2. AEC Professionals and Home Builders Voice Their Opinions on Issues Related to Water Performance

November 01, 2009 |

Respondents to Building Design+Construction’s “Nonresidential Survey” expressed a wide variety of viewpoints concerning water in the built environment. “This is a very important issue for the world,” said the head of an engineering firm in North Carolina. An electrical designer in Texas said, “Water availability is critical for both economic development and sustaining the present as well as for providing for future population growth.” A retail developer in the western U.S. warned that stewardship over potentially finite water resources “should be constantly in our thoughts and consideration.” And the president/CEO of a New York-area development firm summed up these issues with this remark: “People can’t drink oil.”

Economic factors in client decisions. Several respondents were worried about added costs for water in light of current economic conditions (the survey was distributed in September 2009). “Greater costs to clients plus the economic downturn will cause additional hardship on clients, subcontractors, and suppliers,” said one California architect.

Nearly three of every five Nonresidential Survey respondents (59%) work for architectural, engineering, or environmental design firms. Build firms (23%) and owning firms (15%) were also well represented among respondents, providing a representative overview of the U.S./Canada noncommercial design and construction sector. (A small group of design/build fi rms (&1% of total) are included in Other.) The large sample size (748) results in a margin of error of 3.58% (at the 95% confidence level) and 3.01% (at the 90% confidence levels) for questions in which the entire group has responded

“Clients usually don’t want to spend the money for futuristic ideas,” said an engineer in California. The president of an engineering firm in Georgia brought up the link to future development: “Water supply is critical to health and essential for development of new facilities. Growth will be severely hindered if water is not in adequate supply.” But this respondent also added a cautionary coda: “Conservation is essential.”

One respondent said his firm was blessed with clients with progressive attitudes on water. “We are seeing many of our clients request the development of natural systems to handle stormwater issues.” Forward-thinking design for such clients leads to projects that not only protect water quality, but also enhance public open space and lower overall maintenance costs for government, said this Georgia land developer.

But “selling” water efficiency to clients is not always easy. “The issues surrounding water are very long-term, and long-term is difficult to sell,” said one respondent. “We need to start programs that can build to a solution over a period of years.” The owner of a design firm in Minneapolis predicted that the “big effects” of water shortages are “five to 10 years down the road, and most clients aren’t at all aware of how serious those effects could be.”

Code and regulation worries. One group of respondents was vocal about the regulatory aspects of water. “Any additional regulations or restrictions will increase construction costs,” said one. An owner/architect in New York City said the most significant issue related to water in his projects was the supply of drinking water, “which is being increasingly regulated.”

The majority of respondents to both surveys (Nonresidential, 50%; Residential, 52%) said they believe the total cost of water for their • rms’ projects will “increase somewhat,” with more than one fi fth of each group (Nonresidential, 21%; Residential, 22%) predicting it would “increase signficantly.”

“Artificially decreasing supply through excessive environmental regulations and land restrictions,” as well as poor regional and local planning development regulations, are “the major contributors to the increased cost of water resources” cited by one California architect. Greater regulation of water is “not warranted at this time,” said a design firm principal in Oklahoma. “We are not at the point that it is necessary to legislate this,” he said.

On the flip side of the codes issue, a VP at a multidisciplinary A/E firm in Maryland said, “Code mandates drive change the most, as owners tend to vote with their wallets.” Even more sanguine as to the benefits of codes was a principal of a New Jersey architecture firm: “Revisions to the building codes which restrict water usage and reduce waste water will have the single greatest positive effect” on water consumption and wastewater reduction. “I believe this to be so more than LEED certification.”

A project executive with a West Coast construction services firm called for “a push for code requirements to ensure more cost-effective and high-quality water systems.” A Florida-based AEC professional cried out for “badly needed” regulations to permit rainwater harvesting in the Sunshine State. “It needs to be incorporated into the Florida Building Code so that counties and municipalities will readily allow the use of rainwater cisterns and other harvesting systems.” And a designer in California hailed his state’s recent adoption of “more progressive” graywater provisions in the state plumbing code as “very good news”—but noted that “municipalities are lagging far behind in forming coherent regulatory positions with respect to rainwater catchment.”

