Our 1st Commandment of Green Building: Primum Non Nocere

I think since you only get one first commandment, it should be an important one and I believe some variation on the Hippocratic Oath of the 4th century BC is of such magnitude. You know, primum non nocere, “first, do no harm”. I guess back in the day when medicine was really in it’s infancy, Hippocrates, the father of western medicine got together with some other doctors and they agreed on some ground rules for the practice of medicine including one that essentially said, before we try to fix the patient, let’s at least agree we will not make things worse by harming him or her.

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As the green built world goes mainstream in residential housing, I think we too should agree on ground rules for our businesses as well. For green builders and remodelers my variation of the 2400 year old Hippocratic Oath would be “above all else, no not lose money building green” or perhaps “above all else, do not leave any money on the table when building green”. Because just like a good doctor, before we can make things better we have to agree not to make things worse. And if we are going to start out losing money when building green, we will definitely be making things worse. In fact we owe it to ourselves, our employees, our families, our larger community and yes, our customers to make sure we are profitable building green.

So the first commandment we need to learn when following the Green Built Hippocratic Oath is: 1. Put something in for everything. And that can be kind of tricky for someone new to green building because in many cases we don’t know what everything is to begin with. In traditional building, or what I like to call obsolete building, we know the more detail in our estimates, the better. If our estimating and production systems are accurate and reliable, we should be hitting a slippage no greater than 2%. That means our actual construction costs end up being within 2% or less than the budget. We do this in part by learning that no matter how small the item, we must account for it in the estimate. 

You may hope for the best case but do NOT budget for it. In fact, you should budget for realistic case scenarios, not the best case scenario. This means we must include small direct construction cost items like generators, temporary a.c. unit on site, utilities, weather protection systems and floor coverings, mid production house cleaning, etc…. But with green building or remodeling some of the people you are working will be new and you may not have a track record of working with them. That means, unlike your long time trade partners with whom you have a long standing relationship, you really have to be diligent in interviewing your new trade partners to find out what they may not have included in their estimates. You may need to budget extra time for them to complete their work until you know how reliable the work schedule is that they gave you.

And don’t forget to budget for systems failures that need to be repaired. For example, best green building practices require you to seal your duct work during construction to keep your construction dust and debris from getting inside of them. Has your HVAC partner budgeted for this? Have you budgeted for this item? Will sealing them one time work or will they have to be resealed every week? How about your painter applying zero voc paint for the first time? Have they or have you allowed extra time for the paint crew to get a “feel” for how the paint flows or do you just have your regular number of weeks allocated for them to complete their work?

Thus, in order to follow our prescription to “first do know harm” we have make sure we have put something in for everything.  No matter how small.  Interview your trade partners extra hard.  That goes for your production managers and superintendents.  Get closer to and talk with your suppliers and manufacturer’s reps more than you ever have before.  Ask lots of questions.  Talk to your customers and help keep their expectation appropriately aligned.  Raise your budget for ½ - 1% for slippage if need be.  Expect the unexpected.  Because whether you are rock climbing or building green, remember what the sticker on my laptop says:  “It’s a significant emotional investment the first time you do it” so you better be getting paid to do it right!

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