Industry News Briefs

September 10, 2009 Headlines

Administration Awards $500 Million for Clean Energy Projects
FTA Has Provided $6.7 Billion in ARRA Funds to States
Some Regions Better Prepared for High-Speed Rail



Industry News

Administration Awards $500 Million for Clean Energy Projects
U.S. Department of Energy (09/01/09)

U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced on Sept. 1 more than $500 million in the first round of awards from an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program that provides cash aid to energy production firms in lieu of earned tax credits. The new funding supplies additional upfront capital, allowing companies to create jobs and commence construction that may have been held back until now. It is anticipated that the program will provide over $3 billion in financial support for clean energy projects, including approximately 5,000 biomass, solar, wind, and other types of renewable energy production facilities in all U.S. regions. "The Recovery Act is investing in our long-term energy needs while creating jobs in communities around the country," Geithner said. "This renewable energy program will spur the manufacture and development of clean energy in urban and rural America, allowing us to protect our environment, create good jobs and revitalize our nation's economy." The first round of funding will give 2,000-plus U.S. residents access to jobs in the renewable energy industry while bringing the country closer to fulfilling the Obama administration's goal of increasing renewable energy generation twofold in the next several years.
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FTA Has Provided $6.7 Billion in ARRA Funds to States
U.S. Department of Transportation (08/31/09)

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has beat the September 1st deadline to provide all states and local communities with 50 percent of their Recovery Act transit formula dollars. FTA has provided nearly 90 percent of its $7.5 billion transit stimulus money to states and local communities and is managing an additional $900 million in discretionary funds for New Starts projects and the Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction and Tribal Transit programs for a total of $8.4 billion. “These funds come at a critical time for the economy and the transit industry,” says Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “Our nation’s transit providers are putting this money to work to maintain, expand, and improve service. As transit ridership continues to grow, Americans will enjoy public transportation that is cleaner, faster, and more reliable as a result of this effort."
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Some Regions Better Prepared for High-Speed Rail
National Public Radio (09/01/09)

With the Obama administration soon to announce grant recipients from $8 billion in high-speed-rail money, different regions of the country seem at different levels of readiness. In Florida, officials have been discussing high-speed rail for decades, and the Florida Department of Transportation says all the land and permits are already secured for a 100-mile rail line from Orlando to Tampa. While previous proposals in the last 30 years bore little fruit, there is a renewed push for Florida high-speed rail now that federal funding is possible. Meanwhile, in the Northwest, there is a recent agreement between the mayors of Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, to work together to link the cities by high-speed rail. "We have a great affinity for our cities to the south, Seattle and Portland, and certainly would prefer to have more connection through rail and high-speed rail," said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. "To be able to jump on a train and be able to be in Seattle or Portland in a couple of hours would be a remarkable breakthrough." However, this would be a pricey project, according to Kirk Fredrickson, a project manager with the Washington state Department of Transportation: "To do some of the things some of the folks here are talking about, I just don't know if that's going to be realistic -- at least in the next couple of decades -- here in the Pacific Northwest, because of the terrain and the geography and the cost." Finally, nit he South, citizens and leaders have been slow to take an interest in high-speed rail, and some people believe the South is overly car-centric -- indeed, the Alabama Constitution bars the state Department of Transportation from putting money toward trains and other alternative transportation. However, Virginia and North Carolina have taken much more interest in high-speed rail, other Southern states have much further to go to catch up with other regions in rail preparations.
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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Highlights Recovery Act Progress After First 200 Days
U.S. Department of Agriculture (09/03/09)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted key investments being made in communities across the country on the 200th day since President Obama approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He also announced an additional $172.5 million in funding for water and environmental projects in 24 states, and said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has satisfied the president's directive and has underwritten over 200 water and environmental projects since the Recovery Act's 100th day. USDA has announced $1.64 billion for loans and grants for similar initiatives to date. On Sept. 3 Vilsack convened with local officials and community residents in Louisa, Va., and highlighted a Recovery Act effort that was announced on the 100th day of the act. Through a $3.3 million USDA Rural Development loan, the community will expand the current wastewater treatment facility's processing capabilities and improve local water quality. Upon completion, the new wastewater treatment system will benefit 585 residential users and 161 businesses, while also fulfilling new environmental mandates. "Recovery Act is putting people to work right now while making our communities safer and improving the quality of life for many years to come," noted Vilsack. "This wastewater treatment project in Louisa County is an excellent example of how the Recovery Act is not only creating jobs, but is also protecting the environment and providing much-needed infrastructure improvements for rural residents."
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A High-Speed Race for Broadband Billions
BusinessWeek (08/31/09) No. 4144, P. 74; King, Rachael

