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Jerry Yudelson: “Dereliction” of Duty by Architects & Engineers Who Fail to Advocate for LEED Certification

Green building consultant Jerry Yudelson’s recent remarks provide a good opportunity to review the risk management implications of the design professional’s representations to his or her clients about the possibilities and potential pitfalls of green building, including the LEED certification process.

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Reactions to Green Building Industry’s First LEED Certification “Guarantee:” Implications for Insurance Coverage & Limitation of Liability Provisions

As you likely know by now, Atlanta-based Energy Ace, Inc. recently announced that it will offer what the company is calling the green building industry’s first LEED certification guarantee. According to Energy Ace CEO Wayne Robertson, the firm “can offer clients a certainty that their project is going to be certified and remove that anxiety.” The specifics of the guarantee are as follows: clients retain Energy Ace pursuant to a standard service contract under which the firm performs LEED administration, fundamental building commissioning, and energy modeling. It holds a LEED charette and, if everything is satisfactory, the contract will be amended to “guarantee” certification. That guarantee, though, actually reads in substance much more like a limitation on Energy Ace’s liability; if the project fails to earn its target level of certification (i.e. Gold or Silver) or is not certified at all, Energy Ace will refund its LEED administration fee to the owner (which is typically between 30 and 45 percent of its total fee). Although there are a number of additional facts that would be helpful in analyzing the implications of the Energy Ace initiative more comprehensively, I do think it provides us with a timely opportunity to review a number of important general construction contract and insurance coverage considerations, many of which we have considered here at GRELJ during the course of 2009.

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Victor Schinnerer: New LEED AP Program Raising Standards of Care, Changing Risk Profiles

Victor Schinnerer’s most recent quarterly report has some interesting commentary on the increased risk that the new LEED Accredited Professional (“LEED AP”) program may be creating for professionals that participate on LEED projects. Specifically, on page 4, the report notes that the new LEED AP program, which divides LEED APs into three tiers of increasing expertise, from LEED Green Associate, to LEED AP with specialization, and up to LEED AP Fellow, “has significantly changed the value of the program and the risks to [the] program’s participants.” However, although the report acknowledges that “[m]embers of the upgraded LEED AP [Fellow] program now will face a higher standard of care for their services,” it also states that “[c]urrently this increased exposure is a manageable risk. Current claims information does not indicate a need for additional insurance premiums to cover the exposure created by the higher standard of care.” I think that this latter point is critical- as I wrote previously here at GRELJ, most professional liability insurance policies contain an exclusion for assumptions of liability that are not imposed by law (i.e., because the LEED AP Fellow designation implies that the design professional will perform at a higher level than the prevailing common law standard, the design professional may not be covered for any resulting claims of negligent design services arising out of disputed green design services). It seems to me that if the LEED AP fellow designation implies a higher standard of care than is prevalent in the industry, this type of form exclusion would come into play. Accordingly, I am very curious to see if there is any reaction from insurance industry professionals on this crucial issue.

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Considering Standard of Care Provisions in Green Construction Contracts

One of the most critical provisions in any contract for professional design services relates to the standard of care under which the design professional will be required to render its services. In the absence of contract language to the contrary, a design professional will be held to a common law standard of care commensurate with that of other professionals providing the same services to a geographically similar community. However, on a green building project, an owner may seek to retain a design professional specifically because of its sustainable design expertise. Accordingly, it may attempt to hold the design professional to a higher standard of care than that which prevails in the industry. This may be problematic for both sides for a number of reasons. Professional liability insurance policies provide insurance for legal liability that arises out of negligent professional acts, errors, or omissions. However, if not properly vetted, standard of care provisions have the potential to trigger standard exclusions to such policies. This article suggests two such exclusions and strategies for owners and design professionals to consider as they draft and negotiate construction agreements for green building projects.

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Green Construction Claims Demonstrate Need for Design Professional Due Diligence

Yesterday, I gave a presentation to a local architecture and interior design firm on current trends in green construction law. I was impressed at how willing the firm’s design professsionals were to listen to my thoughts on the emerging risks associated with green design. In addition to suggesting a number of other legal issues, I selected a handful of claims reported by Maryland-based attorney Frank Musica at the 2007 AIA National Convention in San Antonio to open up a discussion on form contract language – particularly from the AIA documents – and suggested how certain applicable provisions might be amended to reduce the architect’s risk when rendering green design services. The claim that made the biggest splash with my audience yesterday was where Musica reported how an architect failed to perform sufficient due diligence in crafting green building specifications for a particular project and specified what turned out to be a patented solar shading system. After the project was complete, the patent holder approached the owner and demanded a licensing fee for its use of the system. The owner pointed a finger at the architect and sought indemnification under the terms of the parties’ agreement.

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Green Building Liability Piques Interest of Residential Sector

Much of the discussion with respect to the liability issues surrounding sustainable building has focused on the commercial sector, so I was interested to see my friend Brian Anderson, a real estate partner in the Madison, Wisconsin office of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C, quoted in a brief article suggesting risk management best practices for home builders in a recent article posted by Professional Builder. The article suggests that LEED for Homes and NAHB’s National Green Building Program may soon open the doors for insurance claims and litigation arising out of green projects that do not perform as promised. In the article, Mr. Anderson actually describes a matter his office handled where a builder did not obtain the anticipated level of certification for a residential project. “We were struggling to determine the value of the certification when the claim settled,” he told PB. At least in the commercial context, a jumping off point for plaintiffs who assert these types of claims could be the studies- many of which are promulgated by the USGBC and its constituents- that tout the higher leasing and purchasing figures for LEED-certified buildings.

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The Role of Risk Management at Greenbuild versus West Coast Green

I think it’s interesting to compare the treatment that green building risk management issues received at Greenbuild as compared to West Coast Green. We pointed out over at gbNYC earlier this fall that the latter included a panel discussion titled “Packing a Parachute: Practices that Minimize Risk and Prompt Best Use of Green Features,” while the legal issues associated with building green received very little attention at Greenbuild. As we have noted extensively at gbNYC, the West Coast Green panel similarly stressed that there is no such thing as a form green construction contract or “magic” green provision that can satisfactorily account for the risks associated with green construction. It’s important for stakeholders – or other organizations staging similar conferences – to recognize that attorneys in this space are attempting to assist the industry in mitigating emerging risks up front, in the transactional context, rather than through litigation.

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