ConstructionPro Week, Volume: Construction Advisor Today - Issue: 27 - 10/29/2009

The Hidden Risks of Green Buildings: Why Building Problems are Likely

The great irony of building green is that the very concepts that are intended to enhance a building's performance over its entire lifetime are many of the same things that make a building highly susceptible to moisture and mold problems during its first few years of operation. While green buildings have many positive benefits, there is also strong evidence to suggest a direct correlation between new products/innovative design and building failures. Simply put, departing from the "tried and true" often means increasing the risk of building failure.

Two strong characteristics of most green buildings are the use of innovative, locally produced products and the implementation of new design, construction, and operation approaches that are intended to reduce energy usage and be environmentally sound.

Figure 1. Some of the differences between green buildings and lower-risk buildings


The graphic above (Figure 1) summarizes some of the differences between green buildings and the concepts the authors have found in lower-risk buildings. For example, lower-risk buildings do not exceed industry guidelines on mechanically introduced outside air but emphasize humidity control (especially in hot, humid climates). Green buildings, conversely, reward the introduction of more outside air than current industry standard minimums, which can lead to indoor humidity problems and mold growth.


Green building environmental goals are typically organized around a set of nationally accepted benchmark guidelines such as those of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the guideline established by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED certification is a checklist and point system of recommended practices where achieving various point levels can certify the building as having achieved silver, gold, or platinum status. These practices involve such issues as efficient water and energy use, the reuse of waste materials, and the use of renewable and regionally produced products.1


The overall goal of these new materials and procedures is to achieve a structure with reduced negative environmental impact -- both during construction and throughout the building's life. The intent of building green is unquestionably noble and good, and should be aggressively pursued. However, because of the dramatic change that this will present to the design and construction industry, its implementation will present new risks that are likely to be both technical and legal in nature.


Some of the legal risks are fairly obvious, such as the risk of not meeting a building owner's expectation of achieving a certain level of LEED certification (i.e., implied or even written warranties). Other risks are more obscure, such as the following:

  • The failure of new products to meet their promoted performance levels, which is more likely with new materials compared to proven materials found in traditional buildings.
  • Accepting the higher standard of care that a green building might present -- what is currently considered "best practices" may become the new expected "standard of care."
  • Failing to recognize (or prepare for) the unknowns in cost and schedule impacts that a green building might present.

It is even unclear whether a LEED-certified building can be built under a design-build method of construction without the construction team assuming huge amounts of unknown risks because of the vague definition of what is considered "green."


Historically, the building industry has been conservative, relying on time-proven construction materials and methods. The introduction of new materials and methods has not always proven to be successful and sometimes has resulted in notable building failures, especially those related to moisture intrusion and mold contamination. Many of the time-tested materials found in lower-risk buildings are hydrocarbon based. The long-term efficacies and performance levels are unproven for some of the new carbohydrate-based materials being promoted for green buildings.


The proliferation of new products and innovative building approaches related to green development is challenging the design and construction community in a dramatic fashion. These changes virtually guarantee an increase in building failures and lawsuits. Past experience indicates that many of these failures will be predictable and some are likely to be catastrophic.2


Examples of Technical Risks for Contractors, Designers


Moisture intrusion, whether bulk water intrusion through the building envelope or a relative humidity increase due to the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, results in a large percentage of construction claims in the United States. Moisture intrusion not only results in building deterioration, but it has been linked to occupant comfort and health issues, especially in those buildings that become contaminated with mold.3 Sustainable building practices, some of which are part of the LEED accreditation process, can increase the potential for moisture intrusion if not carefully considered and implemented. Examples include the following:


  • Vegetative roofs, which are riskier than conventional roofs due to constantly wet conditions and must be carefully designed, constructed, and monitored after construction.
  • Improved energy performance through increased insulation and the use of new materials, which may change the dew point location in walls, resulting in damaging condensation and a reduced drying potential for wall assemblies. Lower-risk buildings emphasize the drying potential of the envelope over increased insulation. While it is desirable to increase insulation for energy savings, the designer also must evaluate moisture impacts.
  • Reuse of existing buildings or recycled components, which may not provide optimum water-shedding performance in new configurations or may not be readily integrated to the adjacent new materials.
  • Use of new green construction materials that have not been field-tested over time. The designer needs to assess new materials and their risks compared to traditional materials found in lower-risk buildings.
  • Increased ventilation to meet indoor air quality (IAQ) goals that unintentionally may result in increased interior humidity levels in hot, humid climates. The designer must consider the increased energy load (and cost) and HVAC equipment sizing required to properly dehumidify a building when exceeding the minimum outside air requirements recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning, Engineers (ASHRAE).
  • Building startup procedures, such as "building flush out," which could result in increased humidity levels and mold growth. Lower-risk buildings rely almost exclusively on source control, which is also a green building goal, rather than relying on "flush-out" and increased building exhaust. Building "flush out" and building "bake-out" were concepts developed in the late 1980s by the IAQ industry, which often caused more problems than they solved.

