If you don’t think heavy civil construction projects can be green, think again



By its nature, heavy construction certainly impacts the environment. After all, our industry involves creating big things, including highways, bridges, transit lines and water treatment plants. Without such projects, our way of life would be drastically different. But delivering them has traditionally involved moving a lot of earth and bringing much materials and equipment to the jobsite, generating waste and often pollution in the process. Does civil construction have to be like this?

That’s the question with which I challenged our joint venture team at Virginia’s Elizabeth River Tunnels (ERT) project. This public-private partnership project’s centerpiece is a new tunnel tube under the Elizabeth River, a key tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest U.S. estuary. Beyond designing a greener project, if there was ever a project to build in a greener way, this was it. Our construction team has risen to the challenge.

Among their outcomes and activities are:

- Realizing a recycling/reuse rate of 99 percent: We proactively identify materials we can reuse on site, or we find off-site needs for it.

- Implementing onsite treatment of lead-contaminated soil: Through this environmental-safe method that allows the soil to be handled as treated waste – instead of hazardous waste – the project saved more than $100,000 in disposal costs.

- Adopting environmentally-friendly oil for all marine equipment: This reduces the risk to the river’s marine life.

- Using waste concrete to make oyster habitats: We worked with the Elizabeth River Project – a local non-profit – and the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership to develop an innovative way to make use of waste concrete while enhancing the local ecosystem.

- Generating Environmental Excellence Reports: Through these concise reports that provide a cost analysis and description of benefits from the project’s environmental activities, we hope to educate other construction companies on how to produce quality projects while still improving the environment and saving money.

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Our Elizabeth River Tunnels team is using waste concrete to make oyster boxes for the Elizabeth River.

Building a green culture

But, perhaps more importantly than what our joint venture did to reduce the project’s environmental impact is how we did it. Here are some key lessons we learned about building a culture of environmental excellence:

- Start small: Maybe that’s establishing a construction waste recycling program or searching for opportunities to maximize the use of recycled or re-used materials. Also, local environmental groups might help identify other environmental opportunities, as well as provide great opportunities for community outreach. 

- Engage your staff and crews early: Everyone has a desire to do better, but sometimes they don’t know what opportunities are available.  As the environmental manager, it’s my responsibility to talk to everyone on the project – from the top executive to craft workers – not only about environmental compliance but also about ways we could excel environmentally.  I’ve found that most people either have kids and/or enjoy outdoor activities, and once they understand their choices could affect their families or recreational activities, most people are eager to help and change their habits. Many of the most impactful ideas at ERT came from suggestions from craft crews and staff members.

- Secure top-level support: Having great management support has been key to driving the project’s environmental performance. ERT’s management has always been encouraging and supportive in all aspects of environmental initiatives. As a company, our ISO 14001 certification means our project leaders are looking at environmental aspects of our projects before a shovel ever hits the ground so that we make sure to leave the local environment at least as good as the way we found it.

- Recognize that one green often leads to another: Most of ERT’s environmental programs have a cost savings benefit to them, including the on-site treatment of lead-contaminated soil. ERT’s environmental efforts to date have saved more than $250,000 – and we’re not done yet!

Even more, Skanska’s certification to the ISO 14001 international environmental management standard means we’re looking at environmental aspects of our projects before a shovel hits the ground, so we’re sure to leave the local environment at least as good as the way we found it.

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These self-contained concrete chute wash-out systems that our Elizabeth River Tunnels team is using recycle leftover concrete, and filter and reuse the water.

Efforts being recognized

We’re certainly proud of the recognition that these efforts have received: most recently, SKW Constructors (Skanska/Kiewit/Weeks) received a silver medal in the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards. This award included a proclamation from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and a congratulatory letter from Senator Mark Warner. That our construction team won this award shows the significance of the ideas and actions from the men and women of our team. And last year, ERT received the top designation in the Virginia Environmental Excellence Program – the first construction project to do so.

And yet, what will make me even more proud is earning these honors isn’t the exception for heavy construction projects, but the norm.

