More Sustainability Scrutiny?

by John Downie on August 24, 2011

It seems the discussion around sustainability and its merits continue.  I read an article recently where the author heard about sustainability risk greenimageconcerns in events that occurred both in an academic and professional setting.   The academia side of it was surprising, as they have long been a proponent of sustainable design and architecture.  I want to be clear that I’m not saying sustainable design isn’t an important concept because it is, but the issue lies around the true performance of sustainable design projects and if they are living up to their promise.  More importantly: what promises were made?

The author of the article writes:

I attended a joint conference of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in Vancouver. There, Dr. Raymond J. Cole of the Environmental Research Group at the University of British Columbia contributed to a session on “high-performance building envelope design.” Before Cole — a grand old man of sustainability in Canada — could conclude, he was criticized for encouraging architects to act in ways that could increase their risk of liability claims. His challenger was Chicago construction lawyer and principal of the Alberti Group, Ujjval Vyas, who was speaking the next day on “Going Green: A Cautionary Tale.”

Vyas’ research in his presentation:

…documented numerous claims made by both clients and third parties against architects in relation to the environmental performance of their designs. Some concerned allegations of technical failure of building components or assemblies that may have resulted from environmental-design ambition. It did not seem to me that they were so fundamentally different from technical liability claims already familiar to architects. A second set of allegations charged that buildings, once completed, failed to meet their designers’ predictions of improved environmental performance, or of lowered operating costs. Finally, and most problematic of these, were allegations arising from public statements made by architects about environmental topics, unrelated to specific designs prepared for particular clients.

The bottom line is that this will not be the last we hear about this. As an architect, it’s critical that we present our clients with the best product possible to meet their building goals..for sustainability, energy efficiency, accessibility, etc.   At the same time, we need to be extra careful not to over-promise on performance, especially for new materials and product on the market when they are recommended for use in a project. As in all elements of a design project, client expectations have to be managed, and our collective goals must be clear from the start.

In another article about Green Building that talked about liability and risk for design professionals, it validated some of these concerns:

…one growing area of the green building business is “commissioning,” where architects and engineers fine-tune the system and train building managers in using it or where an outside firm does so. But this also risks “creating a whole new area of liability” for the architect and the commissioning firm, he said.

In addition, Mr. Knise said, architects should be leery of guaranteeing that a building will receive a specific certification under the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program. This is problematic because architects “don’t control a lot of the factors” as to whether a building becomes LEED-certified, including issues such as waste disposal.

Shari Shapiro, an associate with law firm Cozen O’Connor P.C. in Cherry Hill, N.J., said, “You want to have a solid contract, where you’re not over-promising the attributes of your services. If you’re a design professional, for example, you want to make sure that the standard of care is that of a reasonable architect.”

The concept of buildings being more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible is admirable. We must be clear with everyone involved with a project that there’s a level of experimentation and many, many unknowable factors that govern the ultimate performance of a building. Our responsibility is to the client first, but we must also design for our collective future. The liability risks have to be managed so we can fulfill our obligations to all.

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