New green construction materials are entering the market at a staggering rate. Because many of these products help achieve multiple LEED credits, designers working on green buildings are eager to specify these products. The risk to contractors is that many of these new products are not time-tested, and designers often do not have the time to fully research the efficacy of these products. If the new product fails, it may be difficult to determine if it is a design error, an installation error, or a product defect. Additionally, general contractors must rely on subcontractors to install new materials that they are inexperienced in installing.


Some of the expandable foam insulation products are examples of green materials that pose increased risks. The water-absorption properties of these insulation materials can be quite different than what designers expect with traditional insulation. Additionally, some of the carbohydrate-based foam insulation materials may retain more water than traditional hydrocarbon-based foam insulation. Increased absorption of water into the insulation could negatively affect the wall performance. This is not to say that such materials should not be used; however, their properties need to be recognized and accommodated in the design.


The amount of ventilation (outdoor air) necessary for occupant health and comfort has been debated for decades. Although there are sound arguments on both sides of the debate, the emphasis on increasing ventilation to achieve LEED environmental quality credits has increased the incentive to add more outdoor air to a building through its HVAC system (a minimum of 30 percent more outside air above ASHRAE recommended minimums is recommended by).1


Increased ventilation is especially risky in the southeastern U.S., where outdoor relative humidity levels are elevated for a good part of the year. Experience in the Southeast, as well as other areas of the country with humid summers, has shown a direct correlation between the number of moisture problems and increased ventilation rates.


To effectively minimize the risk of moisture problems while increasing ventilation, designers may need to increase the complexity and capacity of the HVAC components and control systems to achieve proper dehumidification. This adds to contractor risk because complex systems historically fail more often than simple systems. Additionally, the complexity of the system operation can result in unintended pressurization relationships where local depressurization causes humid outdoor air to be drawn into interstitial building cavities, causing condensation and mold growth.4


Building owners, designers, and contractors all assume more risk when they deal with complex, and possibly untried, technologies not generally found in traditional buildings. Pinpointing whether the problem is design- or construction-related may be very difficult after problems already have occurred.5


Building startup procedures to meet LEED credits include a credit flush-out of indoor containments using increased outdoor air either at the end of construction or during the initial occupancy period. The intent is to remove pollutants from off gassing of volatile organic compounds from new materials. The amount of air needed to meet the flush-out requirements places a building at increased risk because of the amount of moisture introduced with the increased outdoor air. Under LEED, at least 14,000 cubic feet per square foot of floor area is required for flush out.

This presents multiple problems. Most HVAC systems are not designed to dehumidify that amount of outdoor air, which, in a 100,000-square-foot building, is 1.400 million cubic feet of outside air. Depending on outside conditions at the time of the flush-out, as much as 240,000 gallons of water can be added to a 100,000-square-foot building. This added moisture will get absorbed into building materials, finishes, and furnishings, increasing the risk of mold growth.6

Most specifications put the general contractor in charge of the flush-out, including controlling the relative humidity levels during flush-out. If the system is not designed to handle the loads, the contractor is faced with a difficult challenge that may require the addition of a temporary -- and extremely costly -- dehumidification system. Lower-risk buildings tend to avoid flush-out.




‘‘There's one sure way to kill an idea: Sue it to death.''


Quote from ENR, July 2008


What is the greatest risk to the green building movement? It's likely not the increased costs associated with green buildings; it's more likely green buildings that don't perform up to expectations and, in some cases, may experience significant failures.


The increased costs of litigation and insurance that could result from underperforming green buildings will be absorbed by designers (in a highly competitive marketplace) but in most cases will be passed on to building owners. These increased costs, along with the negative publicity on failed green buildings, could dramatically influence building owners NOT to build green.


Only recently has the marketplace begun to recognize the various contractual, legal, and technical risks that are inherent to green buildings. A growing number of experts have suggested that the first two steps to improved green building risk management are to recognize the unique risks for green buildings and develop a set of guidelines that merge the unique regional with green building guidelines, recognizing the lessons learned in lower-risk buildings.


The design and construction community must not assume that if you build green then you will be building regionally correct or even lower-risk buildings. Until the gaps between lower-risk buildings and green buildings are addressed, the design community would be advised to prioritize the lessons of lower-risk buildings already learned from the waterproofing, humidity control, and building forensics community. Without these priorities, poorly functioning green buildings are the likely result, and this could be the ultimate killer for the green building movement, especially in demanding climates.


