Building green is not always as simple as nailing down some bamboo flooring and plugging in a solar panel. Indeed, putting hammer-to-nail is often the simplest, albeit most physical, part of the project. From vetting potential contractors to choosing the right materials, building green requires lots of knowledge, in-depth research, and many tough decisions. Now, there is another potential obstacle green builders must contend with: The law.
A recent report from Harvard Law School's Environmental Law & Policy Clinic found that building green is wrought with legal pitfalls including vulnerability to lawsuits for "negligence and fraud, violation of consumer protection laws, and failure to meet certification standards resulting in loss of tax credits."
These dangers are not rhetorical cautions either. Robert Fox, a managing partner with sponsoring law firm Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, explained that "we're seeing the litigation starting now, and my sense is that there will be more as the government is imposing this as a requirement." The major concern so far, he added, was in meeting requirements for certifications like the LEED standard on schedule.
In this sense, the legal challenges faced by green builders relate mostly to contractors and developers working on large, commercial, projects. Still, there are issues even a small builder or DIYer should be aware off. Here are just a few to get you thinking:
Reusing waste water from the washing machine or sink to irrigate plants, wash the car, or fill the toilet seems like a perfectly reasonable way to conserve a precious resource. However, gray water recycling is restricted or even outlawed in many places. Though there are usually ways to get around restrictive building codes legally, and many people are working to change these laws for good, it's important to check the books before installing any water-recycling system.
Though the practice is as old as human civilization, rainwater collection has been banned in several western states. It may sound ludicrous, but the laws were designed to manage a resource that has been in high demand with limited availability for more than a century. In Colorado, rainwater is the right of people who own claims, often very expensive claims, to major rivers and waterways. With demand increasing and drought spreading and becoming more severe, it is unlikely that these laws will disappear soon. Again, check local building codes and land rights before embarking on any major rain-collection project.
It may seem obvious, but anything larger than a micro-turbine needs to be cleared through local zoning laws and building codes. What might not be so obvious are the many other legal issues that relate to their construction, including environmental impact assessments, potential liabilities, and insurance requirements.
Contending with the Historic Commission
Clearly, this is not an issue for every homeowner, but if your house lies within a historic housing district the local historic commission may have the final say on you green building project. Depending on the restrictions, you might not even be able to replace your home's old windows with better-insulating multi-pane models. Of course, you can always try to convince them to approve green renovations, something Steve Thomas has a lot of experience with.
The lesson here is not that green building is more trouble than it's worth. Instead, the message is simply: When wielding the green hammer, look before you swing.