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Carissa Agnese

posted by Carissa Agnese

Skanska USA Environmental Manager

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Trends driving airport construction

American airports remain some of the busiest in the world, with nearly half of the world’s 30 busiest airports within the U.S. and domestic air travel at an all-time high of 743 million passengers taking flight in 2013. However, upgrades to aviation infrastructure have not kept pace with the increase in airport traffic or even at a level sufficient to accommodate the life cycle of our many dated terminal facilities. Until now.

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At Philadelphia International Airport, we recently erected a baggage conveyor bridge over a main airport road at night so as not to disturb airport operations.

 

While funding challenges remain (especially as a consequence of the cap on PFCs),  as competition heats up between newly consolidated air carriers and as airports seek new revenue sources to upgrade or replace outdated facilities, the need for efficiency, flexibility and improved customer experience is generating a wave of terminal projects that are transforming America’s air travel gateways. Renovations include turning away from multiple security checkpoints and centralizing infrastructure to allow for greater scalability, and can be seen across the industry, from the smallest regional facilities to large hubs. Current estimates project that the industry will spend more than $14 billion per year between now and 2017 on airport upgrades in the U.S. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the nature of this work requires that much of it will be highly invasive, with projects located right in the heart of the airport, and construction firms will need to work with and among airport authorities, air carriers, concessionaires, the TSA and FAA, and passengers to minimize any impacts, carefully coordinating those renovations and expansions. By aligning best practices with those needs, contractors can best support all stakeholders affected by construction work.

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To deliver a replacement terminal at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, we developed a multi-phase approach centered on taking as few of the existing aircraft gates out of service as possible

For example, next generation airports are maximizing efficiencies both on and off the tarmac, which means larger aircrafts with additional seats. The fuel-efficient Boeing 737-900ERs have a 25 percent bigger wing area, a 16-foot longer wingspan and 25 percent more seats than the Boeing 737-400s being retired. With more seats available, airports are accommodating more travelers, meaning the airport needs to be upsized. These re-gauging renovations require careful planning in order to make the process go smoothly while existing facilities are expanded with surgical precision. Bigger planes and bigger waiting areas mean there is a need for additional amenities, from restaurants to rest rooms. Contractors must carefully communicate and coordinate with all stakeholders.

How?

1. Communicate early and often, beginning with design review. Mock-ups are an important tool, allowing stakeholders to touch and feel new counters and other elements that will be installed.

2. Work out the phasing. Contractors must consider how passengers use airport infrastructure, phasing a job properly or working overnight in order to minimize impacts to passengers and other stakeholders. Our team experienced this first-hand at Philadelphia International Airport, where we were tasked with erecting a baggage conveyor bridge over the main airport departure road. In order to minimize impacts to the departure roadway, we prefabricated the bridge on site and erected it in a single eight-hour pick, rather than building it piecemeal over the roadway, which would have taken longer and required frequent closures. Additionally, Building Information Modelling (BIM) is increasingly useful as a tool for communicating construction plans and the phasing of the work to stakeholders.  By rendering the projects electronically, we can show those stakeholders more clearly where and when the work will take place.

3. Safety and security is central to everything. These complex renovations often require an extensive system of temporary walls, clear way finding and a rigorous badging program to keep the construction sites inside the terminal carefully insulated from nearby passengers. Coordinating with all parties prior to execution – especially the TSA – ensures timely and efficient project delivery. We have also developed tools like the inSite Monitor to enhance safety during construction. This tool remotely monitors the environmental conditions on a project, measuring noise, dust, vibration and other environmental factors and notifies our team immediately if conditions on the site go over acceptable levels.

The need to upgrade our outdated aviation facilities is clear, and airports and airlines are driving many of these changes in response to new customer expectations. Contractors can do their part to deliver efficient, flexible solutions that put the customer experience first and foremost. These trends in aviation construction reflect the interests of the modern traveler, which will continue to impact the way we will design and build airports.

This post originally was originally published on Aviation Pros.

