforeseen problems that came up with the challenge of achieving both LEEDv4 and the Living Building Challenge.”

GCI offers a range of sustainability services from deep green material vetting to goals of zero waste on projects. It donates items such as carpet tiles, ceiling tiles, and diverts materials that were source-separated on site to achieve as close to zero waste as possible. The infrastructure in the Bay Area is essential to achieving this, and Emily recognizes how lucky GCI is to have resources such as Habitat for Humanity, Building Resources, Ohmega Salvage, and Urban Ore.

Recycling facilities like Recology, Blue Line Transfer, and Zanker Recycling are applying effective technology to sort construction and demolition waste. “Clients such as Google, YouTube, and Salesforce value our strategies for achieving sustainability on a very high level, as they understand the intrinsic value of these services and what it achieves for their employees and the indoor and outdoor environment.”

Most of its latest technological advancements are involve improving efficiency. Information about regulation compliance is more readily accessed and more transparent. The management of material vendors and subcontractors has become easier with a more educated vendor base and more effective means of communication and collaboration is achieved through e-mail, web portals, LEED online and similar software tools and apps.

“In the field, the use of smartphones and tablets has allowed easier job site documentation of waste diversion practices, indoor air quality strategies, as well as the policing and verification of compliant materials before and during installation. The number of materials that have already been vetted and pass the Google ‘Red List’ or Living Building Challenge Material Petal has significantly increased, allowing for easier sourcing for common materials.” Red List building materials contain chemicals that are labeled as unsafe to living beings or the environment. Google announced that it would not use any of the materials on the list.

The recent rise of portable volatile organic compound (VOC) meters has also been extremely beneficial for on-site verification of compliance with maximum allowable VOC levels.

There are many sustainability challenges faced by GCI, and typically, the most significant of these involve managing the material suppliers and subcontractors on the projects. Not all are prepared for the rigors of full documentation and compliance. Corners may be cut, and verification is often unreliable.

“Many times, we find that the material delivered to the field is not what was specified or previously vetted. It often seems there is a lack of communication or confirmation between the office pre-construction efforts and the final material procurement and delivery to the field, but we are creating a system to tighten that up.”

Other challenges involve restrictive construction schedules clashing with the amount of time needed for material vetting and acquisition. Project schedules are faster, and a significant amount of materials need to be vetted on a sustainable building project. It takes considerable time and effort to request and receive compliance documentation from multiple sources in multiple time zones. Often the construction schedule is so tight that compliance may be rushed or materials ordered hastily to meet the time constraints.

“We find that we often have to educate our clients and their design teams on the amount of time pre-construction takes on a sustainable project, especially ones with lofty sustainability goals.”

Costs are a factor in regards to the client’s perception of some important sustainable strategies. Clients often make hasty decisions to value-engineer projects that exceed their budget expectations by deleting sustainable strategies first, which is very short sighted. “We try to offer other value-engineering options so that the sustainable strategies remain part of the project goals.”

This kind of work ethic and attention to detail, combined with a willingness to work with the client to solve problems has led to numerous awards and recognitions. GCI has completed thirty-five LEED projects to date and is the only contractor to complete four LEED-CI Platinum projects in San Francisco as of the fall of 2015. It constructed the highest-rated LEED-CI project in California and the third-highest ever at the time of completion (Climate Works Foundation, 2010). In addition, GCI has under its belt a host of architectural and design awards.

As for long term goals, GCI strives to continue being an industry leader in driving sustainability practices in commercial construction projects. GCI also wants to remove the stigma that sustainable building is more expensive and to motivate clients to pursue meaningful sustainability goals by reducing the mystery and the perception of difficulty.



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