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Will Green Performance Bonds Be a Surety Requirement in 2012? (law note; guest post)

December 1, 2011

Today’s Law Note is by Guest Blogger Alex Levin for JW Surety, the largest surety bond agency in the country.  When he’s not explaining the functionalities of surety bonds, he covers a variety of topics from construction-related news to eco-friendly building tips.

Green building design and construction is an attempt to conserve natural resources, reduce energy consumption, and protect the environment through reduction of pollutants. Green buildings are constructed with renewable, managed materials and are typically designed to take full advantage of natural light and passive heating and cooling environments.

In 2006, the District of Columbia enacted a local ordinance specifically designed to promote green buildings. The Green Building Act of 2006 becomes effective in 2012 and requires all new construction projects within the District to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification standards.

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED certification promotes the design, construction and operation of green buildings. There are four levels of certification, from LEED Certified to Silver LEED certification to Gold LEED certification and, at the highest level, Platinum LEED certification.

The District of Columbia was the first city in the US to require that privately constructed buildings meet LEED standards and already contains 24 buildings that are certified as Silver LEED or higher. An additional 150 projects are LEED registered.

The Green Building Act of 2006 did several desirable things for the District of Columbia. It established high-performance building standards for all new construction in the District. It created a green building incentives program to rewarded green construction projects with an expedited documents review process. It requires that properties with green building standards be given priority when the District leases buildings. Unfortunately, the Act also had an unintended consequence. As it is currently written, no structures can be constructed in compliance with the Act.

In routine construction contracts, performance bonds limit the risk that owners incur by using a particular contractor. The contractor buys the performance bond from a surety company, and the bond is issued to the project owner. If the contractor fails to perform, the owner can draw on the bond to hire another contractor to complete the project according to the design specifications. When the contractor does complete the project according to the design specifications, the bond is released and money is returned to the contractor. Performance verification is a simple matter of construction observation and comparison with the project specifications.

With a Green Performance Bond, however, there are multiple problems. Performance certification must come from a third party, such as the US Green Building Council, who would not be a participant in the surety bond. A delay on the part of the government agency could result in missed construction deadlines. To add to this, green standards are constantly changing. A project designed to meet Silver LEED certification requirements at the time construction starts may fall short of the certification requirements that are actually in effect by the time construction is completed.

The greatest hurdle to the Act is that Green Performance Bonds simply do not exist today. Surety companies will not issue such bonds when there are no clear standards for performance verification. [Editor’s Note: For more on the “unicorn” that is the green surety bond, check out Chris Cheatham’s discussion on the illusory bond way back in 2009].

The legal ramifications of this dilemma remain unclear. Will contractors who have been awarded construction contracts scheduled for 2012 be subject to liquidated damages if they are unable to bond and fail to start construction? If surety companies do issue Green Performance Bonds, will the bond be forfeit if LEED certification standards change during construction and the project is not Silver LEED certified? Will delays in certification be held against the contractor when projects are otherwise completed? There are no definitive answers to any of these questions.

The language of the Act is being re-examined, and a public hearing is scheduled for mid December. There is no alternative plan in place should the language of the Act remain unchanged and surety companies decline to issue these specialized performance bonds.

Thoughts, comments, or questions?  Post in the comment section, below.

Photo: (c) coolshots blog via Creative Commons license.

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