 

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MacAdam Glinn

posted by MacAdam Glinn

Skanska USA Vice President - Aviation Center of Excellence National Director

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For Elizabeth River Tunnels, all the pieces are coming together

Last week, our Elizabeth River Tunnels construction joint venture commenced the second and final movement of 16,000-ton hollow concrete tunnel elements, an amazing process that starts at our Baltimore-area casting facility and ends at the Portsmouth, Va., project site. In between, these tunnel segments – now floating – travel 220 miles south on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

For each of these five elements, the trip takes about two days. Multiple tugboats guide each segment, which are outfitted with temporary fenders and bulkheads, and remotely monitored by our team via GPS and other satellite-based equipment. All elements are scheduled to be in Portsmouth by April 11. For a map of the tunnel elements’ journey down the Chesapeake, click here. Even better, here’s what that journey looks like from a tugboat:

In Portsmouth, the first six elements that SKW Constructors “floated out” last June have all been placed one-by-one on the bottom of the Elizabeth River (click here for a graphic illustrating that process). The sixth one was placed in mid-March. The elements form the $2.1 billion public-private partnership project’s centerpiece, an expanded Midtown Tunnel.

Though the project’s official completion date is 2018, it’s already won numerous awards. The latest is the Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award.

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One of the 16,000-ton concrete tunnel elements being guided out of the dock and into the Patapsco River, from which it’ll connect to the Chesapeake Bay.

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The Baltimore-area graving dock where the concrete elements were cast was flooded last week, so the units could be floated out.

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Harvard Art Museums recognized with top construction honor

Our project to expand and renovate the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass., has been recognized with a Build America Award, one of the nation’s most prestigious construction honors. Presented by Associated General Contractors, this award recognizes the highest levels of construction project complexity, innovation and client satisfaction. We accepted the award recently at AGC’s national convention in Puerto Rico.

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The Art Museums project consolidated Harvard University’s three museums into a single facility designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano. The undertaking had two major elements: demolishing and then rebuilding 70 percent of the 202,000-square-foot interior of the original 1927 building, and constructing a 154,000-square-foot, five-story addition. Here, you can see how the old meets the new.

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Precise work was a hallmark of this project. For example, nearly perfect steel and concrete placement was required to achieve the three-quarter-inch reveal between the bottom of the drywall and the top of the concrete floor in the galleries. We added the sloped, glazed roof shown here to bring daylight into the structure.

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Among our innovations was developing an advanced Bluebeam Revu-based PDF document management system and pioneering the use of LED-based luminaires for construction lighting, saving more than $300,000 in energy costs.

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“The Harvard Art Museums project represents one of Skanska’s most complex and rewarding undertakings,” said Kerim Evin, executive vice president.

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One of the most complex parts of the project was moving and lifting a 76-year-old, 13- by 12-foot irreplaceable fresco that was affixed to a 16-inch-thick masonry wall. Skanska’s strategy for moving the artwork involved encapsulating the fresco and its supporting wall in a massive steel frame, then using a diamond-bladed cable saw to cut the 15-ton section free of the surrounding structure.We then used a crane – with its boom towering 140 feet in the air – to land the fresco in its final location.This required tremendous precision – the loading on the fresco needed to be constant so the artwork would not crack. Our attention to detail paid off, as the artwork was successfully re-installed without issue.

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Our team  erected 700 tons of temporary steel to brace the existing structure’s exterior walls, and later threaded permanent steel into place in that same space. Thanks in part to a three-dimensional model, there were few conflicts.

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“We did a lot of things here that people will never do again in their careers,” said Claude LeBlanc, general superintendent. “Many things were done that that no one will ever see.”

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A hackathon isn’t just for tech: How it’s helping us choose the best project partners

To select an architect for our latest Seattle commercial development project – a tower called 2&U – we thought about what we really needed in our design partner, and how we could best uncover those qualities.

We knew we didn’t want to approach this procurement the way our industry traditionally does it: using a process based on RFQs and RFPs that demands significant time and resources from everyone involved with first creating, then submitting, and finally reading all the proposals. Even more, we didn’t believe the traditional non-collaborative approach would yield what we needed. RFQs and RFPs highlight the effectiveness of a firm’s ability to work in isolation without its client. For 2&U, we needed an architect skilled at design and highly adept at handling input from the client and marketplace, to be done while addressing the constant changes inherent to urban development.

