The risks of climate change are impacting everyone, including architects, engineers and other design professionals. However, there’s not only the risk of severe weather impacting project construction. Architects also face the risk of claims for past projects, months or years after their completion.

Architects are at the forefront of providing climate change and sustainable design solutions, but that prominent role is leading to increased risks as a professional. Disagreements and misunderstandings about the intent, scope and limits of resilient and sustainable design practices are leading to more and more claims.

Here’s what to know about the climate change and sustainable design risks that can exist for design professionals like you, plus how to identify and mitigate the specific risks you face.

What Risks Exists

Climate risks are many, from floods to wildfires, windstorms and more. But architects can simplify things by thinking about most climate risks as falling under one of two categories.

  • First-party claims
  • Third-party claims
First-Party Claims

First-party claims are the more common type and involve you and a party with whom you have a contractual relationship, such as a client. Contracts are a key source of risk for design professionals and sustainable design risks are no exception. First-party claims can result when three conditions are met:

  • A valid contract exists that creates a duty owed by the designer to the client.
  • A breach of contract involving obligations owed to the client occurs.
  • A claim is made that damages are suffered as a result of the contractual breach.

One example of such a claim could involve a shifting floodplain. If an architect failed to consider recent flood events that suggest existing floodplain maps were out of date and the project floods and sustains damage, the client could claim a breach of contract, alleging that the architect failed to uphold an appropriate standard of care.

Third-Party Claims

Third-party claims brought by individuals or groups with whom the design professional has no contract are less common but also possible. These claims concern tort liability law, where third parties are able to bring claims against design professionals due to professional negligence. Third-party claims are possible when the following four conditions are met:

  • A duty is owed by the designer to the party bringing the claim.
  • A breach of duty to act or perform services within the standard of care occurs.
  • A claim is made that damages are suffered as a result of the breach of duty.
  • A causal connection exists between designer’s actions and the damages alleged.

An example of a third-party claim could involve a prolonged power outage due to a particularly severe storm. If an architect didn’t plan for a sufficient supply of backup electrical power and a building occupant is injured in an unlit stairwell, they could attempt to bring a claim against the architect.

How to Determine Your Risks

Determining how all the potential risks of climate change specifically impact you as a professional and the projects you work on can be tricky. The terms involved are quite specific. As the U.S. General Services Administration notes about sustainable design:

Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance. The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments.

Within sustainable design, the concept of resilient design seeks to go even further. The Resilient Design Institute explains:

Resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters and disturbances — as well as long-term changes resulting from climate change — including sea level rise, increased frequency of heat waves and regional drought.

It’s helpful to keep these theories and objectives in mind when working on a project involving sustainable or resilient design elements.

Vulnerability assessments are another tool you can use to help determine your risks. These assessments work best when short-, medium- and long-term risks are considered to provide the client with the proper context of the analysis.

Outside expertise can also be a must-have resource. Architects are not climatologists, so real expertise is needed to research and interpret potential climate change impacts in your vulnerability assessments for a project. Projects can be complex, and you may find you need multiple experts to assess all the risks. However, realize that there may be contractual risks in hiring experts yourself.

How to Mitigate Your Risks

Managing risk of climate change as a design professional can be a challenge. But taking the right actions in the course of a project can help mitigate your risk.

Communication can be key to avoiding the misunderstandings that often lead to first-party claims. Discussing climate and sustainability issues upfront before you enter into a contract with a client can help set realistic expectations. Items for discussion may include the role of sustainability in a particular project, the costs of analyses, assessments and outside experts, and what outcomes can reasonably be expected of a project and a structure.

Documentation is another key tool for protecting yourself from potential claims. Keeping complete documentation of the services you provide not only lowers your risk of a claim but can help resolve claims faster and at a lower cost, too. Complete documentation should always include project discussions, all recommendations and client decisions.

Insurance protection is yet another tool to control your risk as a design professional. Lockton Affinity Architect and Engineer offers Professional Liability Insurance that protects you and your practice against claims of negligence for the design services that you provide to your clients.

We offer coverage that’s a cut above other industry offerings, with benefits such as pre-claim assistance. Our complimentary contract reviews help ensure you lower your risk of claims right from the start, while our risk management resources can help you stay on top of evolving industry risks.

See what our coverage will look like for your business with our quick and easy 10-minute price indication.