Clean Diesel Fuels Sustainability in Urban Construction

3030 N. Broadway
Clean diesel programs in urban construction projects are practically unknown today, but they’re likely to be the rule rather than the exception in the future. The opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases and protect residents, businesses and their patrons, as well as those working on the job site from noxious fumes by reducing emissions from construction equipment is too great for cities to ignore. Contractors may find that the extra effort and cost required for a leading-edge clean diesel project is offset by potential benefits ranging from better community relations to a LEED credit.

Clean diesel construction is still a new concept. Leopardo Companies, Inc., one of the nation’s largest contractors, is building a multi-story retail project at 3030 N. Broadway that is the first in Chicago–and among the first in the country–to follow an advanced clean diesel program that goes beyond government-mandated anti-idling ordinances to significantly reduce particulates in the air. A big part of the goal is to foster a healthier environment for neighbors who work, live and play near the site.

To understand the impact of limiting noxious emissions at construction sites, it’s important to acknowledge the organizations behind this initiative: Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and the Respiratory Health Association (RHA). These organizations are partnering with Leopardo on the clean diesel initiative at 3030 N. Broadway because they see an opportunity to measurably improve air quality and public health in Chicago.

Diesel exhaust contains more than 40 air contaminants, carcinogens, ozone forming compounds (smog) and fine particulate matter (soot) that collectively contribute to asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes, among other health effects. Chicago ranks among the country’s worst metropolitan areas in terms of health impacts from diesel pollution. Adopting clean diesel practices minimizes the health effects on surrounding communities and reduces the carbon footprint of projects.

Mandate to Reduce Emissions
The push for lower emissions from off-road construction vehicles and equipment got underway in 2009 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established emissions standards for new off-road equipment. EPA estimates that U.S. construction projects account for more than 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, more than any business sector except for the energy and chemical industries. To address this issue, EPA set a new emission standard for off-road construction equipment aimed at reducing nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 50 to 96 percent compared to existing diesel engines. Since 2011, all new equipment must meet this new Tier 4 standard, an eventually existing Tier 1 and Tier 2 equipment will need to be upgraded or replaced with higher performing machines.

Also in 2011, the Chicago City Council passed the Clean Diesel Construction ordinance, which, as of January 2014, requires all new city-funded projects over $2 million to avoid using high-polluting diesel equipment built before 1998, and report their overall machine inventory Clean Fleet Score. Although that rule applies only to city-awarded projects, Chicago’s new ordinance limiting equipment idling time to less than three minutes applies to all construction sites.

Putting Clean Diesel into Practice
To expand clean diesel practices beyond federal and municipal mandates, ELPC and RHA sought to convince contractors to lead one or more pilot projects. Leopardo was a perfect partner, in part due to the firm’s commitment to sustainability and leadership role in the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, and in part because ELPC has been a Leopardo client in the past. The organizations ideally wanted the pilot project to be located in an area where respiratory problems are greatest, but with no pending projects in those areas, Leopardo suggested a viable alternative: 3030 N. Broadway, an infill development in a residential neighborhood and already on a sustainable course.

Located in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, 3030 N. Broadway entails 260,000 square feet of retail and commercial space plus parking for 270 cars. Retail anchors include Mariano’s Fresh Market, XSport Fitness, Starbucks and PNC Bank. Construction materials include precast concrete, metal panel, glass and stone facade materials. The project is seeking LEED for Core & Shell certification, and the clean diesel initiative supports that goal by meeting the requirements for LEED Pilot Credit 75, which concerns construction vehicle emissions.

The clean diesel program at 3030 N. Broadway minimizes environmental and community impacts in two ways: by using the best available equipment and by avoiding unnecessary emissions in construction operations. Subcontractors brought their newest Tier 4 equipment to the project and in some cases retrofitted older machines. For example, a 300-ton crawler crane was retrofitted with an emissions filter called a scrubber to bring it up to Tier 4 standards.

Construction workers avoid equipment idling in accordance with Chicago’s ordinance, and go beyond the requirements by conducting staging activities as far from residences as possible. Even on-road vehicles are expected to conform to low-emission standards and must follow anti-idling rules when they’re on the job site. The only exceptions are vehicles like cement mixers that need to run even when they are not in active use.

Clean diesel practices don’t eliminate all diesel particulates from construction jobs, and some neighbors are still likely to be bothered by fumes coming from the work site. However, community groups have noted their appreciation at the development team’s extra effort to minimize pollution and neighborhood disruption. A large sign at the job site highlights elements of the clean diesel program, so that neighbors recognize the effort being made. Community awareness of idling restrictions also serves as an additional reminder to equipment operators that any lapse in the practice may be noticed.

RHA and ELPC are evaluating the impact of clean diesel practices on particulate emissions in the neighborhood. One project won’t make a measurable difference in local asthma and allergy rates, but if pollution from the site is noticeably improved, that’s a strong argument for other urban construction projects to follow a similar course. As the environmental, social and health benefits become clear, it’s easy to foresee that clean diesel programs will become the standard for urban and, eventually, suburban construction jobs in Chicago and throughout the country.

George K. Tuhowski III, LEED AP BD+C, is director of sustainability at Leopardo Companies, Inc., one of the nation’s largest and greenest construction firms.