Regional dimensions of water. If it is true that all politics is local, so, too, are all water issues. “The U.S. has such diverse water issues, it’s hard to arrive at an omnibus policy,” said a respondent from Wisconsin. “Regional solutions are going to be the practical solution.”

While water issues are of lesser concern in areas of relative water abundance—for example, an architect in New York City said water issues were “at the lower end” of his concerns—those in the thick of water-stressed areas were much more focused on the problem. “In working in Maricopa County, Ariz., we use thousands of gallons of water a day to keep a crust on the soil to keep dust particles down,” reported a project superintendent for a construction company in Phoenix. “How can we conserve water when this is a requirement for construction?”

The majority of Residential Survey respondents (56%) and a fairly large representation of Nonresidential Survey respondents (39%) said their companies had experienced no wa-ter-related problems in projects over the last few years. Among Nonresi-dential Survey respondents reporting problems, nearly half (49%) reported problems in up to one-fourth of their • rms’ projects, while more than a third (345) of Residential Survey respondents reported problems in up to one-fourth of their companies’ projects.

Another Phoenix-based respondent cited differentials in cost by jurisdiction: “Impact fees for water and sewer service for commercial developments can be astronomical based upon the jurisdiction that delivers the service.” One project’s impact fees were so high that this architecture firm principal found it more feasible to dig a well and put in a septic system rather than to tap into the municipal services. Bottom line: “The client saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Water’s green component. A number of respondents took the opportunity to air their views on green building. The owner of a construction and development firm in Austin, Texas, criticized the green building movement as “substantially oversold,” citing “experimental products with unproven track records,” notably with regard to maintenance costs, life span, and recovery costs. A facilities architect at a medical center in Louisiana expressed concern that, “in many cases,” certified buildings may not be performing as designed. He recommended a two-year waiting period for verification before certification would be bestowed.

“Potable water resources and stormwater mitigation are economic issues apart from but co-opted by 'green’ marketing,” said the owner of a design firm in Washington State. “The real question is not whether a policy or strategy is 'green’ but whether it is practical and within the budget.”

Greater sophistication about green building issues was suggested by the co-owner of a specialty development firm in the Twin Cities: “Designers and [property] owners need to make good decisions without chasing certifications and points.” The director of sustainable design for an architecture firm called her fellow building designers to task for having “little knowledge of the relationship [between] energy and water” and for failing, in her opinion, to “understand the global issues of water scarcity.” But an operations manager for a major construction services firm commended green certification programs, specifically LEED, for “making more folks aware of the need to conserve water resources.” And, as one respondent put it, “Green building is our future.”

New technologies, new opportunities. Many AEC firms are already adopting water-efficiency technologies—and intend to employ them at an even greater rate in the next couple of years. “We have been using waterless urinals for years,” reported an interior designer and LEED AP. The vice president of a design firm in Phoenix said his firm “uses water-reduction strategies in every building project.” An estimator with a construction company in Tennessee said his firm was using native vegetation for landscaping, rather than “some generic type of grassing,” to stabilize soil.

At a larger scale, the chair of an engineering firm in Chicago questioned the wisdom of encouraging—or even allowing—further development in water-scarce areas like Las Vegas or Phoenix: “If water is limited, so should the population be limited. We should not burden areas [that] have no water.” And a building systems manager for a construction firm in the Upper Midwest said it would take a “significant water shortage, distribution issue, or increase in the value of water” to get people in his part of the country energized about water issues. Economic factors, he said, “must drive the need for conservation and efficiency.”

“We need to quit wasting our environment,” said the president of a design firm in the Houston area. “Our society needs to understand the future of our world and develop a mind[set] around SAVING what we have” (emphasis in original).”

