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Green construction poses legal risks

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Earlier this month, Maryland became the first state to adopt the International Green Construction Code. Three years ago, Maryland was the site of the country’s first large green building lawsuit, which attempted to answer the question of who is at fault when a green building fails to meet expectations. It’s one of the many murky areas in green construction.

“Like any sort of emerging industry, it’s going to continue to evolve until there’s kind of a widely accepted view of what should be done,” said Rob Inselberg, attorney for Indianapolis firm Wooden & McLaughlin.

The need for LEED

Inselberg, 32, said that a sluggish real estate market made him think about how he could be more marketable as an attorney. He decided to brush up on green construction and earned his Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Associate credentials.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) oversees LEED certification for professionals, and the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) assesses applications for construction projects seeking LEED certification, the hallmark of excellence in environmental construction.

Before 2000, any developer could call a project “green,” without hard evidence to support that claim. So the USGBC implemented the LEED program to ensure green buildings met certain expectations.

“USGBC took an early stance: ‘Let’s try to put together a widely accepted set of standards,’” Inselberg said.

Developers who are seeking LEED certification must submit a project to the GBCI and earn at least 26 points on the LEED rating scale to be recognized as LEED-certified. Points are awarded for a variety of construction elements, including indoor air quality, use of recycled materials, and water use reduction. LEED assigns buildings one of four ratings: certified, silver, gold, and platinum – the highest LEED rating.

One misstep in the LEED-certification process can cause a building to either fail to meet certifications or fail to achieve the rating the developer envisioned. And Inselberg said with little precedent to rely on, it’s hard to say who assumes risk for each element of the design.

Carmel attorney Will Kelley is one of three LEED-accredited professionals (APs) at Drewry Simmons Vornehm. He said that the firm was seeing an increasing number of clients who had questions about LEED building certification.

“We said, ‘We need to understand the nuts and bolts of the certification process,’” Kelley said, so he and the others decided to pursue LEED accreditation.

Kelley said the questions about LEED vary, depending on who’s asking.

“With developers and owners, the question is often the return on investment,” Kelley said.

Inselberg said owners are looking for ways to reduce costs, so they may be put off by what could be an initially high investment, especially in projects that install the latest green technology for energy or air systems. But he said some studies suggest the initial investment is offset by a shorter return time.

Contractors and designers are more interested in knowing what their contractual obligations are, Kelley said. A standard contract not designed for green construction will be unable to answer those questions – a fact that became evident in some high-profile green construction cases recently.

west-martha-mugLessons learned

Maryland’s Southern Builders v. Shaw Development, No. 19-C-07-011405, was one of the first legal cases arising from green construction. Southern Builders sued Shaw to enforce a mechanic’s lien claim on the 23-unit condominium project, and Shaw Development countersued, because the building did not achieve the LEED certification Shaw had anticipated, causing Shaw to lose tax credits for the project it had received from the state of Maryland. It is a case many attorneys cite as evidence that clear contract language is essential in avoiding green building litigation.

Adam McClane, director of operations for The Nature Conservancy of Indiana, helped the organization apply for LEED certification for its Efroymson Conservation Center. “I would say probably the trickiest thing I saw from a contract standpoint is who owns what responsibility between the contractor and the architect,” he said.

“We asked the architect for a building that would achieve LEED certification, but a lot of those points require execution by the contractor,” McClane said.

As of Indiana Lawyer deadline, McClane said he was still waiting to hear news from LEED. The certification process generally takes a few months, as reviewers must ensure that the building has earned all the points that it claims to meet. The baseline for a platinum rating is 52 points, which is the conservancy’s goal.

“We’re internally tracking at 56 … so we feel like there’s a good gap there if we did lose a point or two,” McClane said.

In 2007, the state of Indiana missed a LEED-silver certification for its Forensic and Health Sciences Laboratories by four points.

Brian Renner, deputy commissioner for the Indiana Department of Administration, said that the state would not attempt to earn the additional four points needed for LEED-silver, due to the expense involved. As a state agency, the DOA would not qualify for any of the tax incentives that might motivate a private building owner to make adjustments.

“Initially, the first buildings we were seeking certification on were the two hospital projects – and I believe that it was probably the first time the contractors and probably even the architects were involved in a LEED-certification process,” he said. “It was a steep learning curve for all parties involved.”

The state hospital projects – the Isaac Ray Treatment Center in Logansport and three buildings on the Madison State Hospital campus – received LEED certification, with the Logansport center earning silver status.

In 2008, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an executive order mandating that all new state buildings must achieve LEED-silver status. Renner said the state has not begun any new construction projects since then.

The future of green building

Inselberg said as more people begin to uphold green principles in their personal lives, they may be looking to do the same in their professional lives. He said business owners may even be willing to pay more to work in a green building. Some studies suggest there are health benefits associated with working in a green building, which, in theory, would mean a happier, healthier workforce. And he said he thinks commercial, rather than residential, developers will likely lead the field in green construction.

Tax breaks and federal funds are available for green building projects. But, Inselberg said, green building won’t be a large part of mainstream development until more government incentives exist.

Kelley said that attorneys are keeping an eye on the development of the International Green Construction Code. The code is being revised through 2011, and if other states follow Maryland’s lead in 2012 and adopt the code, it could move green construction one step closer to adopting a set of best practices.

But Inselberg said building code “only looks at how a building is built, not how it operates. LEED goes beyond building code. It looks at the life cycle of the building – not only how the building is built, but how it operates,” he said. “I think the building code and LEED can work together, but I don’t think adopting the code would necessarily supplant LEED certification.”•

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  1. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

  4. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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