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For the country’s largest construction firm, Turner Construction, recycling and other green building practices are just part of the job.

February 19, 2014

When Michael Deane joined Turner Construction Co. in 2004 to help grow its green building business, the largest general builder in the United States had only 42 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Accredited Professionals (APs) on staff. Green building made up only 5 percent of the company’s business. Ten years later, the company employs 1,400 LEED APs and LEED projects have accounted for more than half of the company’s business since 2009.

And whether a Turner project is going for LEED certification or not, the company doesn’t treat it any differently. As Deane puts it, “[Green building] has become central to what we do.” He says, “Many of our standard practices are sustainable practices. We recycle waste on all of our projects to the maximum extent possible and report on it into a central database that we have developed. It doesn’t matter whether it is a LEED project or not. That might have been the genesis for the initiative, but it has just become standard practice.”

LEED projects have become a $5 billion per year business for the 112-year-old company that prides itself on doing the right thing.

“One of the reasons I love working at Turner is the approach that we take,” Deane says.

When Deane began his career at Turner, the firm had begun a set of initiatives around sustainability, and one of them was to recycle waste. The company set a goal of 50 percent landfill diversion on all of its projects.

Deane accepted the challenge thinking it wouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. And in New York City where he had spent the last 15 years working in the construction industry, it wasn’t. The construction and demolition (C&D) recycling industry is pretty well established in that region. “I thought it wasn’t such a big challenge. All we had to do was record what we were already doing,” he recalls.

But when Deane looked at the bigger picture, he realized the situation wasn’t the same in all parts of the United States. Other parts of the country have a far less developed C&D recycling infrastructure in place, he says.

“Broadly speaking, urban markets tend to be stronger for recycling because tipping fees tend to be higher because land is scarce. If there is a robust market for the recycled materials, then the business model encourages recycling,” he says. In places such as New York, construction sites rarely have enough space to put out multiple containers, so mixed debris is collected and hauled off usually to a C&D recycling facility.

In other parts of the country, that is not the case. “If you have a place with lots of land and low tipping fees and ‘you can’t see it from my house,’ there is not a lot of incentive [to recycle],” he explains.

Deane says he favors regulations that require a minimum recycling rate. “Those are what will move the market. It makes us do the things that we should be doing but won’t do unless we have to, and it also creates a level playing field,” he says. “Hopefully the outcome will be better for everybody.”

He also says in situations where there is not a robust downstream market to accept materials Turner isn’t always able to achieve a high recycling rate “even if we do everything right on the job site.” When that happens, Deane says, “We find ourselves working to develop markets and we try to encourage people to see the business opportunity in opening a recycling facility where there might not be one.”

When a project that Turner works on involves demolition prior to construction, Deane says the firm can achieve impressive recycling rates. “The core building materials, concrete, stone, wood and metal are highly recyclable.”

When Turner is in the construction phase, Deane says, “We try to maximize the recycling of what is coming off the job, and that is where the recycling plan comes in. We can pretty much anticipate what the waste streams and volumes are going to be, so we look for outlets to get that material to.”

Additionally, Turner has been looking at ways to minimize its waste at the front end of a project. “That’s the holy grail, not to have the waste in the first place,” says Deane.

Deane says Turner has begun to focus more in the area of waste minimization over the last few years. The firm works with designers using tools such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and off-site modular prefabrication, both of which he says can minimize waste. Deane calls it “waste reduction by design,” which he describes as designing the waste out of the plans in the first place.

Staying on track

The early days of tracking recycling at Turner involved excel spreadsheets, and numerous faxes and emails back and forth. It was a cumbersome process and prone to errors, recalls Deane. Then in 2007, as a way to streamline the process, Turner invested in software development and created an online waste tracking (OWT) system, which is still being used today.

“It sort of became the model for the industry,” says Deane, noting the system and its data have received interest from the federal government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, educational institutions and even caught the attention of Waste Management.

By the end of 2007, the software had been integrated into most of the company. Now, says Deane, “We track about 200 projects a month and about 400 projects a year.” In 2013, Turner tracked 388 projects using the OWT system, which combined generated 368,000 tons of waste and recycled 338,000 of those tons.

Forget about the 50 percent diversion goal. “We are about at the 90 percent diversion rate,” says Deane.

The OWT system Turner developed is designed to comply with documentation required by the LEED certification program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The system puts the burden on the hauler to submit data, says Deane. “The system was designed to make reporting simpler and quicker. Haulers like using it because it saves them time.”

Deane’s List

Michael Deane, vice president, chief sustainability officer for Turner Construction, has made a name for himself as a leader in the green building industry. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) named Deane to the 2013 class of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Fellows. The LEED Fellow Program is the green building industry’s most prestigious professional designation, according to the USGBC. The LEED Fellow designation recognizes exceptional contributions to green building and significant professional achievement within the rapidly growing community of LEED Professionals.

Deane was among 51 of the world’s most distinguished green building professionals to be selected as LEED Fellows in 2013 through a peer nomination and portfolio review process. Deane’s LEED Accredited Professional (AP) Building Design and Construction (BD+C) credential, 13 years of green building experience, and extensive portfolio of LEED projects comprise a few of his qualifications, according to the USGBC.

