Nicolette Mueller

This fall, Sherwin-Williams Centro America made green building history when its Administrative Headquarters became the first LEED Gold building in El Salvador. The building not only reflects the values of Sherwin-Williams Centro America, it also educates and engages the greater building community. USGBC spoke with Juan Francisco Sifontes, President and COO of Sherwin-Williams Centro America and President of the Board of Directors for the El Salvador Green Building Council.

Q: There is always some risk involved when a project sets of goal of achieving LEED Gold. What aspect of the project was your biggest investment, and where have you seen the greatest reward?

A: When we made the decision to pursue LEED certification for our administrative building, we knew we were entering unfamiliar territory for builders and designers in El Salvador. It was also hard to explain the process and set expectations for the 150 employees who occupy the space. But we had three elements that provided our foundation: our culture, which highly values corporate social responsibility; our enthusiasm to learn something new; and our commitment to lead by example. These three elements gave us the courage we needed to aim for LEED Gold, and our efforts and commitment paid off.

Q: I understand that in addition to the internal team of LEED professionals at Sherwin-Williams in El Salvador, you worked with other experts from the region. Can you describe how the larger team came together?

A: In Central America, we have a small but growing number of strong LEED consulting companies and projects. SPHERA, a Costa Rican company, has been a pioneer in sustainable construction since 2010. We invited Roberto Meza to give a lecture on sustainable construction to our Board of Directors a few years ago, and we really clicked with a shared vision for the future of sustainable building in Central America. We also worked with two young architects and entrepreneurs, Rafael Cienfuegos and Heidemarie Bonilla of B100 arquitectos, who knocked on our door three years ago looking for low-VOC coatings. We sat down with them and learned about their recent work studying bioclimatic design in Germany and their vision to bring sustainable construction standards to El Salvador. Since that day, they have been champions of green building both for Sherman-Williams and for El Salvador. Both companies did great work to support and guide us through the LEED certification process, and we really benefited from their unique backgrounds and complementary styles. They both contributed and fought for every single point in the rating system. 

Q: This space was really designed to be a teaching tool. Tell us more about how you hope to inform and engage not only the Sherwin-Williams employees who work here, but also guests and visitors.

A: In our project, we wanted to do innovative things to help people understand the advantages of LEED in terms of productivity, health and a great atmosphere in the workplace. We wanted to encourage our own staff to understand and adapt to the space. Ileana Maria Macay, a young architect and an intern with Sherwin-Williams, produced a manual that explains the basics of LEED and how the building is designed to function. We wanted to establish new norms for electricity, waste, water features, parking and carpooling and human health policies. She also created a digital rendering of the building and a virtual tour. As corporate headquarters, we also receive regular visits from business and construction companies, so we wanted to use the building to educate and engage our visitors from Central America and Mexico. The response has been very positive—for many visitors, the space is where they truly learn about and experience a green building, and they return highly motivated to use LEED certification for their own buildings and projects. We also welcome visitors who simply want to see our LEED Gold space, and we’ve already booked tours and visits for three groups of entrepreneurs.

Q: Sherwin-Williams Centro America offers a number of products that can contribute to achieving credits in LEED, particularly around indoor air quality, which is critical for human health. Why was it so important to you as President and COO, not only to provide better products to the Central American market, but also to use them for your own space?

A: Part of our strategic plan centers on innovation of new products. We produce with premium raw materials, the best breed of colorants, and certainly with the highest standards of paint performance. Sherwin-Williams low-VOC and zero-VOC paints have been available in the Central American market for about five years. The products Harmony, Excello odor-free, and Loxon XP, all part of the architectural line, are specified for LEED projects in Central America. Now that we have firsthand experience with LEED certification, we can properly speak to the benefits of indoor air quality and occupant health. At Sherwin-Williams we like to speak the truth to customers. Now we can discuss with complete transparency the quality and standards compliance of products for projects requiring LEED certification, or just for customers who want to buy from environmentally responsible companies.

Q: Why is green building and sustainability so important to the future of El Salvador?

A: Building professionals in El Salvador who have very little knowledge about sustainable building practice often adhere to a construction practice where the short-term economic benefit prevails and there is no consideration for the long-term implications for the planet or the project. Therefore, the real work for El Salvador GBC is to find leaders who will promote sustainable construction in our country. There is a growing demand for new housing and commercial buildings where we can use the principles of green building. For our existing residential areas, we should look at smart retrofits that save money and support low-income families. We should leverage green building to protect one of El Salvador’s greatest assets, our beautiful beaches, and promote sustainable design for the communities who serve the growing tourism industry. We can transform these communities using solar energy, local materials, natural ventilation, and processes to capture, filter and conserve potable water, all to improve human health and make homes comfortable and functional. That is the new model I’d like to see take hold here. We have so many natural resources and assets, and so many people with few economic resources. 

Q: El Salvador GBC was formed with the mission of bringing together the power of industry to transform the building industry. Where do you hope to see ESGBC and the building industry in El Salvador in five years? 

A: Over the next three years, we will work very hard to build awareness of green building practice, standards, methods, and economic advantages, as well as the broader global green building movement. We plan to provide education and training to construction companies, engineers and architects and to engage with the most prestigious universities. We hope to see 20 new buildings register for LEED certification in 2016, and to reach 40 buildings for 2017. As we establish greater knowledge and expertise in the market, we can begin to work on existing buildings and form technical committees to influence construction standards in El Salvador. By 2021, we expect to see sustainable and ethical construction practice as the norm in this country. We have a great advantage in our network of green building councils in Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala. With their support and expertise, we anticipate that knowledge transfer will happen quickly.


Photos courtesy of Sherwin-Williams de Centro América