Sustainability ... Your Legal Responsibility

June 1, 2005
One often-overlooked aspect of sustainable design is how it can help building owners control liability

Sustainable building and facilities management practices offer an array of benefits to enhance building performance, the workplace, and the bottom line. One often-overlooked aspect of sustainable building and facilities practices, however, is how it can help building owners control their liability. When exploring sustainability and when examining liability, one priority is central to both: the on-going health and well-being of building occupants.

Knowledge is key. As a building owner, you need to be aware of the conditions that exist within your facility to protect yourself from liability exposure. A sustainable facilities management plan, initiated through a sustainable building audit, is a valuable tool for collecting this information and finding ways to improve your facility for building occupants. But where do you begin?

Frameworks for Direction
In order to identify the risks and determine what standards best suit your goals, you need to start with a reference guide. There are several frameworks for sustainability that can give you direction, such as the LEED Green Building Rating System®, ISO 14001, and The Natural Step.

Developed by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council (, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a rating system that awards points for sustainable measures and materials in building design, construction, and operations. LEED criteria are divided into five categories: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. By offering a standard that defines green buildings, LEED helps owners assess their building’s performance.

ISO 14001 is the standard set by the Intl. Standards Organization, Geneva, Switzerland - which specifies the requirements of an environmental management system - which can be integrated with other management requirements, to assist organizations to achieve environmental and economic goals. The overall aim of ISO 14001 is to support environmental protection and prevention of pollution in balance with socio-economic needs. ISO 14001 is a comprehensive yet directive standard that can effectively encompass every aspect of a company’s environmental impact.

The Natural Step ( framework draws on four guiding principles to create a sustainable society. The first three seek to avoid extracting substances from the earth’s crust, producing substances that increase environmental toxins, and using substances that will not break down. The fourth concerns social equity to ensure human needs are met worldwide. The model includes a vital and dynamic economy integrated with these environmental goals as a key focus.

While the available frameworks vary in how comprehensive they are, how prescriptive or flexible they may be, and, in the availability of and requirements for certification, all three are common in the application process. Each involves a consistent course of assessment, planning, implementation, and measurement. Regardless of the framework for more sustainable practices you choose to adopt, it is within this common and ongoing process that building owner liability can be better managed.

Areas of Focus
Regardless of the framework you apply, when considering liability you want to be sure that you cover five areas where liability commonly comes into play:

  • Indoor air quality.
  • Thermal comfort.
  • Work environment.
  • Building conditions.
  • Site conditions.

Indoor air quality has a significant impact on liability. Sick Building Syndrome affects between 30 and 70 million Americans each year. Adequate fresh air ventilation dilutes contaminants that can contribute to illness and allergic reactions. Potentially hazardous chemicals enter a space through a variety of methods: materials used in construction, traditional maintenance practices for equipment and systems, and cleaning products. In addition, explore the use or operation of humidity controls to help prevent the growth of mold.

Studies have shown that employees place a great emphasis on being comfortable in their environment. Happier employees are more productive and show reduced absenteeism due to illness. Moreover, because employees that are satisfied with their workplace feel as though the owner is concerned for their welfare, they are less likely to pursue litigation if an issue arises. Thermal comfort plays a major role in workplace satisfaction, and employees prefer to have control over the temperature of their own areas.

The work environment is another crucial factor in reducing building liability. Ergonomic configurations reduce physical stresses that lead to a variety of ailments. Carefully selected furniture systems promote ergonomics, and proper layout can increase a sense of connection to other employees, which fosters well-being. Sufficient indoor lighting to perform work-related tasks, and the incorporation of daylighting without glare, also provide healthier work environments.

Building conditions relate to a myriad of liability issues that have as much to do with common sense as the pursuit of sustainability. Building conditions include everything from the integrity of railings and windows to loose carpets and leaky plumbing. By including building condition factors into your comprehensive, ongoing sustainability effort, you are more likely to identify problems as they emerge. Another especially important element of the building condition is ensuring that all of the building’s life and safety systems are working effectively, and that building occupants know how to respond in an emergency.

Site conditions also include a variety of issues that balance common sense and sustainability. Site conditions connected to liability include adequate outdoor lighting to illuminate walkways, the integrity of structural elements (railings, benches, walkways, etc.), and the performance of site irrigation and stormwater drainage.