The last word goes to a principal of a multidisciplinary design firm in suburban Boston. “People in the U.S. don’t know how lucky they are to have so much drinkable water available to them,” she said. “Unless they have experienced water restrictions personally for some reason, they don’t think about how vital and precious clean water is.

The economic downturn of 2008-09 has home builders and residential developers’ heads spinning, to the point where many of them can’t think about anything else. “Can you help me with the economy?” was the rhetorical question posed by the CEO of a home building firm in Utah. “Water is the second most important resource! Customers are first. Without customers, we don’t need water.” As one residential developer put it, “We are conscious of environmental factors when we develop, but we also must balance the costs of the projects with the costs of the green features we want to use. It ain’t easy.”

In the residential sector, the home buyer is all about price, several respondents noted. “People aren’t very interested in anything that costs them more initially,” said the president of a building company in Wyoming. “Almost all efforts at conservation or efficiency take a sales effort.” Said the CEO of a Missouri home building company, “Rarely have we found that people are motivated to 'do the right thing’ unless it affects their pocketbook.”

This seems to be especially the case in home builders’ efforts to “sell” green houses. “Home buyers are interested only if going green reduces costs, either initial costs or operating costs,” said a property developer in Florida. Only a “very small percentage, 5% or so, want to incorporate green regardless of cost.” Another respondent said his customer base is interested in green components, but not in a “total green home,” adding, “Some of this is price-driven, some of it is comfort-driven.”

“We have employed water-, sewer-, and energy-saving products for 30 years,” said an experienced construction company president. “All of the 'green’ and 'climate’ issues are going to do nothing except increase costs. What we need now is price reduction solutions to get the economy going again.”

“The current economy is going to have an impact on the green movement,” said the head of a building company in Maine. “Customers cannot afford to make the necessary upgrades. Green building will move on but at a slower pace than what I would like to see.”

“While green building sounds great, ultimately local municipalities will remove the incentives and make the guidelines mandatory, thereby increasing the cost to developer and builder and ultimately the homeowner,” said another respondent. “Ironically, they will be the same people who cry about the lack of affordable housing stock.”

The owner of a custom home building firm in Maryland who had completed a LEED Platinum home expressed concern about the “excessive” cost of certification under LEED for Homes. His bottom line: “NAHB Green Certification is more applicable to residential.”

Both builders and buyers are drowning in greenwash, according to several respondents, making it difficult to choose products that are both cost-effective and functional. “Due to our current economy, selling a home that costs 20% [more] due to the implementation of so-called 'green’ products is a difficult sale,” said one. “I strongly believe that some organization needs to honestly evaluate and certify all of these 'green’ products.”

But not all Residential Survey respondents were down on green. “Green home building is here to stay,” said the president of a Texas home building company. “High-performance houses help the environment as well as the end user of the home.”

Among the problems cited by some home builders was the occasional difficulty of tapping into the available water supply. “Most of my units are supplied by wells, drilling has gotten very expensive, and the quality of the water has been getting worse,” said a builder in the Northeast. “My costs for drilling have doubled in the last six years.”

An Ohio builder said he has run into problems when he builds away from Lake Erie and has to drill for water. “Sometimes it is difficult to find water, depending on the area,” he said. A home builder in Alaska said the problem there was water quality, not quantity.

Water issues can hit builders even in water-surfeited New England, according to a respondent from suburban Boston. “The government regulatory agency has already restricted use of water, particularly for irrigation on new projects,” he stated. “This has impacted us directly and forced us to reduce [the use of] turf and increase [the use of] native species that will not require irrigation water after they take hold.” And a designer in suburban Chicago noted that his problem was stormwater management, not water supply.

Seeking solutions. There are home builders who see opportunity in water-related consumer issues. Noting that water heating is the second-largest use of energy in most homes (after HVAC), this builder cited water efficiency as “critical to energy-efficiency improvements that will lower the homeowner’s operational costs.”

A Wisconsin builder noted that one of her company’s condominium projects is entirely free of storm sewers, thanks to the use of pervious pavement (made from recycled glass, no less). “It works extremely well,” she reported, but the cost is two-and-a-half times that of concrete. “So we are limited by [the home buyer’s] budget as to how frequently we can use it.”

