Looking for the green in green

Bill Erickson started thinking about water conservation and the green building movement a long time before it became The Next Big Thing, before sustainable construction really blew up into the juggernaut that it has become. In 1996, his local association hosted visiting contractors and gave them a tour of Chicago; the group included a plumber from Zimbabwe, who marveled at all that Lake Michigan water

Bill Erickson started thinking about water conservation and the green building movement a long time before it became The Next Big Thing, before sustainable construction really blew up into the juggernaut that it has become.

In 1996, his local association hosted visiting contractors and gave them a tour of Chicago; the group included a plumber from Zimbabwe, who marveled at all that Lake Michigan water right at the city's doorstep. Erickson realized then that abundant, clean drinking water is a precious commodity.

“Whenever I think of this, I see pipe,” Erickson says about the green movement. “It's all about water in general. We do our job too well in the plumbing industry, from the manufacturer down to labor, that people in the U.S. consider clean water and sanitation to be an entitlement. The sad thing is that most people pay more for cable than for their water bill.”

In the last year, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America has hosted its first Green Opportunities Conference, the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute devoted an entire semi-annual meeting to water conservation and changed its mission statement to include water conservation, and the number of buildings certified to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards and the number of LEED Accredited Professionals has soared.

Green for the rest of us

It's easy to be green if you're a giant contractor with no shortage of manpower and resources to throw at the task. But what about “regular” contractors? We believe that our Mechanical Contractor of the Year has to be a model that can be emulated by others. C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. is just such a company, a mid-sized and prosperous mechanical contractor in the commercial/industrial/institutional market in Chicago. Because of its commitment to becoming a green contractor, C.J. Erickson Plumbing is our Mechanical Contractor of the Year.

Bill has transmitted his enthusiasm for all things green to son Matt, who's now the CEO of C.J. Erickson, with Bill moving to chairman. Matt has taken on the task of greening the company (and his own house), and prompted project manager Dan Whitehead to get his LEED Accredited Professional credentials. Whitehead, a plumber and graduate mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, has jumped enthusiastically into his role

So has C.J. Erickson made a nickel off of all its preparations? No. But without working toward being able to build green, earning the credentials, becoming knowledgeable enough to suggest green products and being able to service them, no company will ever be in a position to make money off the green movement.

“We're not making any money now,” says Matt.

“But we're in the game better than anybody in the Chicago area,” interjects Bill.

First, a little history. Getting into sustainable building isn't the first time that C.J. Erickson has adjusted its course. Adaptability is how a company gets to be more than 100 years old.

In 1906, Carl Joseph “Joe” Erickson immigrated to America from Sweden, settling in Chicago. Joe, an accomplished plumber, signed with United Association Plumbers Local 130 and set out to live the American Dream, opening his own shop on the south side of Chicago. The reputation of C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. grew quickly. In just a few short years, Erickson's commitment to quality workmanship, professional service and fair pricing resulted in a rapidly expanding business. For the next couple decades, the company grew through World War I and embraced the roaring 20's. Then the Depression hit.

Unlike many businesses, C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. didn't just survive the Great Depression, it thrived. The hard work ethic that had sustained the company now propelled it into the future. C.J. Erickson insisted that innovation, skill and the latest technology be a part of its operating philosophy. The company demonstrated its penchant for what's possible when it purchased a fleet of pie delivery trucks and turned them into plumbing shops on wheels.

By 1946, the company had outgrown its original location and moved to more spacious headquarters farther south in the city. After World War II, Joe Erickson's son, Norm, joined the firm after serving in the military. It proved to be a case of like father, like son. Norm continued to employ the principles on which his father had built the business. Norm Erickson, obviously in possession of his father's innovative spirit, initiated the practice of using a movable bucket backhoe to assist in restricted area excavations.

In 1975, C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. relocated once again to its present headquarters in Alsip, Ill. Bill, Norm's son and third generation, led the business into the 80's and 90's. In 2007 the leadership changed again to the current CEO and fourth generation Matt.

Today, C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. employs more than 120 people including union plumbers, laborers and operating engineers. The company specializes in commercial, industrial and residential plumbing and site utility services.

The company has changed with its markets. From its founding in 1906 up until World War II, C.J. Erickson built commercial buildings and apartment houses, and it started its service department. In the 20 years after the war, the company built single family homes and did construction and service work for the meatpacking industry. Since then, as residential margins became too tight, Erickson moved into new construction and service for hospitals, churches, schools and hotels, along with site work, water mains and sewers. As heavy industry moved out of Chicago, the company has deemphasized it in its mix of work.