Deane leads Turner’s green building and sustainability efforts. During his tenure, Turner has completed more than 300 LEED certified projects with a construction value of $18 billion; initiated a LEED and green training program, which is largely responsible for the increase in the number of LEED professionals on staff, from 42 to more than 1,400; and developed a construction waste tracking system that has recorded the diversion of more than 1.8 million tons of waste from landfills since 2005.

When a hauling company is awarded the contract for waste removal on a project, they are assigned an ID number and are given access to the waste management system.

A hauler logs in and clicks on the ticket number for the particular project. The hauler enters information including the container weight, its contents and its final destination. When the hauler has filled in the data, an email is generated to the person on the job site. That person reviews the data submitted by the contractor and approves or sends it back to hauler to resolve any issues. Once the data is approved, it goes into a database. If it is a LEED project, data is used as backup for the LEED credit template.

Anyone who accesses the system has to identify himself or herself, Deane says. “So there is a virtual chain of custody. We know who put in the information. We know who verified the information.”

While the system has checks and balances in place, Deane admits, it is not foolproof.

“Unless you have site-separated waste, it is very difficult to accurately measure the percentage of different kinds of materials on a mixed load,” he says.

“It is done on the honor system.”

He concludes, “Until somebody comes up with a way to accurately and cost-effectively measure the contents of a mixed load, I don’t see any way we are going to solve that problem.”

Deane says if cost and time were no object, getting exact recycling figures could probably be done with a high degree of accuracy. “We just haven’t figured out an efficient way to do it yet,” he explains.

Collective data for projects that have used the tracking system are housed in a database. Deane says combined, the projects amount to 1.8 million tons of debris recycled. The information stored in the database can be broken down all the way to the container level. Deane says the information has potential for queries and research projects outside the organization.

Changing times

With changes in C &D credits and reporting with the new version of LEED adopted in late 2013, LEED v4, Deane says Turner will have to revise its current reporting structure. LEED v4 is markedly different from previous versions, according to Deane, but it will still be another year and a half before it is fully adopted by the industry.

Since more than half of Turner’s business are LEED projects, Deane acknowledges the need educate its employees on the differences between LEED 2009 and LEED v4 “so that when clients do come to us and want to do a v4 project, we are already on top of it.” He says, “That is my single biggest goal for 2014 is to educate our people on how to do a v4 project and how it is different from what we’ve been doing.”

So far, the company only has one project underway that is going for v4, and it happens to be on one of Turner’s own offices. Deane says the general manager for the Turner office in Philadelphia could have gone for LEED 2009 certification, but that he wanted to go for LEED v4 and do the “latest and the greatest.”

Deane says he has some reservations about the new version of LEED. “As far as the waste credit in particular, I do think the prerequisite for a waste management plan is a good idea,” he says. Where he says he is a bit apprehensive is in the industry complying with the new requirements for the waste credits.

“USGBC is always threading the needle between moving the market and losing the market,” says Deane. “What I am concerned about is that our clients and even our project teams may look at the requirements and decide not to do them because they will think they are too hard.”

He says such requirements as having multiple material streams may be tough in markets like New York where everything in handled in mixed loads. “It may do exactly what is intended, which is move the market toward more sophisticated recycling, but it may not. It may make them move away from LEED,” he cautions.

In Deane’s observation, over the last five years, the industry has shifted somewhat away from formal LEED certification. Projects will employ sustainable practices but may not submit for certification. “I think that is too bad because in the same way we verify our materials we want to verify our projects,” he says. “We don’t just want to say we do it, we want to prove we do it.”

The right stuff

For Deane, recycling and other sustainable practices seem to come naturally. He was attracted to Turner and became involved with the USGBC in large part because they shared those same values (See the sidebar “Deane’s List” on p. 29). “It just made sense to me and appealed to the virtues of economy and efficiency and treading lightly on the land, but it also seemed like the right thing to do” he says. “Philosophically it just made sense to not waste things, and it turned out to be a pretty good business. “

Deane says one of his favorite quotes is from Mark Twain. “Always do right. This will gratify some people and confound the rest.” He says, if you do the right thing, it will have the best outcome on many different levels. “If nothing else, if you get a reputation as an individual and as a company that you do the right thing and will try to do fair and right by [clients], that can only help grow your business.”

When Turner first became committed to sustainability, Deane says its tag line was, “It’s good for us, it’s good for our customers, and it’s the right thing to do.” He says that motto is still true to this day. “I think people gravitate toward people and companies that do the right thing, and there is no reason you can’t do the right thing and make a profit too.”

Looking ahead, Deane says Turner is committed to being an efficient and productive company. “We are very much involved with the lean construction process both to manage the company to construct the project.” He says lean practices are very similar to sustainability which emphasizes being efficient with your resources and not being wasteful. “We are trying to become more efficient, more cost-effective and add value and by continuing to adopt the newest and best practices,” Deane says.


The author is managing editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be reached at