The U.S. government has apportioned $7.2 billion in its federal stimulus plan for the expansion of broadband networks into poor inner-city neighborhoods and remote rural regions. Critics have cited problems with the plan, such as the government's desire for evidence that a specific area lacks broadband infrastructure before it allocates funding, while the firms with the best information on broadband availability are major cable and telecom companies that are loathe to share with would-be rivals. The Commerce Department and the Agriculture Department will partner to disburse the money, and Agriculture Department administrator David J. Villano and colleagues will spend the next several months sorting through areas in need of broadband as well as determining what technologies are best suited for different regions. There are at least six viable broadband options, while federal officials have maintained a neutral stance on the alternatives and will probably make different selections according to regions. International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) of Huntsville, Ala., is focusing on deploying broadband over power lines, which uses the existing electrical wiring in residences to support Internet access. IBEC CEO Scott E. Lee says the technology will likely become increasingly popular because electrical lines extend to virtually all homes. Meanwhile, RidgeviewTel in Colorado is going wireless, choosing technologies such as WiMAX and Wi-Fi. The firm is applying for $25 million in loans and grants to start providing broadband service in 35 communities in upstate New York. CEO Vincent T. Jordan says RidgeviewTel can offer broadband at a much more affordable price because wireless systems are less expensive to install than alternatives such as fiber-optic lines.
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Construction Firms Need More From US Stimulus - Economists
ICIS Chemical Business America (08/28/09) DuBose, Ben

The troubled non-residential construction industry is not seeing much relief from the government stimulus and may continue to contract, says Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) economist Ken Simonson. The stimulus bill marked $135 billion for construction projects, which was supposed to start flowing to construction firms in May, but so far the funds have yet to materialize for many firms. Construction unemployment has risen in 47 states and is now 18.4 percent—nearly twice the national rate—according to AGC data, and CEO Stephen Sandherr says the stimulus “has the ability to halt the virtual free fall in construction employment that has cost the jobs of over a million construction workers over the past 12 months alone.” The one positive area in construction has been the transportation sector, as money flowed quickly to many road, rail, and airport projects. These projects already had a funding mechanism in place so the money was simple to allocate, Simonson says, and other agencies do not have such a mechanism or were overwhelmed with the amount of money they had to allocate.
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Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label
New York Times (08/31/09) Navarro, Mireya

The U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for buildings, plans to close the gap between design and construction by gather voluntarily provided energy use information from participants. Information gathered from buildings would not be publicly disclosed. Nearly 25 percent of all new buildings with LEED certification do not save as much energy as their designs suggested and most of the buildings fail to track energy consumption once operational. Also beginning in 2009, the LEED program is collecting utility bills from new construction for the first five years of operation, and LEED certification could be revoked if buildings do not supply the information. Critics have stated that some buildings have achieved more points toward LEED certification by installing items like bamboo flooring, rather than optimizing energy efficiency. A recent study of LEED certified buildings revealed that 53 percent failed to qualify for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program and 15 percent of LEED buildings scored below 30, which signifies they used more energy per square foot than 70 percent of comparable buildings in their category. Other critics note that once a building achieves LEED certification, there is little incentive to do more to improve the structure's consumption and efficiency.
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Canada Seeks Innovative Ways to Use Wood in Construction
Daily Commercial News (Canada) (09/01/09) Koroluk, Korky

