Legal LEED

Legal LEED

LEED-certified attorneys are assisting clients with their green building efforts.

They aren’t designing or building buildings and they aren’t scrutinizing certification applications, so why are local lawyers earning LEED accreditation?

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards have been reshaping construction practices in many communities across the country. LEED guidelines for creating or remodeling buildings and designing interiors aim to lessen the impact of structures on the environment and reduce energy consumption. And while the standards specify the requirements for a building or office to achieve LEED certification, an individual can also be certified—as a LEED-accredited professional, or LEED-AP.

The AP designation indicates a thorough familiarity with the requirements for a building seeking LEED certification. Typically, LEED-APs are contractors or architects—people who are directly involved in a building project—who will shepherd it through LEED certification, making sure it meets all the requirements and submitting the correct documentation.

But recently, a handful of attorneys in the Twin Cites have achieved LEED-AP status. They say it will help them and their clients in several ways.

Opportunity Costs

Patrick Compton, a partner with Minneapolis-based law firm Lindquist and Vennum, who represents architects, contractors, and developers and focuses primarily on litigation, earned his LEED-AP earlier this year. “I figured it would make a lot of sense for me to understand the nuances of the certification and accreditation requirements so that I could better assist my clients,” Compton says.

A familiarity with LEED issues can be useful in negotiating construction contracts. Building owners who pursue LEED certification and other sustainability goals can reap financial rewards, such as tax rebates and incentives from state or city governments. But if the ball is dropped and the project doesn’t achieve certification or other requirements for tax benefits, legal battles may arise. Who is held responsible? The general contractor? The architect? The developer? Compton notes that the collaborative nature of sustainable-building design and construction can blur the lines of legal responsibility on a project.

“It’s just a matter of time before we do see that project that misses its certification, and that certification was going to entitle the owner to tax incentives, tax rebates . . . something that they ended up losing,” Compton says.

He says it hasn’t happened in Minnesota yet. But in a Maryland case, Shaw Development vs. Southern Builders, a condominium project missed out on an 8 percent green-building tax credit offered by the state, in part because it failed to achieve the appropriate LEED certification. The developer claimed the contractor was at fault, but the issue was settled out of court.

Compton says these issues can be avoided by drafting appropriate contracts and defining roles in the beginning, instead of using boilerplate contracts with no mention of green building. “It’s so much better to get those things resolved up front, particularly on a green project,” he says.

Macro Planning

Sustainability issues are cropping up in regional planning discussions, too. Joey Vossen, an attorney with Bloomington-based law firm Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren, Ltd., who earned her LEED-AP in May, says that cities in the seven-county metropolitan area have just reached the end of a comprehensive planning cycle. Each city submits its comprehensive plan to the Met Council. “It’s kind of a long-term vision,” Vossen says. “Following that vision document, [cities] come up with the rules and regulations. When cities were adopting their long-term visioning comprehensive plan documents, many of them included discussions on sustainability.”

As an example, Vossen mentions a zoning district in Bloomington that, for several years, has allowed developers to plan for more buildings per unit of land if the buildings achieve a certain level of LEED certification. This kind of incentive is called a density bonus.

As a land-use attorney who represents developers, Vossen is often advocating on behalf of clients with municipalities and other government entities. “My clients need to know that I know what LEED is, so I know how it impacts them and what opportunities there are,” she says.

The U.S. Green Building Council is broadening its focus from individual buildings to communities and releasing a new rating system this year: LEED for Neighborhood Development, or LEED-ND. Communities or neighborhoods will be able to earn the rating with planning initiatives such as developing more public transportation, protecting wetlands and other natural elements, increasing density, and promoting sustainability in buildings and infrastructure. As these standards are adopted, LEED-accredited attorneys can explain the attendant opportunities to their clients.

Vossen notes that to get approval for her client’s projects, she sometimes has to please many stakeholders. “If you have public citizens that are concerned about development, you’re working with a developer, you have the city that’s trying to bridge that gap. Sometimes it’s the green principle or sustainability component that can get everyone behind the project,” she says.

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Vossen also helps clients that are looking for space in LEED-certified buildings to negotiate lease agreements. “If you have a LEED-certified building, you need to operate it in a certain way. How you handle water, indoor air quality, and energy . . . often are going to make their way into the lease and you’re going to need to reach agreement on [those issues],” Vossen says.

She says her AP status means her clients can rely on her knowledge of sustainability issues: “I don’t have to go back to the books or call [U.S. Green Building Council] to figure out what’s going on. I know right then.”