5 Tips for Evaluating a Contractor for a LEED Job

In any green building project, the General Contractor plays a critical role.  With the advent of LEED v4, this role is even more critical than it was under LEED v3.  It is critical at all levels – from the boots on the ground at the construction site, to the team securing subcontractors, to the upper level management and accounting departments overseeing the project.

Yet I can tell you that in over 15 years of experience managing over 100 LEED and green building projects spanning billions of dollars and millions of square feet of construction, I have had completely unknowledgeable general contractor teams on the majority of those jobs.  And on just about every one of those, the general contractor had sworn up and down going into the job that they were well versed in LEED and would handle all of the construction related LEED documentation.  But as I will elaborate below, just because a company has done some LEED projects does not necessarily mean the specific people on a job have experience.

This lack of experience was understandable in the early years of LEED, especially in certain markets where LEED and green building were slower to take hold.  And frankly there isn’t anything really wrong with a contractor not having LEED experience. It should not be a deal-breaker.  Training, coordination, and really just a sincere commitment to the process will always lead to a successful LEED project on the jobsite.  I have seen this time and time again.  But being upfront and committing to take the necessary steps are paramount.

The unfortunate reality is that often (not always…) general contractors (1) underestimate the significance of truly having LEED experience; (2) often overestimate their experience; and (3) don’t invest in their teams to get them up to speed when necessary.

So, for you as an Owner, Owner’s Representative, or Architect involved in the selection process, how can you better evaluate a contractor’s LEED resume in your overall selection process?  Below are five simple tips.


TIP 1: Don’t Overvalue Memberships

Many organizations in the design and construction world will tout that they are USGBC Members (or members of other green organizations).  Remember that all that is required to be a member and get that member logo is the writing of a check.  It doesn’t translate to a qualification.

However, it could meant that an organization has made a commitment in general to green building, which could be an indicator of greener corporate culture. But I have also personally seen large organizations who are very active USGBC members whose site specific staff are not well-versed in the day to day of delivering a LEED project.


TIP 2: Don’t Overvalue Credentials

As most of us do, we hype our credentials to enhance our qualifications.  But credentials do not always translate to actual experience and value.  This is very true in the world of LEED.  There are many different versions and levels of LEED credentials, from LEED GA to LEED AP BD+C, to LEED Fellow.  There can even be someone who has an older version of a LEED AP credential (more on LEED credentials here.).  But none of these really represent a person’s actual experience on a LEED job.  USGBC now requires some modest experience on a project to become LEED Accredited, but it is nominal and usually does not represent that someone worked on a job start to finish.

In addition, a firm may highlight how many LEED APs they have on staff, but what is more important is if any of them are going to be on your job.  I had a job once where the contractor’s website claimed to have 450+ LEED APs on staff, but in the field on a $100 million project nobody knew how to gather the most basic of LEED information, nor where to go within their own company for assistance.


TIP 3: Value Personnel Experience Ahead of Firm Experience

Firms almost always put a number on how many LEED buildings they have done, and selection teams become enamored with this.  More is better, right? Not in my experience.  If the contractor was a small firm with only one or two crews, then I would look at this as a good indicator.  But the fact that a firm did 20 LEED buildings in New York is likely not going to have an bearing on how a team in Miami that has never done a LEED building will perform, unless they assign someone from New York.  What is most critical is WHO exactly is going to be on the job.  Does that person or team itself have prior LEED experience?  Related to that, the person who was on a LEED job for a contractor may be gone.  I have seen this before.  At that point, the institutional knowledge has left the company.


TIP 4: Get References

As with any job, one of the best indicators is to talk to prior collaborators.  On any LEED job there is most likely a LEED Project Manager / Administrator, and that person would have worked closely with the contractor.  That person more than anybody else will be able to tell you how the LEED documentation process went on a prior contractor’s job.


TIP 5: – Ask for Samples of Prior Work AND Associated LEED Reviewer Comments

Again, with many jobs employers ask for prior work, portfolios, writing samples, etc.  If a contractor has done LEED work before, then they will easily be able to provide some documentation from prior projects.  But even better, that documentation will have a report card associated with it.  The USGBC reviews each credit and provides summary comments for every credit on a LEED job.  The contractor again should readily be able to provide that.


BONUS TIP:  Use Your LEED Consultant

Since you made it this far, I couldn’t help but add a bonus tip.  Often I hear grumblings of LEED consultants and questions about the value add of their services on the job.  But conversely, teams often forget to include the LEED consultant in many aspects of the project.  The LEED Administrator more than anyone is qualified to be evaluating the LEED credentials of a contractor.  They can review prior work samples, talk to past LEED colleagues, be in for the interviews, and add a ton of value to the process.  In short, they can see right through the glossy membership logos, laundry list of LEED APs, and certified project lists.  And this is also the person who will be working most closely with the contractor on the construction portions.

Joe Snider is an architect, speaker, and author and owner of Joe Snider Consulting, a consulting firm that provides a full suite of sustainability consulting services to guide organizations to incorporate their sustainability missions into policies and daily practices. Joe Snider has been awarded the prestigious LEED Fellow status by the U.S. Green Building Council.