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National Institute of Building Sciences Identifies Risk & Policy Problems Flowing from Green Building Rating Systems

In September of 2008, the Board of Directors of the National Institute of Building Sciences (“NIBS”) assembled a Task Group of design professionals, builders, and its own staff members to review third-party building performance rating systems and associated individual accreditation programs currently in use across the United States. The Task Group identified twenty systems and programs and interviewed representatives from AIA, ASHRAE, BOMA, GBI, NAHB, EPA, USGBC, and Victor O. Schinnerer & Co.. among others, in compiling its “Report on Building Rating and Certification in the U.S. Building Community,” which was released last month. NIBS provided the Task Group with a broad charge, requesting recommendations that could range from continued monitoring of the identified systems to assisting it in crafting better green building guidance for policy makers and industry stakeholders. Although the Task Group did not identify specific rating systems (i.e. LEED or Green Globes) in the report, its conclusions are striking and emphasize many of the ongoing points being made here at GRELJ about the limitations of and risks inherent in third-party green building rating systems. The 10-page document is a quick read and although we’ll likely have much more to say about the report in the near future, I thought there were a number of items in particular worth pointing out that might lead to further discussion in the comments below.

First, with respect to building performance, the report notes that “[t]here is very limited data that correlates verifiable improvements in building performance with building rating/certification system requirements. Many people view the few data sets that do exist as controversial in terms of methodologies and conclusions drawn from them.” It also observes that “[t]here are growing concerns that the implied guarantee of building energy performance emanating from building rating/certification/labeling systems may confuse or mislead policy makers and the public.” The controversial USGBC-backed New Buildings Institute study- whose conclusions continue to be cited in support of LEED building performance claims- could certainly be the partial genesis of these remarks.

In terms of green building legislation, the report also emphasizes a number of important points, noting that “[e]lected officials and policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels only rarely understand the objectives, development, intended uses, opportunities, and limitations of rating/certification programs for buildings and accreditation programs for individuals.” Moreover, the report argues that “[a]t an increasing rate, state and local governments and their code/regulatory agencies are adopting building rating / certification systems, intended as voluntary systems, to be their code or regulatory requirements, often without fully understanding their benefits, tradeoffs, and costs.” These remarks comport with the notion that many state and local governments have rushed to legislate in knee-jerk fashion, failing to analyze or review  corresponding legal implications; the AHRI v. City of Albuquerque litigation, for example, is illustrative here.

Perhaps most significantly, the report levels a heavy-handed critique at the organizations which promulgate green building rating systems, stating that “[m]any of the building rating/certification systems and individual accreditation systems appear to place the goal of generating revenue for their development organization as a goal equal to the organization’s commitment to knowledge development and advocacy around its issue,” and that such systems “appear to certify expertise in applying the program more than improving the actual building’s performance.” With respect to that expertise, the report acknowledges “a growing concern that individual accreditation programs are not based on rigorous criteria and testing that validate competence.” Note here that no single system was identified in the body of the report, though I’m curious whether these remarks will elicit any response from USGBC or other organizations.

In terms of legal risks arising out of green building projects, the “Owner Expectations and Professional Liability” section of the report acknowledges many of the types of risks which have been discussed here and elsewhere over the past year. For example, the Task Group notes that “design and contractor liability risk may rise if performance expectations are not realized in completed projects” and that rating systems and accreditation programs “are beginning to impact the professional standard of care recognized by law and the building community. Such systems and programs may cause design professionals, owners, managers, and facilities personnel to be held to higher degrees of expertise and performance.”

A shifting standard of care being fueled by green building practices is a critical issue that we have discussed frequently at GRELJ, and it’s important for design professionals to note that NIBS specifically identified it in the report. The Task Group also discusses green building insurance claims, noting that “[t]he vast majority of insurance claims involve misrepresentation, miscommunication, and misunderstood expectations between owners and design and construction professionals.” This remark reminded me of a BIM/green building panel held here in New York City nearly two years ago where a number of insurance industry professionals warned that claims- in the green building space or otherwise- always start with violated expectations.

The Task Group concludes the report with a set of recommendations to NIBS moving forward, which include encouraging the A/E/C community to “support one comprehensive, consensus-based building rating or certification or labeling program to reduce the complexities and contradictions that currently exist” and the development of various white papers that analyze the foregoing points in greater detail. As you may know, NIBS is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1974 by act of Congress; 6 of the 21 members of its Board of Directors are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. Given NIBS’ backing and the scope of the Task Group’s conclusions and recommendations to the Board, its release of this report could mark the beginning of a serious uptick in the level of analysis being performed in this area.

You can download the report through the link below. I look forward to your thoughts and reactions in the comments.

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