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These images from the 2&U creative brief helped inspire the teams’ work during the Hackathon.

With that goal in mind, we didn’t have to look very far. Seattle’s tech community is incredibly collaborative, and it constantly embraces innovative ways to achieve high levels of collaboration to solve problems: the hackathon is one such method. What’s a hackathon? Typically, hackathons bring tech developers together to “hack” a piece of code or software to make it better. While our Seattle office was undergoing renovations this last summer, our team temporarily worked off-site in a co-working lab. One Saturday afternoon, I stopped in to pick up items I’d left and discovered a full-scale hackathon instigated by some of our tech neighbors. I wanted to harness the same level of energy and creativity to develop a new path of collaboration for creating buildings that shape our city. Our entire team embraced this idea and extended it further.

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Design ideas presented by the winning architecture firm at the end of the hackathon.

Here’s how we hosted the hackathon:

Step 1:  We issued an RFC – a Request for Conversation – inviting nine internationally recognized design firms for 60-minute conversations. We didn’t want thick volumes of resumes and past experiences. Rather, we just wanted to get a feel if the firms were interested in our project, had passion for the work and if we would enjoy working together with them. After those conversations, it was very clear what two firms we would engage in the design hackathon itself.

Step 2: We crafted a hackathon introduction and invitation. The invitation provided further details of the project, timeline and some expectations. Beyond the basics, we also provided a creative brief that highlighted our vision for 2&U, and that shared photos of memorable spaces, shapes and textures from around the world to inspire the 2&U design.

Step 3: Our hackathon was an intense three-week event focused on testing the teams’ abilities to work with us, and dealing with change toward finding the best solutions. We even supplied the teams with Red Bull energy drink, should they find themselves pulling late nights. The process required several check-ins, and the best team fully utilized this feedback. Partway through the process, we altered the scope a bit by excluding a lot in our project, which was likely to happen during the city’s zoning process.

The results of our hackathon were remarkable: We believe this process was efficient for all involved, and it directed us to the most dynamic firm. In the end, we chose Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn., to be the architect of 2&U.

Our strongest learning in utilizing the hackathon was that often our traditional processes might not yield the best results. We saw one firm have tremendous energy for the interview, but run into design fatigue during the hackathon. Further, we learned that by seeing our partners as customers and inspiring them to do good work, we can truly run faster as a high-performance team.

Some might say the tech industries are too different from ours to offer any relevant learnings. We remain open and curious about our customers, and believe there is much to gain in the means and methods.

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Lisa Picard

posted by Lisa Picard

Skanska USA executive vice president

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In Miami, successfully assembling an “orange”

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We’re building the iconic Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami. The planetarium is in the foreground.

Our team at Miami’s Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science project just assembled 32 concave orange peel-like pieces – weighing about 50,000 pounds per panel – to form a full dome planetarium. The operation required 24-hour-a-day/seven-day-a-week work over two-and-a-half weeks to precisely place and connect the segments.

Our team had been planning this unusual operation since we joined this project in May. The operation began with erecting a massive, 50-foot-tall center shoring tower and setting a precast dome cap, which was 100 percent welded off before any of the “orange-peel” segments could be rigged and lifted into place. The shoring tower was necessary as the segments couldn’t support themselves until all 32 of them were in position, welded and inspected.

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To maneuver the pieces, we brought in a specialized 550-ton hydraulic crane with a superlift. 

Once the center pieces were in place, our team installed the orange-peel perimeter segments opposite one another in a counter-clockwise rotation to avoid lateral load on the dome cap. To maneuver the pieces, we brought in a specialized 550-ton hydraulic crane with a superlift. This sequence required erecting the panels during the day and welding the panels at night to be ready to erect new panels in morning and maintain schedule.

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The team erected panels during the day and welded the panels at night so they could be ready to erect new panels in morning and maintain schedule.

