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Unintended Consequences of Green Codes

Source: Construction Executive, May 2013
By: George H. DuBose

The International Green Construction Code (IgCC) issued a year ago is a noble step forward for the design and construction community because it includes measures intended to create more efficient and higher performing buildings. However, the push toward green codification has some looming consequences that should not go unnoticed.
What are considered best practices now will soon be the minimum standard of care—increasing the risk profile of many projects and closing the gap in market differentiators such as experience and unique technical expertise among firms. Additionally, designers and contractors will be forced to implement complex components that may not be fully understood, leading to more frequent building failures.
Contractors must anticipate the unintended consequences of many of the IgCC’s requirements, which may not take into consideration the unique aspects of differing regions around the country. Variations in climate will quickly identify deficiencies through building failures that codification cannot accurately predict.
Two characteristics of most sustainable buildings are the use of innovative products and the implementation of new design and construction techniques. The intent of these new materials and procedures is to achieve a structure with less of a negative environmental impact during construction and throughout the building’s life cycle.
Product-Related Risks
The shift toward using low-VOC products and materials to improve indoor air quality is reflected in the IgCC. However, significant issues can be associated with these product changes.
For example, a large LEED Silver-designed educational building was nearing the final stages of construction when mold growth was discovered inside the ductwork system. Based on the architect’s established green criteria, the engineer specified water-based rather than solvent-based mastic to prevent the release of undesirable VOCs into the building as it cured. This design directive was part of an overall goal of reducing emissions from materials and controlling pollutants in the building per the IgCC.
Additionally, the mechanical contractor diligently covered ductwork with plastic to comply with the project specifications and the IgCC, as well as to avoid a $500 fine from the general contractor for every uncovered opening.
The project progressed nicely with the architect, engineer, general contractor and mechanical contractor implementing what they believed to be sustainable best practices in installing of the ductwork system. But in the end, the application of a water-based mastic that remained wet for several weeks under the covered ductwork resulted in mold growth costing $1.5 million in remediation. (In contrast, a traditional solvent-based mastic would have cured under the covered ductwork.) The re-work also jeopardized the construction schedule because subcontractors had to work around substantially completed portions of the project.
Ultimately, this project illustrates how green building products and specifications that look good on their own can result in unintended consequences when combined with other seemingly prudent decisions. This environment of misunderstanding will continue to yield high risks for contractors working on sustainable projects.
Several strategies can be used to mitigate the risk of using unfamiliar products with little history of performance or interaction with other building components.

  • Complete an inventory of new products that are being used to achieve green objectives and that are different than what the contractor is accustomed to using.
  • Establish a quality control action plan to target the implementation of new products. Be sure to include the product manufacturer in the plan, as no other project partner is more knowledgeable about potential challenges. Hold the manufacturer accountable for the product’s specified performance, compatibility and post-installation verification.
  • Hire a peer reviewer to serve as a subject matter expert and provide guidance on the best use and installation of new green products.

Green rating systems and the IgCC have catalyzed significant developments in new building products and materials that often are unfamiliar to contractors and designers. As the industry embraces new materials and methods to meet market demands for budget, schedule and sustainability, project teams must be vigilant about assessing potential risks.

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