Feature Article

Will I Get Sued? Managing Risk in Green Building

Thermal comfort and glare issues at the San Francisco Federal Building were resolved by collaboration between the owner and architect—litigation was not required.

Photo: General Services Administration
Buildings are big, expensive investments, so if something goes horribly wrong, it can be financially catastrophic. Buildings also have occupants, and if anything happens that might harm them, the risks get even bigger. As a result, managing risk is central to the role of every designer, contractor, and building owner. That’s why the first question for many building professionals when they encounter green technologies, strategies, and performance expectations is: “Does this increase my risk of getting sued?”

The answer—as is almost always the case—is “it depends.” Green buildings lead to increased risks in two ways. First, they often use new materials, technologies, or design approaches that don’t have a long track record of performance. Second, they come with performance expectations tied to certification, energy savings, occupant satisfaction and health, financial returns, or other factors. These expectations might be explicitly stated in contracts and proposals, or they may be implicit—either way, they can lead to dissatisfaction and legal action.

But green buildings also mitigate risks and are in some ways a response to dramatic failures in conventional buildings. Past failures include “sick building syndrome” from an interaction between carpet and adhesive in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., and severe mold problems leading to the demolition of a newly completed courthouse in Polk County, Florida.

Reducing risk isn’t just about using healthier and greener products—a much more important strategy is the collaborative, integrated design process that can lead to smarter designs and better anticipation of problems that might arise during construction. Unfortunately, not all green buildings are designed and built using an integrated approach, and those that aren’t face higher risk of problems that can result in litigation.

Published December 1, 2009