Our team paid close attention to safety during this critical and not-so-traditional precast operation. The shoring tower was an engineered system that was inspected daily before work could commence, as it served double duty as a working platform and shoring tower. The planetarium was barricaded off at all times to only allow specially trained and authorized personnel to enter. The welders were working from both an OSHA-approved guard rail system located within the working platform system, along with strategically placed spider lifts. All personnel were certified riggers, flagmen and welders. This day and night operation had no safety incidents.

At the end of last year, our Frost Museum team successfully executed one of the world’s most unusual concrete pours: creating a martini glass-shaped 500,000-gallon seawater aquarium tank through a non-stop 25-hour, 1,200-cubic-yard placement.

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Building a balanced life: Q&A with Project Manager Theodora Diamantis

The $600 million City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center project in New York City was a homecoming for project manager Theodora Diamantis, who left Skanska in 2001 after six years with us, eventually becoming a full-time mother for her four children: Paulina, 12; Eliana, 10; and seven-year-old twins, George and Kleoniki. She rejoined our company in 2011, with CUNY as her first assignment. Today, Theodora’s work is being highlighted at a new show “Built By Women New York City” at the Center for Architecture. The exhibit showcases dozens of projects all across New York’s five boroughs, designed and constructed by female architects, engineers and builders. Several Skanska projects are a part of the exhibition including the NYU Stern School of Business, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge, Fulton Transit Center, and No. 7 line Subway Extension, which includes two new stations on 34th Street and 11th Ave.

To learn more about “Built By Women New York City” click here.

Recently we had the chance to catch up with Diamantis and learn a bit more about her start in construction, the challenges she’s overcome along the way, and where she’s headed.

Here’s what she had to say:

- I’m hands on – I like to build. I grew up in a home in which my father never hired anyone to do anything – he did it all himself. As annoying as that was as a child, I learned a lot.

- For four years shortly after I joined Skanska, I traveled weekly to work on shopping mall projects in Michigan and Virginia. I would fly out on Monday and come home that Friday to New York.

- At CUNY, I was in charge of the towers’ interiors, specifically the core areas, atrium, auditorium and cafe. The overall project was about 400,000 square feet

- My children come before my job. If I saw that they were paying a price because of the hours I was working, I would have to evaluate and see if a lesser role was suitable for that period of time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

- I’m always thinking for five – my four children and myself.

- I have been a superintendent too, including for a project that added five stories to the top of Sotheby’s auction house in New York City – I oversaw work on the top floor. In 2000, when this job was underway, female superintendents weren’t very common in the industry. I still remember getting into a hoist with 20 men on my first day on that job – intimidating to say the least! But coming off a successful mall project in Michigan for which I was both a project manager and superintendent, I was confident in my abilities.

- Whether you’re male or female, you always have to prove yourself.

- Critical to gaining the respect of trade contractors is showing that you know how to build. I think you can only get that experience by having a role in the field. I recommend this for all engineers wanting a senior managerial role.

- My days start pretty early, so when I get home after work I take a shot of espresso because I have to be ready for job number two: checking over four kids’ homework, maybe taking them to an extracurricular activity, and reading to them before tucking them in.

- If I need to take time to attend one of my children’s performances, I’m going to do that. I’ll make up the time. Everything balances out – I make it work.

- I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t have the support system that I have, which is my extended family, my parents and my sister. It takes a village. I’m fortunate that my parents and sister live in close proximity.

- I believe Skanska’s culture allows for a flexible schedule, if it’s structured properly and especially if you’ve proven yourself to the company.

To learn more about Theodora’s career at Skanska, check out this video:

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It all starts with listening

Jeff_Siddle - Skanska

Jeff Siddle, assistant vice president of planning and development, Tampa International Airport

Jeff Siddle has been involved in airport planning and development since college. When a case study project took him to Lambert- St. Louis International Airport, he had landed on his career. Now at Tampa International Airport – a longtime Skanska client – Siddle is managing multiple contractors as the airport embarks on a nearly $1 billion expansion program. We talked with Siddle about ensuring customer satisfaction, airport trends and what Tampa expects of its partners.

What’s your favorite part of working in aviation?

I enjoy being able to have a direct impact on customers’ flying experiences by planning, designing and constructing facilities that are focused on serving those customers. Flying can be stressful – here at Tampa we want to do our best to make it as unstressful as possible.

