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Going Green Expectations Too High?

8.24.07 - By Lindsay Daniel

(This article is written for my peers in the home building industry and addresses contractual issues for offering Green Design to clients)

Some Things to Consider as the “Green Machine” media craze is in full throttle:

Every day I pick up the paper, magazine, turn on the tv, etc….you hear/read more about “Going Green”.  I also notice that many groups are extremely confused by what this really means.  Even though the Green movement (aka: Sustainable Design, Save the Planet, etc) is morally and physically good for us all and our precious earth, it is still strong on theory yet weak on practice.

Basically, YES, it is what we should all definitely try to achieve and model our habits toward starting now!….no question about it!  However, we do need to realize that there are (at this time of writing) no definite, absolute, totally proven resources, products, nor methods of practice that will achieve the claims that are regularly implied in the abundant marketing hype.

I am an optimist and believe we can grow toward, and teach each other, a more sustainable way of living and occupying earth.  I am trying to do my own small part to compost, recycle, use compact fluorescent bulbs (which I do like!), be more conservative with our water & lights, purchase EneryStar appliances, try to use less gasoline, and try not to sit in fast food drive-thru lanes…too long,…..etc…..etc. (Frankly, I do not believe I will be able to go as far as crawling under heavy pieces of furniture every day to unplug all lamps, appliances, radios/tv’s, etc….I might be saving energy there but not saving my back!!)

In my profession, as a residential architect, I embrace this new movement. I crave to learn more, do more for my clients. In my research quest of now approximately 5-6 years however, I find that I am overwhelmingly bombarded with this subject’s literature, product claims, continuing education classes, etc.  I am extremely aware of the confusion it is still causing my profession, my clients, and our contractors/builders.  Yet, still at this point, I do not feel that I am any closer to truly understanding exactly how to control/apply all of this information.  All this battery of information is going to take a long time to absorb, test, and with those results apply to our standards of practice in the home building industry. Which brings me to my point:  What we really need to consider for ourselves now and be aware of in our attempts to achieve “Green Design” is the management of our expectations and that of our public.

We need to be “tempering our enthusiasm with reality”.  This idea and some of the following thoughts and tid bits on this movement  is expressed by my professional liability providers (Victor O. Schinnerer & Company, Inc.) in a monthly newsletter.  They, along with many professions, are attempting to better define the ideals of the Green Movement and what we can and can not achieve for our clients.  I believe it is worth sharing.  My comments are in ( ):

“Designing for sustainability involves considering environmentally responsible design alternatives consistent with the client’s program, schedule, and budget.”  (If a client’s goal is to go for a tax credit/tax deduction benefits it will involve a longer time schedule and new budget considerations)

“….many clients seem to be motivated, however, by the implied or expressed assurance that any capital cost premium will be more than offset by reduced operating costs as well as other, perhaps equally tangible, benefits.”   (we all love a good salesman and the hope they bring to us!)

“…The interest in green design may stimulate additional investment in design services and construction costs in anticipation of future measurable environmental and financial paybacks.”  (back to that problem of managing expectations)

“..Firms should help clients cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the implications of pursuing a green design……..the ability to actually fund the necessary increase…..that would yield the benefits are critical.”   (how long a client will stay in the home will be a major determining factor in gaining a return on their investments – we are not talking about the moral side of this story here.)

“A client should understand that success in achieving the environmental objectives necessitates an integrated design approach involving the client and the design team working together from the earliest concepts throughout the process.  Even the contractors and sub-trades must be involved so that sound construction techniques and sensitivity to environmental matters such as the recycling of waste and the use of environmentally friendly processes are built into the system.”  (most clients think that Green Design is only in the choosing of green products…..but many major ways of achieving “green” is in the process of construction)

“….not all clients take their role seriously……Too often, achieving a sustainable design certification is the goal without an understanding that certification (for tax credit benefits) is not a commodity.” (you just might not get that certification you are going for due to many reasons!)

“It is difficult to determine if the standard of care for design services currently is in line with the level of expectations fostered by the media attention to energy and environmental concerns. ……Even without an elevated standard of care, however, the higher probability of misunderstanding as to what are realistic expectations increases risk. The overselling of a firm’s actual expertise and capability can lead to dissatisfaction and claims.”   (this overselling can be made by all trades within the home building industry. But in the architect’s contract we are held to providing our clients with professional services that “reflect the highest standards of professional care”)

“Design firms make recommendations based on trade offs involving time, money, and quality.  That is the nature of the design process, and clients make significant financial commitments based on those recommendations.  But contractually committing to produce a result such as obtaining third-party certification, achieving stated energy savings, reducing construction materials and waste, or creating a healthful interior environment can lead to obligations that are beyond the standard of care and, as contractual obligations, are not covered by professional liability insurance.”  (here is where we can not promise a product will produce your expected results…..no body can!)

“A proposed new standard that will provide minimum guidelines for green building practices is now in the public review and comment period.  The standard is being developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers with the Illuminating Engineers Society of North America and the U.S. Green Building Council.” (This is going to take a long, long time….lots of folks involved, but it is getting closer to reality each day!)

“The purpose of the proposed standard is to provide minimum requirements for the design of high performance green buildings……Once completed this standard will provide a baseline for the sustainable design, construction, and operation of new commercial and major renovation projects.”  (This standard is for commercial….they haven’t even begun to seriously address the standards in residential!!!....but, it to is coming.)

“The proposed standard focuses on key areas of performance and establishes minimum criteria that address energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable site selection, water usage, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.” (that almost includes all the parts of green design that is local to the construction site itself– what it does not include is the distant moral issue of where the product came from, and what it took to get it out of the ground, and transport it to the USA.  Gypsum is an example of this – the villagers who mine this product are being plagued by lung problems, and their local environment is being ruined. This type of issue leads to the arguments about how green is green? …or shades of green….or how deep does green go?)

“After its review and reconsideration, it will become an accredited standard that CAN be incorporated into building codes”.  (How many of you have been stumped by the permitting process or by the building inspectors on your job sites?  It can become even tougher with these new standards.)

      ** I hope this does explain that there is not at this time a “standard of care” for designers and contractor/builders to use as guidelines in their contracts.  Certification is one thing, building standards and codes are another! And that is where expectations can be measured for our selves and our public.

Lindsay Daniel provides residential architecture services to Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding communities.