Pioneer first ABC-certified green contractor in Midwest

October 30, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Pioneer Construction has been going green for a couple of years now, and it just caught up with them — in a good way.

Pioneer, one of the largest full-service general contracting, design-build and construction management companies in West Michigan, was recently named a Certified Green Contractor by the Associated Builders & Contractors association.

"We were the first in the Midwest to receive the Green Contractor certification" from ABC, said Chris Beckering, director of business development and sales at Pioneer.

ABC, based in Arlington, Va., is a national trade association with 79 chapters representing 25,000 merit shop construction and construction-related firms, employing about two million people.

Scott Veine, who was named Pioneer's director of sustainability a year ago, said Pioneer is only the ninth general contractor in the nation to receive the ABC Green Contractor certification.

When Pioneer applied for the Green Contractor certification, "we were pleasantly surprised to find that, as a result of our voluntary sustainability initiative that Tim (Schowalter) implemented two years ago, we already met about 95 percent of the criteria," said Beckering.

Schowalter, president and CEO of Pioneer, said a team sent by ABC conducted interviews and did an audit of Pioneer processes at the company a few weeks ago. The team included ABC staff members and an independent third-party assessor.

The certification program looks primarily at how a company conducts business with sustainability in mind, as opposed to the sustainability features of any specific construction project, according to Beckering.

Those company business processes cover "everything," he said — ranging from the appliances and equipment in use to the type of light bulbs in the office areas and the company's recycling initiatives.

Each certified company must complete 13 prerequisites, ranging from the electronic distribution of documents to establishing an aggressive recycling program. In addition, companies are required to fulfill at least 12 out of 36 elective items that include conducting a professional energy audit, engaging in water conservation efforts and providing incentives for carpooling or using public transportation. Each company also must achieve four education and training benchmarks, such as instructing employees on sustainability issues and requiring at least 25 percent of eligible managers to receive green building awareness education.

Schowalter said that in the last few years, sustainability issues have been increasing in importance as one of the primary factors determining the award of contracts.

He said these days there are few, if any, project owners who "don’t ask about your experience and knowledge in sustainability."

"It's a major criteria now," he added.

Beckering said Pioneer began implementing sustainable construction principles "because it was something our clients were interested in. This designation is really the culmination of our efforts throughout our organization over the last several years. LEED certification and LEED experience has become a qualification criteria for many of our clients — for many people considering construction projects here in West Michigan."

Six members of the Pioneer staff are now LEED AP, with AP representing "accredited professionals." Schowalter said those include project managers and engineers.

"We have put all our LEED project superintendents through training, as well," he said.

Engineering News-Record, the nationally circulated trade magazine for the construction industry, has listed Pioneer among the top 100 green contractors in the U.S. for the past two years. The latest list appeared in September, with the magazine reporting that the list is determined by revenue generated from green projects. This year's list represents more than $38 billion in 2008 projects that were either registered or certified "green" by a major third-party environmental standards or ratings group.

Pioneer, a family-owned business founded in 1933, now does an annual average of $100 million worth of construction. One or two major buildings in the $25 million-plus category are built each year, plus several in the $5 million to $10 million range, and many more that average $1 million to $2 million.

Veine said about 70 percent of Pioneer's volume right now is LEED projects. He added that virtually all Pioneer’s projects, including those not specifically designed to LEED standards, "are green-built, with sustainability in mind."

Some of Pioneer’s most recent LEED projects are Thirty-Eight Commerce Street in downtown Grand Rapids and the Glenn A. Niemeyer Learning and Living Center on the Allendale campus of Grand Valley State University.

Thirty-Eight Commerce, a project of Locus Development at the intersection of Weston Street and Commerce Avenue, is a $26 million, mixed-use, two-building project in partnership with the city of Grand Rapids. It features 68,000 square feet of office, retail and residential space.

The Niemeyer Learning and Living Center has 187,000 square feet of residential space for about 450 students, and 41,000 square feet of classroom space. It is designed to meet LEED standards for water and energy conservation, material selection and indoor environmental quality. It incorporates eight rain gardens, green roofs and an infiltration system to capture 60 percent of stormwater runoff, and the lighting system includes occupancy sensors, daylight harvest sensors, scheduled light controls and multi-level switching. The apartments have Energy Star appliances and the laundry rooms have high-efficiency washers and dryers. The living center also has low-flow faucets and showerheads, dual flush toilets and waterless urinals, which reduce water consumption by 37 percent — about 1.4 million gallons per year.

Pioneer has worked with GVSU on several high-visibility and LEED-certified properties, including Lake Ontario Hall and the John C. Kennedy Hall of Engineering, among other buildings.

One of Pioneer's first LEED projects was the Cascade Engineering building in Kentwood, completed a couple of years ago as one of the first LEED office buildings of its type in Michigan.

Pioneer also built the Thousand Oaks Country Club facility in Plainfield Township about 10 years ago, according to Veine, and just completed a major addition to the club house banquet room. Although it was not a LEED project, the latest project involved replacing the entire existing mechanical system in the Thousand Oaks club house with a geothermal unit that is an improvement in sustainability.

As for the typical additional cost of building green, Beckering said there is no pat answer to that because of all the variables. He noted, however, that Pioneer's experience with many different levels of LEED construction in a wide variety of settings has given it an edge in the costing issues.

"We've really been able to get a handle on the real world numbers for construction costs, as well as the life-cycle costing, and the advantages and benefits of different types of sustainable building principles," he said.

W. Brewster Earle, chairman of the ABC National Green Building Committee, said the Green Contractor Certification program provides support and recognition "for those firms that are setting an example for the industry."

For more information about the ABC National Green Building program, visit

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