Home builder alliances have a special role in assuring the supply of water in their regions, said a South Dakota construction firm head. “It’s really important that we keep lobbying for our current and future water projects or we will see some possibly severe water restrictions in the very near future,” he said. “It is our responsibility as HBA leaders to see that these projects are built, not so much for our own benefit but for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Base: 748

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

Architects and engineers of all kinds constitute the bulk of Nonresidential Survey respondents (59%), with construction managers, construction professionals, and home builders forming the next largest group (25%). Developers, building owners, facilities personnel, and government representatives (10%) were also represented in the study, which drew on the experience of 748 professionals derived from the audience base of Building Design+Construction.
Architect 40%
Engineer (civil, environmental, MEP, structural) 19%
Construction manager 12%
Construction professional, subcontractor 12%
Real estate developer 5%
Building owner 3%
Consultant (environmental, green building, other) 1%
Government official or staff 1%
Home builder 1%
Interior designer 1%
Facility director, manager 1%
Other 4%

Used in last 18-24 months Expect to use in next 18-24 months Used in last 18-24 months Expect to use in next 18-24 months
Nonresidential Residential
Base: Nonresidential, 679; Residential, 161

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

Based on the results of both surveys, prospects are good for increased adoption of water-efficient technologies, products, and systems in both the residential and nonresidential construction over the next two years. Both groups said they expect their companies to increase their adoption of water-efficient tools in the majority of projects, to the point where the majority in each survey (Nonresidential, 52%; Residential, 53%) said they expect more than half their firms’ projects to be using water-saving systems in the next two years.
None 10% 4% 17% 9%
Less than 10% of projects 14% 8% 17% 11%
10% to 25% of projects 19% 12% 10% 7%
26% to 50% of projects 13% 15% 14% 12%
51% to 75% of projects 12% 14% 5% 15%
More than 75% of projects 26% 38% 30% 38%
Don’t know/Can’t estimate 6% 9% 8% 8%

Type of Problem Encountered Nonresidential Residential
Base: 328

Base: Nonresidential, 327; Residential, 56

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

Nonresidential Survey respondents who reported water problems said their companies experienced 1-2 water-related events over the last three years (mean: 1.77). The average number of events for Residential respondents was two (mean: 2.00). “Other” problems cited by the Nonresidential Survey group included “low pressure for fire sprinkler systems,” “leaks,” “inadequate detention capacity,” “clogged filters,” “storm control,” “old utility piping,” and “containment” (presumably of stormwater or runoff). Residential Survey respondents mentioned “stormwater regulations,” “infiltration” from nearby vacant lots, and “increased cost of new meters.” In terms of impact, both groups cited “increased project costs” as the biggest negative (Nonresidential, 55%; Residential, 64%), followed by project delays (Nonresidential, 21%; Residential, 30%). However, more than a quarter of respondents said the problems were minor and had been resolved quickly. Note: The response rate to these questions among Residential Survey respondents is low, with a margin of error >14%.
Restrictions on water use or service 49% 46%
Legislative or regulatory action related to water 33% 36%
Significant increase in water rates 30% 48%
Water scarcity or drought 21% 27%
Unreliable water supply 14% 9%
Contamination of drinking water 9% 11%
Denial of water service 9% 13%
Other 13% 11%
Impact of Problem on Project Nonresidential Residential
Increased projects costs 55% 64%
Had minimal impact; problem was readily resolved 27% 29%
Delayed the project 21% 30%
Resulted in significant changes in the project 17% 13%
Contributed to the termination of the project 3% 4%
Other/Don’t know/No opinion 13% 11%