In our opinion, the solution to good-performing, regionally correct, lower-risk green buildings are at least three-fold:


* Develop a set of climate design criteria that integrates and prioritizes climate-specific criteria with current green building practices. Best practices for moisture control must take priority over green building practices.
* Develop a detailed green building risk management plan that provides guidelines for the design and construction team from concept through the one-year warranty period. These guidelines would incorporate the best ideas of green building specialists, moisture control specialists, construction attorneys, and insurance companies.
* Apply the lessons learned from past building successes and failures and make green building concepts subservient to these past lessons. 


1.  U.S. Green Building Council. Visit
2.  Odom, J. David; Scott, Richard; and DuBose, George H. The Hidden Risks of Green Buildings: Avoiding Moisture and Mold Problems. Washington, D.C.: National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 2007.

3.   U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)/ Office of Air and Radiation/ Indoor Environments Division. Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings. Washington, D.C.: EPA, March 2001.


4.   Odom, J. David and DuBose, George H. Mold and Moisture Prevention. Washington, D.C.: National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 2005.


5.   LEED for New Construction. U.S. Green Building Council. Visit


6.  Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. New York: Viking, 1994.






“Green buildings, conversely, reward the introduction of more outside air than current industry standard minimums, which can lead to indoor humidity problems and mold growth.”This is NOT true. Just because there is more outside air being brought in does NOT automatically mean that there’s more moisture being brought in. If the climate is very dry outside or mainly dry then this is never true. If the outside climate is a Hot and Humid or Mixed Climate the humid air being brought in from the outside can be conditioned just like the rest of the air in the building with the HVAC system. There could also be a dedicated dehumidification system to account for this which could also reduce the size needed for the HAVC system and cost less over time since a dehumidification system will likely be less expensive to run than an HVAC system to condition air.

“Some of the legal risks are fairly obvious, such as the risk of not meeting a building owner's expectation of achieving a certain level of LEED certification”. If a design and construction team can not provide a Building owner with a certified LEED building then it’s ONLY the owner’s fault. There have been THOUSANDS of LEED certified buildings of all use types that were designed and built by professionals. 

“The failure of new products to meet their promoted performance levels, which is more likely with new materials compared to proven materials found in traditional buildings.” Green buildings does NOT automatically mean that the buildings HAVE to use “new” materials. It means that the buildings have more dual use of space and more creative floor designs for less square footage of building than if designed without the environment in mind. Energy conservation does NOT have to mean that a building has to use “new” materials. Daylight sensors for electric lighting have been used in buildings for decades. Most “new” buildings still do not even use this older technology and if a designer does there’s usually more energy efficiency opportunities that can be gained by other tried& true technologies such as energy recovery systems. 
"best practices" may become the new expected "standard of care."
Does the United States really want to be the last of all advanced technology countries to adopt green building practices and principals into our building codes. Most all European Countries that do not even have the power the US has, have been incorporating green building into their codes for decades. What’s wrong with the US being a superior country?
“It is even unclear whether a LEED-certified building can be built under a design-build method of construction without the construction team assuming huge amounts of unknown risks…”
The best building are built under a design-build method because the builder KNOWS the practicality of those designs from being the entity to work those designs out in the field and thus the design-build firm WOULD be the best fit for an integrated design process.
“Vegetative roofs, which are riskier than conventional roofs due to constantly wet conditions and must be carefully designed, constructed, and monitored after construction.” If the author had ever installed a vegetated roof they would know that there is a drainage layer under the plant bed that allows for any moisture to run out of the plant bed and off of the roof. There is a waterproofing roof material layer equal to that of any roof sheet roof system that goes under the drainage layer, so there’s no less quality in the actual roof materials at all.
“Improved energy performance through increased insulation and the use of new materials, which may change the dew point location in walls”. A green building always needs to have an energy analysis done to analyze the building envelope design and to verify the predicted way the envelope of the building will work. Most all non-green building do NOT have a computer energy model done. If the owner pays for a computer model then they’re wise enough to understand the value of an energy-efficient design and recognize the value of “green building” systems and a more holistic design.
Reuse of existing buildings or recycled components, which may not provide optimum water-shedding performance in new configurations…“ NO building department is going to let one use old roof shingles from another project on a new building as roofing material and they most definitely wouldn’t let you use old roof shingles as siding material, so your comment is completely false. Only materials that meet code are allowed to be used in legal construction projects. When there are moisture problems in any building (non-green or “green”) it’s usually a result of improper construction aka. the subcontractors not following the actual design by taking shortcuts or using materials other than specified, or it’s the result of improper maintenance. 
I could go on with disputing this article but I think it’s apparent enough to our savvy readers that THIS ARTICLE is full of unwarranted assumptions and IS THUS FLAWED.


Thank you for your comments, Debra. I think it would be interesting to get the article authors' response to your comments. I will invite them to respond.





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Posted by: Mahomet - Saturday, March 15, 2014 1:18 PM


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