Delving In
A sustainable facilities audit is a simple yet comprehensive tool used to gain a clear understanding of how a building is operating. It will help you examine your building conditions, systems, and policies to uncover risks and create a plan for improvements.

Start by assembling the right people. Your team should include the owner, facilities manager and key staff, human resources personnel, and information technology (IT) staff. This team will be able to offer a range of perspectives, from those who run the day-to-day operations to those that frequently hear employee concerns. In addition, this will create employee ownership in the process and demonstrate that an owner is proactively addressing the issues.

Outside professionals may also have a place on your team. Engineers experienced with building operations can offer expert advice in analyzing your building equipment and systems. Professionals with experience in sustainable strategies can suggest improvements that are best suited to your facility, goals, and budget.

Create a list of the systems and practices your audit will cover. Using the five key areas mentioned as an initial guide, have your team brainstorm the areas that need review. At minimum, you’ll want to look at your mechanical and lighting systems, building materials, cleaning products, and maintenance practices.

The majority of building owners do not perform commissioning to see if their systems are working as intended. Improperly functioning mechanical systems can waste energy, which leads to lost revenue -

but they can also poorly affect thermal comfort and indoor air quality through inadequate ventilation.

Conduct an assessment of air movement pressurization to ensure that the air flow brings fresh air into the building. Assess how often maintenance is performed on the mechanical systems to keep the ductwork free of dust and allergens. Look for the thermostat locations in relation to where employees spend their time. Make sure that vents are not obstructed by equipment or furniture.

Get a list of which materials were used in the building’s construction to determine if volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being released in the air. Many construction materials can off-gas harmful chemicals for an extended period of time. Examine damp or water-damaged areas for signs of mold. Good ventilation strategies will help prevent mold growth.

It’s common to outsource cleaning and certain maintenance procedures, so you will need to contact the companies that perform these services to determine whether they are using harmful chemicals in your space. Find out if there’s an outdoor exhaust for the janitor’s closet to further reduce chemicals in the buildings.

Within the workplace, examine furniture systems for ergonomic features and their placement in the overall space. Do large partitions isolate employees and eliminate their visual access to daylight and views? Are the lighting levels sufficient for employees to perform their work without eye strain or glare?

Also, make a point of ensuring that the people auditing your building will take the time to qualify overall building conditions, especially with regard to the integrity of railings, windows, stairwells, etc. Outside the facility, ensure that lighting levels are bright enough at night to help employees find their way around the building without creating glare. Also, look at the integrity of sidewalks, stairways, stair railings, etc. to lessen the likelihood of accidents.

Timeline, Measurement, and Tracking
Once you have a better understanding of your building operations and have identified risks, you can define your goals and then create a system of policies and practices to address these risks in an organized manner. This is where having a framework to apply often proves extremely valuable. Instead of having a random and less manageable set of activities, an established framework gives you a construct, and often times even tools with which to plan.

Target precise goals for the items you want to improve. Determine what specific steps are necessary to achieve the goals, as well as any new policies and practices you plan to implement. Record this information and make it available to all team members.

Develop a detailed timeline with action items to accomplish the goals. Some items may be easily addressed, and others may require phasing due to complexity or cost issues. The timeline will structure the tasks and set completion dates to prevent important items from falling behind.

Establish a measurement and verification process, as well as a tracking system to ensure success. Here again, look for a framework that may help define an end goal that you can consistently move toward. Bring the team together on a regular basis to examine if the goals are truly being met, evaluate how the new practices are working, and address any new issues that arise as a result of the changes.

Continual Maintenance
Pursuing sustainability and managing your liability are both ongoing processes. Once you’ve assessed potential risks and taken measured steps to correct them, you’re moving in the right direction - but new practices and technologies progressively evolve and trends shift. Devise a plan for continued education in order to stay current on the latest developments. The plan should include periodic assessments of your facility against your defined goals, and a commitment to keeping your improvement efforts in place. Not only will you reduce your exposure to future liability, you can explore additional areas of improvement that may benefit your facility’s overall performance.

Jay Coalson is general manager at Portland, OR-based Green Building Services (, a professional consulting practice that helps its clients design, build, and market more sustainable, high-performance commercial buildings.

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