For the Client: The Push for Sustainability

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April 2011

For the Client: The Push for Sustainability


NAHOM A. GEBRE, ESQ., P.E.The built environment uses a lot of resources in a manner that is less than efficient. Society recognizes this, and now has a greater expectation that new construction projects are designed in a manner that minimizes their impact on the environment. The NSPE Code of Ethics encourages engineers to adhere to the principles of sustainable development. The Code defines "sustainable development" as the "challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development." The goal is to design projects in a manner that reduces their environmental impact during construction activities as well as during the life cycle of the project. Engineers have, for the most part, always considered the environmental impact of their design solutions; what's new is that clients and others are now more interested in the environmental impact.

Not only are clients more interested, but they also are increasingly enthusiastic about sustainable design projects. Initially, the absence of a viable system that quantified the trade-offs intrinsic to a sustainable design solution made it difficult for clients to see the value and benefits in sustainable design. In response to this problem, third-party certification programs were developed in the marketplace with rating systems that allowed clients to claim that their projects were "sustainable" because they were designed in accordance with the specified criteria of the rating system.

Spurred by a desire to reduce their impact on the environment, as well as the perceived marketing advantages that a "certified green" project can provide, clients are interested in ensuring that both their existing facilities' renovations and their new facilities are completed to meet sustainable design goals. Some jurisdictions offer regulatory advantages or tax, development, and energy incentives to clients who are successful in having their projects certified "green." For the client pursuing these incentives, it is important that all members of the design and construction team are cognizant of the significant benefits that the client is expecting due to the targeted green incentives. Clients may have obtained information that touts the benefits of sustainable design from promotional and marketing materials. Engineers should be able to provide "real world" advice about the purported benefits, the limitations of those benefits, as well as the real costs of sustainability features.

More recently, sustainable design practices are being incorporated into model building codes which, when adopted by the governing jurisdictions, will mean that sustainable design practices will be required by law. The International Green Construction Code (developed by the International Code Council) and Standard 189.1 for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings (developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the U.S. Green Building Council) are two examples of building codes that are intended to make buildings more sustainable.

As sustainable design practices that were once considered innovative are gradually incorporated into model building codes, clients will be required to incorporate sustainable practices into their projects. It is therefore important that both the client and engineer monitor green legislation and proposed changes in standards or codes in the jurisdictions where their projects are located. As stakeholders, the engineer and the client benefit from active involvement both during the development of model building codes and the decision of governments to adopt code. During the planning and design stages of a project, engineering expertise can help the client evaluate the mandatory sustainable design practices that are increasingly being required in new construction codes as well as third-party certification programs that the client intends to achieve.

After construction is complete, there is typically a commissioning process that includes a quality assurance step that helps clients determine if the installed systems are operating as intended. This is crucial in sustainable projects and can help establish whether the performance of the constructed facility conforms to the stated requirements. It is essential that the client is actively involved in the commissioning process as the client starts to prepare to take over the facility. The client should start obtaining meaningful data about the actual performance of the completed facility. The engineer should educate the client's staff on the proper operation of the installed systems so that energy use is optimized and operating costs are reduced.

In summary, as clients look at how their projects will meet sustainability goals, they should look to engineers to advise them on the different approaches they may take to achieve their goals.
Nahom A. Gebre, Esq., P.E., is a risk management attorney for Victor O. Schinnerer & Co. Inc. CNA/Schinnerer's professional liability insurance program has been commended by NSPE since 1957.