Does Collaborative Design Minimize LEEDigation Risk?

Today, I am publishing a guest post from engineer Ian T. Hadden.  I asked Ian to write a guest post after he made the comment "there is something built into the high performance, sustainable design building method that works against litigation" on August 9.  Below, Ian elaborates on his point so please take a look and let us know what you think. 

If you are interested in guest posting for Green Building Law Update, please contact me at chris@cheathamconsulting.com with your story idea.  Your story should focus on risk management, legal or regulatory issues in the green building industry.   


By Ian T. Hadden

I apparently peaked Chris' interest with my recent comments about integrated, collaborative design reducing the rate of LEEDigation as he's afforded me the opportunity to expand my thoughts. As a little background, I've been actively involved in the LEED certification of 4 projects and am working as the Project Administrator for 14 additional projects. All of these projects are from the K-12 education sector and have used design build, traditional hard bid and construction management procurement methods.

Maybe my experiences have been out of the norm or they were less litigious because they were school districts. But after hearing tales of other LEED projects and continued exposure to LEED projects, I believe the process avoids more pitfalls that lead to litigation than it opens doors for new litigation paths. The process drives detailed conversations that start early and continue through the process and they highlight the interdependency of the owner, the designers and the contractors. And that's why I think LEEDigation will be more common from outside parties, such as the school in MN, than between members of the integrated design team.

As part of role as a LEED Project Administrator, I often find myself helping facilitate the integrated design process. Often, many of the team members do not have any experience with an integrated design process. To avoid confusion, let's define integrated design as the use of deliberate steps to ensure all parties affected by the life cycle of project are engaged in the development of the project. It has a focus on data collection (like energy modeling), discussion, visioning and goal setting. This is often done in charrettes which provide a face to face, personal meeting of this cross discipline group of people. In traditional design, the owner often doesn't have much contact with any of the design team beyond the architect. This face to face meeting with the opportunity to have input starts building a level of trust and mutual accountability across all parties. When trust is present in any relationship, it becomes easier for all parties to admit and take responsibility for errors and omissions and focus on corrective action rather than blame. Let's take look at a couple of hypothetical situations and since I'm an engineer we'll focus around energy issues.

In traditional design, without an energy model there are likely few conversations the owner and the mechanical engineer have other than "what kind of HVAC equipment do you like." With the owner's preference in mind, the engineer proceeds to design a system assuming maximum occupant capacity and maximum allowable lighting power density and the engineer adds a 10 or 15% safety factor onto his or her load calculations to make sure no one every complains about being to hot or cold. But when the electrical engineer is very aggressive and reduces the lighting power density and the average occupancy is only 85% of capacity the system is now oversized so it doesn't control humidity well and does not operate efficiently. Who is at fault? Why are they at fault? Was the mechanical engineer responsible for asking the electrical engineer about lighting or was it the electrical engineer's responsibility to tell the mechanical? Is the owner at fault for failing to discuss occupancy patterns?

By comparison, a project team pursuing LEED typically does an energy model, which drives discussions about these topics and more. With an energy model, systems are sized more closely to the design load and with fewer compounded safety factors. There is risk in this method that weather or occupancy patterns outside the design parameters may lead to comfort issues. But those risks have been discussed and been jointly accepted by the owner and the design team.

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Paul Levin - September 3, 2010 12:03 PM

The increasing use of Design-Build contracts may further limit conflicts between the design and construction team by creating a single entity with overall responsibility for the project. By involving the architect and general contractor together earlier in the process, many of the issues that lead to LEEDigation can be resolved without later conflict.

Clear lines of responsibility and early collaboration are the keys to avoiding potentially litigious and costly issues later on.

Laurent Kanago - September 4, 2010 2:49 PM

I completely agree with the comment above. With LEED design-build projects, architects and GCs work out problems from the start, at the charette stage. When the communication starts at the construction phase, LEED points are always lost. i work as an energy modeler and sometimes clients ask for an energy model after construction has started and the specs are sent out.

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