What’s a major trend you see with airports?

Diversifying revenue streams. With the ever-changing airline industry, you cannot solely count on airline revenue as much as you could previously. To solidify – and even increase our revenue – we’ve put a new focus on ensuring that the airport’s property is being used to its highest and best purpose. That includes commercially developing some of the airport’s outparcels, and making sure that we have high-performing concessions.

Any other trends?

Customer convenience and sustainability. When my adult daughter travels and she can’t find outlets in airports to charge her phone and iPad, she lets me know. We thought about that kind of experience as we were planning Tampa’s current terminal renovation and expansion project. We are improving seating areas, adding business centers, improving concessions – and even adding outdoor terraces. Also, sustainability is very important to us: Our community tells us they want us at the forefront of sustainability, so that’s what we’re doing.

Outside groups consistently give Tampa International Airport high marks on quality, service and passenger satisfaction. What does the airport do to uphold that?

We listen. We engage in conversations and ask questions so we can better understand the airport experience from a passenger’s viewpoint. We always want to have an open ear, and never take the position that we know better than them. This is the community’s airport and we treat it that way.

What makes a successful project team?

When an entity comes to work with us, it’s absolutely critical that they focus your views listen very intently. Cooperation, collaboration and stakeholder involvement – which are essential – are all dependent upon listening.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in delivering capital projects?

When a project is still in the conceptual stage, the airport internally has to develop a solid scope supported by a sound budget and schedule. It’s critical that we get that information right so our executive management and board of directors can use it to make the best decisions. As the project advances and we bring on design-builders – such as Skanska – and other experts, it’s critical that these teams further set us up for success by understanding our need to always have the best information, and then providing that to us.

When a project reaches construction, customer convenience becomes even more critical. The expansion and renovation project will dramatically alter our terminal. At all times during that project, we have to keep our customers informed about what to expect before they get here, and then how to navigate when they are here. We’re counting on Skanska to help ensure we have absolutely no hiccups during that process.

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Teaching English to improve jobsite communication

Throughout this summer and fall, as many employees were leaving our Durham, N.C., office, four individuals were arriving. In the parking lot, they’d change out of shirts that were sweaty from a full day of hands-on work, and don fresh attire. They would be laboring in a different way: learning English as a second language. The evening sessions would last for two hours – an hour later than scheduled – over 10 weeks, two weeks longer than planned. That was because these non-traditional students didn’t want to leave, being eager to improve their English skills.

The instructor, Diversity Coordinator Johnny Ortiz, didn’t mind the additional commitment because he understood their desire: His parents came to this country from El Salvador, and as a child he would help them with their English. “I can relate,” Ortiz said. “Many of my family members have struggled to learn English through the years.”

The training – a pilot effort – pushes our Injury-Free Environment culture in a new direction. Language barriers can lead to miscommunication, which can lead to accidents. With trade workers in the Southeast increasingly of Hispanic descent, our Carolinas/ Virginia office saw this class as an important step in bridging this divide. We offered this training free to Spanish-speaking employees of our trade partners. All four members of this first class were from Baker Roofing.

“They all volunteered for this program,” Ortiz said of his students. “That means they want to get better.”

The course’s foundation is a teaching tool called Sed de Saber Construction Edition (Sed de Saber means “thirst for knowledge”). The tool includes an electronic LeapPad learning tablet with seven interactive lesson books. In the classes, Ortiz would review the lessons, giving special focus to proper pronunciation, correctly speaking numbers, and teaching words and phrases both for everyday living and specifically for jobsites. One of the tougher words to tackle was superintendent. ”You can really take for granted that you think they know something, but they don’t,” he said. When each class would finally come to a close, Ortiz would assign them material to practice on their own. As the weeks went on, Ortiz said his students’ confidence increased.

ESL Grad RJnJODiversity Director Renee Jones, left, and Diversity Coordinator Johnny Ortiz,far right, with the graduates of our Carolinas/ Virginia office’s inaugural English language training class.

