Plumbing and Mechanical

Is Green Building A Risky Business?

April 7, 2009
It's time for contractors and other building professionals to take a step back and look at the liability question of going green.

MCA of Chicago's Dan Bulley (left) and Steve Lamb during construction of the group's new headquarters building.

With green building/sustainable construction becoming all the rage, it would be a good idea for any plumbing/heating/cooling contractor to take a step back and look at the liability question of going green.

I attended a seminar a couple weeks ago at the MCA of Chicago’s “greenified” headquarters regarding the liabilities associated with green projects. The seminar was presented by Ujjval Vyas, a principal with consultant group Alberti Group and specializing on emerging issues in the building industry such as sustainability. A lot of information was crammed into two short hours, but the jist of it was that subcontractors on sustainable construction projects are liable for whatever performance metrics are described in the contract.

What does that mean? Well, say a boiler is said to have 99.9 percent efficiency and homeowners will see a 50 percent savings on their heating bills. If that product is specified for the job and no one disputes those claims, as the mechanical contractor, you are on the line for the energy performance of that boiler.

Or if the project was bid to achieve LEED Gold, for example, everyone down the chain is responsible for getting that building or home up to that level. If LEED Gold isn’t achieved, and it was your part of the project that sank it, guess who’s getting sued?

Licensed professionals - such as designers and contractors - have a duty to provide objective information to the client regarding a building’s design and provide all options, not just the eco-friendly ones, Vyas explains. There is an activist-type support in the design community regarding the green movement that contractors need to be aware of.

Be proactive, he says. Communication between the project manager and the owner on actual performance of said boiler can help you in the future - as in during a lawsuit. And make sure everyone in your organization has the same intel so that you’re all on the same page - all it takes is for one person on the jobsite to promise something that can’t be delivered, and your company is a defendant in a lawsuit.

If there is a LEED consultant on the project, be aware that he or she is an expert on paperwork (getting everything filed correctly to get that LEED Gold rating the owner is coveting), not in building science. What looks good on paper - getting those LEED points - may not be realistic for that particular project on that particular jobsite. Someone has to speak up. Will that someone be you?

Vyas also suggests that the industry rethink life-cycle costs. If the owner is only going to keep the building or home four to five years, he might not get the payback for a green system in that short of time, depending upon the system. In that case, a nongreen system might be dollars better spent. What’s best for the customer - what fulfills his or her needs - should be the primary driver for any project.

And pay attention to “green” legislation, both locally and nationally. Remember the low-flush toilet debacle? Or the more recent lead-free plumbing laws in California and Vermont? If green legislation doesn’t make sense, someone needs to speak up for the industry and try to change viewpoints.

We need to practice due diligence when talking to clients about green systems or sustainable products. Be careful of what you read or hear - make sure you know where the information is coming from, and that it’s a reliable source. Do your homework, and you could save yourself and your company down the road.

This subject is much more complex than can be written about here, with my limited knowledge. To provide you with additional insight, check out www.greenrealestatelaw.com.

You can also read Editorial Director Jim Olsztynski's April 2009 editorial "Green Begets Greed" regarding green building and the insurance industry.