Now C.J. Erickson is facing another sea-change as the green building movement takes hold.

Getting his accreditation

LEED-AP Dan Whitehead joined the company in 2004. After getting his mechanical engineering degree, he worked for a Sheboygan, Wis., contractor doing power piping and then started a plumbing division for the firm. He was taking a lot of boiler and pump classes for work and moved to Morristown, Tenn., to work for a mechanical contractor he had met at a class. After six years in Tennessee, he wanted to come home and worked at a plumbing contractor in Frankfort, Ill., for a couple years before joining Erickson.

About a year and a half ago, Whitehead and Matt Erickson got involved with the U.S. Green Building Council.

“About a year and half ago, I got into USGBC with Matt; actually it was more Matt since he's always been involved in the ecological side of things,” Whitehead said. “When information came out about the LEED program, we both discussed this that this is the future of the world and of the building trade.”

Soon Whitehead, who also has his Certified in Plumbing Design accreditation from the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, began attending both ASPE and USGBC classes on green building. The two debated whether Whitehead should get his LEED-AP and they concluded that it was a must.

General contractors would call and ask, “how much would it cost to make this job LEED compliant?”, Whitehead recounts. And the answer is hard to say. The cost could be nothing if it's LEED certified or maybe a little more if it's Silver and the specs are good to begin with. But Whitehead wanted to make sure that he had enough knowledge to answer the questions correctly. Moreover, if the job becomes a LEED project, Erickson couldn't win the work without a LEED-AP on staff.

“We wanted to know it,” Whitehead says. “We wanted to contribute to it. How can we be a part of this? This is something that Matt's always been into, conservation. Besides, waste is waste.”

Whitehead took an online course on the USGBC Website on LEED 2.1 and then went to Denver and took the MCAA course on LEED 2.2. He took and passed the accreditation exam in late August of this year.

Finding green products

Whitehead is assembling a catalog of available green products, such as waterless or high-efficiency urinals and water closets, that the staff at Erickson can use to answer customers' questions. Selecting the right green product depends on the building and its use, he noted. For example, waterless urinals (Erickson has installed one in its own building) might be good for some occupancies but bad for others. In an upscale area, patrons may be offended by a waterless urinal even though there's nothing about which to be offended. In such circumstances, Whitehead said that he would recommend a 1-pint/flush urinal.

Codes have to be changed to take full advantage of green building techniques, Whitehead said. It's tough, for example, to install graywater recycling in Chicago because of the plumbing code, although it can be used as part of an “engineered system.” The thinking goes, Whitehead said, that if graywater, whether used for irrigation or toilet flushing, splashes somebody, will that person get a bacterial infection? Therefore, the city requires graywater to be treated to a tertiary standard, which increases the price of the system.

Whitehead is also hoping the codes change to allow siphonic roof drains, which save on pipe and make it easier to move the water into a cistern for re-use. Whitehead notes that ASPE is writing standards for siphonic roof drains, and standards will legitimize the systems in the eyes of the code bodies.

Meanwhile, C.J. Erickson is working on establishing its green building bona fides. It started by volunteering to install the plumbing in the city-owned Chicago Center for Green Technology, an environmental training and resource center that's LEED certified. Erickson got involved because of Bill's close association with Sloan Valve Co.'s Water Conservation Manager Jim Allen on the board of the Plumbing Contractors of America, a subgroup of the MCAA.

The company is greening its building by installing low-flow fixtures and a waterless urinal, recycling all of its papers and aluminum cans, holding training sessions for journeymen with representatives of Toto and Takagi, and by Matt's “daily dose of green,” an educational nugget for the employees to keep them thinking about sustainable construction. The office has gone paperless. The firm plans to build a storage building that will have radiant floor heat and a windmill for electricity.

Matt built a new house with a hot water recirculation system to save water, and a 96% efficient Carrier Infinity system.

C.J. Erickson has bought its ticket to get on the green train.

“We were involved in the green movement when the green movement wasn't a movement,” says Matt. “You've got to walk the walk.”

Concludes Bill, “It's really something to be in an industry that's at the forefront of green and to make a living at it and to be able to provide for your family and provide for your employees. That's the neat thing.”