LEEDing Cincinnati

HGC Construction
Written by Claire Suttles

HGC Construction has been serving Cincinnati since 1931. The company has built commercial and residential structures – as well as relationships – through three generations, becoming a local staple.
In recent years, the team has ramped up their operations, growing in size and scope to cover a wider geographic area and take on a greater focus on sustainability. “We’ve probably tripled in size in the last 11 years,” says Senior Project Manager Bill Smith. Just ten years ago, HGC employed around 50 people; today that number has jumped to nearly 250.

The company’s increased focus on sustainability was a natural fit for the team. “To be LEED friendly, you’ve got to think outside the box. We’ve got a lot of outside the box thinkers. Everybody here is trying to think of new, creative ways of doing things. We are not some heavy highway cut, fill, pave kind of company. That is one of the keys [to our success].”

In addition, HGC’s longtime focus on restoration work gave the company a LEED mentality long before LEED hit the mainstream. “A lot of our renovation leads to recycling, because you are keeping old historic bases and trims and floors and handrails,” Mr. Smith explains. “So we were already into that whole rework, replace, reuse, recycle mentality.”

This mentality put HGC well ahead of the game when LEED first hit Cincinnati a few years ago. Back then, LEED was still an exotic concept, and few in the area knew how to take it on. “Five or six years ago, you spent a lot more time on paper work,” Mr. Smith remembers. Energy efficient building components were not readily available and LEED requirements seemed like a complicated maze. Now, LEED has become standard throughout the city – thanks in part to HGC, which was one of the first local construction companies bold enough to take it on.

In fact, HGC jumped into the game so early that one of the company’s projects was actually used as a test case by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the association behind LEED. The project is located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, “one of the top ten most endangered historic places in the united states.” The team wanted to go for LEED when they transformed two crumbling buildings dating back to the 1800s into eight upscale residential condominiums, but they quickly ran into a problem. “It didn’t fit into a lot of the LEED criteria because it was a four story building,” Mr. Smith recalls. “[LEED residential] was set up for single family homes or duplex style.” This was back in 2008, when LEED was still in its infancy, and the program’s residential requirements simply didn’t fit an out-of-the-box project. “So we ended up working with the USGBC and we were one of the pilot projects for USGBC to learn how the midrise would work and what things needed to be changed in the LEED for Homes criteria in order to accommodate a midrise building versus a low rise.”

Pioneering a new LEED concept was not easy. “A lot of things were new to us on it; we didn’t even really know what the rules were.” The team’s efforts paid off, however, and the Lofts of Mottainai became the first LEED for Homes Silver Certified project in Over-the-Rhine.

HGC has also been a LEED trailblazer on a number of projects for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. In 2009, the team completed construction on the zoo’s Historic Vine Street Village – the first LEED NC Platinum Certified project in Cincinnati, and the third in the entire state of Ohio. The company provided construction management services for the complex project, which included multiple elements. The 5,000 square foot Transit Pavilion provides access to the bridge across Vine Street; the 8,000 square foot Green Space Interpretive showcases all of the zoo’s green initiatives; Ticketing & Membership utilizes a new, 3,800 square foot building; and a 12,000 square foot Gift Shop & Entry Garden welcomes visitors.

Achieving LEED Platinum on the Historic Vine Street project was a significant challenge. “[LEED Platinum] was extremely foreign to everybody,” remembers Senior Project Manager Greg Speidel. “Everything from learning what the proper insulation values were, to how many windows you needed, to how to get pervious pavers – when no one knows what a pervious paver is.” Not only did the team successfully navigate the complicated LEED requirements, they also brought the $8.8 million project in under budget. “That was the feather in the cap.”

That success set the bar for HGC’s subsequent work at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens. “That project set a precedent for us at the zoo that, no matter what, we are always going to go for a LEED [rating],” Mr. Speidel shares. The company’s next zoo project was Cat Canyon, the first LEED Silver animal exhibit in the United States. The big cat enclosure includes a fully accessible walking path with grade changes up to 13 feet, 18-foot-tall concrete retaining structures, underground animal holding areas and separate entry and exit locations to reduce visitor congestion.

One of the most challenging aspects of building Cat Canyon was the fact that the exhibit was located in the middle of the zoo. With 1.2 million people visiting the zoo each year, pedestrian traffic around the site was quite heavy. “We had to cross their main path,” Mr. Speidel remembers. “It was a coordination puzzle.” Just getting all the materials and equipment to the site each day was a significant complication, not to mention earning all of the points required to make LEED Silver.

After building LEED projects at the zoo for over seven years, the team has it down to a science. “At the zoo, LEED Silver, Gold, Platinum is almost second nature for us,” says Mr. Speidel. “It is not a challenge for us.” With LEED in the bag it was time to move on to the next challenge, so the team redid the Base Camp Café following the strict guidelines of the Green Restaurant Association. Sustainability was at the heart of the project, affecting everything from the lighting and flooring to where the food would be sourced. The team rose to the challenge, earning the highest marks seen to date. “It is the greenest restaurant in America according to the Green Restaurant Association,” Mr. Speidel reports. “It has 460 points; the next closest is 401.”

In addition, HGC has taken on the Living Building Challenge (LBC) for the zoo’s African painted dog exhibit. “It is LEED on steroids. If you have LEED platinum and you take that up about three notches, that gets you to Living Building Challenge.” Requirements include net zero water and energy usage, “basically leaving a zero carbon footprint.” The strict rules leave no wiggle room. “You don’t get the choice of doing something or not doing it,” M. Speidel points out. “With LEED, you can choose not to use FSC [Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber] and still get Silver. With Living Building Challenge, if you choose not to get FSC wood then you don’t get certified. It has been a huge learning curve.” But, the effort has certainly been worth it. “When we get certified, we will be the 20th [LBC certified] building in the nation, the first animal exhibit, and the first building in Ohio.”

HGC is also taking on Enterprise Green Communities Standards. “A lot of owners are coming to us with different types of challenges,” Mr. Speidel explains. “They don’t want to go for LEED, but [they want to] do something similar.” Enterprise Green Communities has many requirements that overlap with LEED, but the initiative has an underlying goal of creating healthy, high quality affordable housing.

The team successfully met Enterprise Green Communities Standards with Mercer Commons Phase II. The $13 million project included a new mixed-use building with 21 apartments and retail space on the ground floor, as well as the renovation of several historic buildings into 46 apartments, a management / leasing office, community spaces, and retail spaces. The units within the historic rehab buildings are 15 to 30 percent more energy efficient than a standard newly constructed home, and the units within the new building are 20 to 32 percent more efficient. In addition, the new building units passed the new Energy Star Version 3 requirements and received Energy Star Certifications.

The real challenge with Mercer Commons was making old, renovated buildings airtight enough to meet the tough standards. “To make a new building tight really should be pretty simple, but to take old buildings and make them Energy Star efficient and pass all the required blower door tests that come with that is a big challenge,” Mr. Smith points out.

Fortunately, HGC is up to the challenge. The team specializes in pushing the limits on sustainability – and has a track record of industry firsts to show for it. After 84 years in business, the company continues to move forward, leading Cincinnati toward a greener future.



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