Now that they’ve graduated, he’s heard from their supervisors that his students are using better spelling on their daily work summaries, and that they’re less hesitant to converse in English.“I don’t know if I considered this to be work because I saw how much I was helping them,” Ortiz said. “It was pretty rewarding seeing them get better.”

We are starting a second session with a larger group of students later this year.

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It’s not exactly rocket science

Long before I was a builder, I was fascinated by space. In fact, my first career goal was to become an astronaut. To help me get there, as a middle schooler I was fortunate to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. – and I still have my flight suit! I commanded a simulator mission in which we had to land in an Iowa cornfield, but like that flight, my space career soon drifted off target. Instead, I’ve put my technical knowledge to use in solving the challenges involved with creating buildings, especially how to enable them to have less impact on the environment. But I never fully let go of the dream of putting on that flight suit again.

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Space has long been a fascination of mine: here’s my Space Camp flight suit from middle school.

With my background and interests, I was surprised and delighted to recently receive an email inviting me to present about sustainability and resiliency at a joint NASA/European Space Agency conference. The worlds of space travel and construction don’t often mix, except for highly specialized work. But I submitted an abstract, which was accepted, and not too long ago I was before a crowd of engineers and administrators at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. I had 25 minutes to share some thoughts to help NASA improve the resiliency of its ground infrastructure against the looming impacts of climate change.

I focused on the idea of advancing systems from being redundant to restorative. Redundancy involves layering on duplicate layers of capacity or protection in case the primary system fails to work, or is overloaded. Think of a back-up generator. Having extra layers is often quite costly, and the additional capacity may be rarely – if ever – used.

Space station as model?

But rather than redundant, what if we focused on creating systems that were resilient: able to flex and withstand stresses without breaking. With buildings, that means facilities that depend on natural systems and strategies, instead of more layers of energy and technology. For instance, in nature things are self-sufficient. A technological equivalent of that is a cogeneration plant, a highly efficient machine that uses natural gas – albeit from off-site – to produce electricity, and it takes what otherwise would be waste heat and uses that to produce hot water or steam for heating buildings. During Hurricane Sandy in New York City, on-site co-generation enabled New York University to heat and power its campus, as natural gas lines remained intact. For true on-site, emission-free power, photovoltaics are a compelling solution, but their use is limited by site area, weather and, of course, darkness.

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The International Space Station offers lessons in resiliency from which buildings on Earth might benefit. (Photo credit: NASA)

Maybe the International Space Station will show us how to combine both of these systems in buildings: The space station uses photovoltaics to create electricity and to drive an electrolysis process that splits water into hydrogen (fuel) and oxygen (air), a space version of cogeneration and a biomimicry of the process on Earth that we call photosynthesis.

Neighborhood-sized solutions

But I believe the best way to be resilient is not through individual buildings, but rather groups of buildings. Collections of buildings known as eco-districts help reduce resource consumption because water, waste, energy and transportation systems can be optimized, each at the appropriate scale. Studies have shown that for every five or so office buildings running off of a district energy plant, there’s typically enough efficiency gain to also power a sixth one without added capacity. This neighborhood-scale consolidation also reduces the dependency on the single, regional systems most communities use.

Benefiting the surroundings

Beyond redundant and resilient you have restorative, which is having a building or system that actually benefits its surroundings. That was the aim of Skanska and our partners in creating Powerhouse Kjorbo, an office building near Oslo, Norway, that will produce more energy over its life cycle than it uses. Photovolatic panels on the roof, geothermal heating and cooling, and a well-sealed and highly insulated building structure – combined with very efficient integrated systems for heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting – all transform what could be an energy-guzzling office building into a supplier of pure and renewable energy. It’s also a beautiful place to work, even if you are above the Arctic Circle.

Transforming from redundant to restorative is a big step – no matter if you’re dealing with buildings or space program infrastructure. Being at this conference reminded me of all the advances that the space program has brought to our everyday lives. It gives me hope that the very organization that has a mission of going to other planets is working together with all of us Earthlings to preserve this one.

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Steve Clem

posted by Steve Clem

Skanska USA Vice president of preconstruction

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