The Canadian Wood Council and Wood Works are spearheading a program to fund non-residential construction projects that include non-traditional uses of wood. A call for expressions of interest has been issued to the Canadian design community, and the documents will be judged by innovation, sustainability, and building performance, among other criteria. One example would be cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is currently used in Europe but has not yet been utilized in Canada. It is a “massive, solid wall panel made of solid timber,” says Wood Works technical director Steven Street. CLT was used recently in a nine-story wood building in London which is “really pushing the structural boundaries of wood,” he says. Funding for the initiative will come from NRCan, and other partners in the program include Quebec Wood Export Bureau, FP Innovations, Ceccbois, and Natural Resources Canada.
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Multivista Covers All the Angles on Construction
Phoenix Business Journal (08/27/09) Buchholz, Jan

A number of public and private developers in Arizona, along with some federal construction projects elsewhere, have been using an Internet-based visual construction tracking system from the Phoenix firm Multivista FS to track and coordinate jobs. The Multivista system combines digital photography with construction plans and CAD files to document the progress of a project virtually in real time, with a seamless interface for on-site photographers to link their images into the system. Contractors generally used a more ad-hoc system than this in the past, but Phil Ellsworth, senior project manager at Parsons Corp., says, "We brought on Multivista when a client wanted more details than that. This is the most unique user friendly program I've seen. You can see where you are at any given time from the Internet." According to Jessica Marlowe, utilities manager on a water treatment plant project where Parsons is using Multivista, "What convinced us was the way the system organizes the thousands of photographs that will be taken over the course of the project and how easy it is to reference them. We have had other infrastructure improvement projects with CDs full of hundreds of pictures and it is very difficult and time consuming to go through and find any specific picture you happen to be looking for." Other projects in the Phoenix area where Multivista has been or is being used to document construction include The Summit at Copper Square condominium project in downtown Phoenix, a new fire station in Glendale, the CityNorth mixed-use project near Desert Ridge, Banner Ironwood Medical Center in Queen Creek, and the Maricopa County Downtown Court Tower.
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How Termites Inspired Mick Pearce's Green Buildings
Greener Buildings (09/02/09) McKeag, Tom

African architect Mick Pearce has taken some cues from termite mounds to produce better passive climate-control systems in human-occupied high-rise buildings. Pearce's demonstration buildings -- the Council House 2 Building in Melbourne, Australia, and the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe -- use gradient-based systems similar to the ones termites construct to keep the insides of their mounds a constant temperature despite the weather outside. Termites' "compass mounds" in Australia have a specific blade shape that is narrow at the top and curves out to a boat-like footprint, always built with a north-south orientation that takes advantage of the low sun rays of early morning to heat the mound, while comparatively little sunlight strikes the narrow top of the mound at noontime. The thick insulating walls of the mounds maintains a draft of air between openings at their bottoms and tops, creating a convective "stack effect" that the termites continually tweak by adjusting the openings and adding wet mud for evaporation. Pearce's Eastgate building reportedly has 10 percent of the typical ventilation costs for the area, with 35 percent less in energy costs and 10 percent less in capital costs. In Melbourne, the city council estimates that it sees an 80 percent reduction in typical energy use and a 70 percent reduction in water use at Pearce's building there.
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Porous Concrete Replaces Traditional Drainage Systems
Engineering News-Record (08/31/09) Vol. 263, No. 7, P. 17; Traynor, Melissa

Projects in Minnesota and Connecticut are utilizing porous concrete to eliminate stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots. One such project involves covering pervious concrete over 0.75 mile across five streets in a residential neighborhood in Shoreview, Minn. The streets have always drained into nearby Lake Owasso, where declining water quality is an issue. The roads are being repaved with seven inches of pervious concrete on an 18-inch-to 36-inch–thick layer of 1.5-inch granular rock spread atop a layer of geotextile fabric. Underneath that is 40 feet of free-draining sand between the fabric and the static groundwater elevation, and Shoreview city engineer Mark Maloney says the project's primary contractor devised augmented blankets to control concrete curing and adapted roller screeds usually employed for bridge paving to direct the screed using the roadway's concrete curbs. He says the deep layer of sandy soil will guarantee drainage and filtration, but the pavement pores will need to be kept open through the use of vacuum brooms. Pervious concrete also is being used for drainage at a University of Connecticut parking lot. Strict control of materials is a requirement of pervious concrete installation, says Leon Burch of Concrete Crafters of CT. Robert Tabacco with the general contracting firm of Tabacco & Son says the concrete must have 15 percent void content. "This concrete should be between 113 pounds and 130 pounds [per cubic foot], but 122 pounds is optimum," he points out. Burch says the concrete can absorb 80 inches of rain per hour. "Expectations are that if pervious works out OK, we are going to start seeing more of it," notes Connecticut Concrete Promotion Council executive director Jim Langlois.
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Engineers Study P3 Construction
Northern Ontario Business (08/31/09)

The Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC) has created a Canadian task force to produce professional guidelines on the upsides and downsides of public-private partnerships (P3s). "There are successes and horror stories and there's always a reason. It's not always the delivery model," said the chairman of the task force, Francois Plourde, executive vice-president of CIMA+, a civil engineering firm in Quebec. John Gamble of Consulting Engineers of Ontario said that the task force's report is designed to help members make "intelligent and informed business decisions" about P3 participation and give their clients sound advice as well. P3s have been around for a long time in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Spain, and other countries, and in Canada they have become well established in British Columbia and Alberta. In the United States, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed interest in copying British Columbia's model for highway and hospital building. The task force will look at project histories of P3s in different Canadian provinces to identify things that went well and things that went not so well, in hopes of identifying trends. "P3s are going to continue to be a fact of life in public sector delivery. We want to make sure we can help our members and their clients make informed business decisions in their participation in P3s," said Gamble.
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Many Recovery Act Contracts Fall Into High-Risk Category
Government Executive (08/09) Brodsky, Robert

Of all the Recovery Act contracts awarded so far by the federal government, more than half are the sort of cost-reimbursement agreements that the Obama administration has called risky and inviting abuse. Under the language of the act, agencies are supposed to use fixed-price contracts "to the maximum extent possible." In a memo in February, Office and Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag wrote, "Fixed-price contracts ... provide maximum incentive for the contractor to control costs and perform effectively and impose a minimum burden upon the contracting parties. These contracts expose the government to the least risk." However, data indicate that agencies have spent 53 percent of their money so far -- $5.44 billion -- on cost-type contracts, under which companies are reimbursed by the government for allowable costs. A total of $3.6 billion was made up of cost-plus award-fee contracts, while only a small percentage went through vehicles such as time-and-materials and labor-hour contracts.
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Web-Based Services Take the Hassle out of Managing Subcontractors
Building Design + Construction (09/09) Yoders, Jeff

Online bid invitation systems are emerging as a way for general contractors to make good use of technology in a slowing commercial market to link up bid information, subcontractors, and proposals. Between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of general contractors using Web-based construction bidding grew from 43 percent to 62 percent, according to Construction Financial Management Association survey findings. The industry leader, with about 700 contractor customers paying fees between $1,800 and $10,000 plus additional fees for adding users and pre-qualification tools, is iSqFt, based in Cincinnati. Two rising companies in the field are SmartBidNet, based in Texas, and Smart Project News, a subsidiary of Reed Construction Data. SmartBidNet offers a simple interface for putting together a "favorites" list of subcontractors based on criteria such as location, skills, and federal minority status, providing bidders with round-the-clock access to project plans, specifications, and other information on projects posted by general contractors. Meanwhile, users of Smart Project News can choose specific project stages, such as planning, bidding, or post-bid, to look for project opportunities, or can search more widely, with specific criteria such as ZIP code, distance from home base, project value, owner type, and bid date.
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Energy Retrofits Not So Stimulated by Stimulus Bill
Earth2tech.com (08/31/09) Moresco, Justin

The home energy retrofit market has only seen a small uptick in activity from the $4.3 billion in stimulus tax credits earmarked for home insulation, double-paned windows and other energy-saving efforts. The minor increase in business indicates the stimulus will likely not produce the $6 billion in remodeling activity the government had estimated. One problem is that the tax credits do not include the cost of labor, only 30 percent of the cost of actual products such as energy-saving windows or heating systems, with a maximum credit of $1500. Further, the stimulus is structured to favor much more expensive technologies like solar PV, which has no maximum tax credit limit, says Matt Golden, president of Sustainable Spaces. And even with tax credits, people are still hesitant to spend money on remodeling their homes until the economy returns to health, even if the investment will save them money on energy costs. Until consumer confidence returns, the retrofit market will continue to see only modest gains.
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