Base: 185

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

More than three-fifths (61%) of Residential Survey respondents identified themselves as home builders, accompanied by a spread of developers (12%) and designers (10%). Note: Based on the sample size (185), the margin of error is 7.21% (at the 95% confidence level) and 6.05% (90% confidence level) for questions answered by all respondents. The sample was derived from the audience of BD+C’s sister publication, Professional Builder.
Home builder, construction manager, contractor 61%
Land developer, real estate developer 12%
Designer of homes (architect, landscape architect, interior designer, etc.) 10%
Specialty trade contractor (5%)
Engineer (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) 2%
Government or code official 1%
Other 8%

Mean Mean top 2 (score = 4 or 5) Mean Mean top 2 (score = 4 or 5)
Nonresidential Residential
Base: Nonresidential, 539-543; Residential, 125-128

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

Code requirements or restrictions as they affect water were definitely on the minds of respondents to both surveys: a mean score of 4.25 for Nonresidential Survey respondents is considered a very strong indicator, especially combined with more than three-fourths (76%) rating “codes” in their Top 2 responses. Neither group expressed much concern about the impact of climate change on water or possible terrorist acts threatening the water supply.
Code requirements or restrictions 4.25 76% 4.03 60%
General negative economic conditions 3.74 54% 3.67 48%
Higher sewer/water treatment rates 3.72 57% 3.68 53%
Infrastructure problems 3.72 56% 3.65 50%
Water service or supply restrictions 3.72 56% 3.63 55%
Higher water rates 3.71 57% 3.60 50%
Competition for water resources (e.g., agricultural irrigation, industrial use, etc.) 3.71 54% 3.12 36%
Infrastructure capacity 3.70 58% 3.58 51%
Total cost of water 3.68 56% 3.72 53%
Drought or near-drought conditions 3.68 55% 3.37 42%
Pollution or contamination 3.49 47% 3.09 34%
Climate change 3.23 37% 2.63 17%
Terrorist acts 2.65 19% 2.58 14%

Nonresidential Residential
Base: Nonresidential, 327; Residential, 52

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

Among respondents reporting water-related problems on their firms’ projects, a majority of each group (Nonresidential, 55%; Residential, 64%) said the biggest impact was a bump in project costs. Respondents who had experienced water-related problems on projects reported an average of one or two such incidents (Nonresidential mean, 1.44; Residential mean, 1.54). It is important to note, however, that more than a quarter of respondents of each survey (Nonresidential, 27%; Residential, 29%) reported at least one incident that had resulted in minimal impact on the project. Caution: Sample size for Residential respondents is small.
Increased project costs 55% 64%
Had minimal impact, problem was readily resolved 27% 29%
Delayed the project 21% 30%
Resulted in significant changes in the project 17% 13%
Contributed to termination of the project 3% 4%
Other 2% 4%
Don’t know/Not applicable 13% 7%

Nonresidential Residential
Base: Nonresidential, 531; Residential, 125

Source: BD+C/Professional Builder 2009 White Paper Survey

There seems to be a wide difference of opinion between respondent groups over how their clients view code restrictions or requirements. The Nonresidential Survey group gave this factor high marks (72%) in terms of influencing clients to adopt water-efficient technologies or systems, whereas the Residential Survey group gave it relatively low consideration (38%) compared to such factors as reducing water and energy costs (both 66%). The majority of respondents to both surveys (Nonresidential, 56%; Residential, 54%) cited “environmental stewardship” as a factor in their clients’ decisions about water efficiency.
Code restrictions or requirements 72% 38%
Reduce water costs 65% 66%
Green building/green home certification 65% 33%
Reduce energy costs 64% 66%
Reduce total building operating costs 60% 39%
Environmental stewardship 56% 54%
Government regulations or standards 56% 30%
Client/owner requirement or request 52% -
Reduce sewer/wastewater charges 47% 42%
Corporate sustainability requirements 42% -
Avoid current or future water shortage 39% 34%
Utility or tax rebates 34% 26%
Branding or positioning 30% -
Competitive advantage 27% -
Optimize design and construction quality 25% 23%
Climate change impacts 18% 22%
Water quality improvement 16% 18%
Reduce risk of water supply contamination 11% 11%
Other &1% 3%
Don’t know/Not applicable 4% 3%

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