Tom Székely, P.E., LEED AP

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January 29, 2007

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Doing the Right Thing, or, Kermit, What Took You so Long?  


Last Wednesday, I spent the whole day at a seminar on Current Issues in Sustainable Design, courtesy of the continuing education requirements for professional licensure in New York State.  So I started thinking − actually, I’ve also been known to think on other occasions, but there are times . . .


Way, way back in late 1973, the oil-producing States of the Gulf Region embargoed production to the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, in response (so they told us) to the outcome of the (third) Arab-Israeli war, which had just occurred a few months earlier.


Way, way, way back in 1966 when I was a young man just starting out in engineering and construction, I was horrified by the attitude of the average engineer with regard to the disposal of process waste products.  I’d been sensitized to the consequences of such behavior, not because I’d read Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (which I had), but because by then I’d spent several summers on solo week-long backpacking trips which I finished by packing out or burning more trash than I’d generated while on the trip.  I’ve since come to understand that most of us simply don’t think about the consequences of anything we do that doesn’t affect us immediately and personally, and that a few of us never outgrow being slobs.


I guess it’s an infant thing. You eventually learn not to soil your pants. Not throwing garbage or waste around is apparently somewhat more difficult to internalize.  Maybe we’re not quite so different from chimpanzees after all.  —Oh, I’m sorry, that’s actually an insult to chimpanzees, who throw their feces around deliberately to discourage would-be attackers.


Anyway, not quite so long ago, in 1993, 23 founding members formed the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to promote environmentally friendly building design via its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, a credit (point) driven assessment program.  By then, The Mother Earth News, a monthly magazine I’d subscribed to at the time, that is still being published today, and is touted on their website as “The Original Guide to Living Wisely” had been writing about renewable energy for 23 years.  I kept hoping to do something really energy-neutral, an earth-sheltered passive solar home on a south facing hillside with some bleeding-edge Architect, but settled for advising friends in Albuquerque to use triple-glazed skylights on their custom home and provide insulated drapes and skylight closures to retain heat during the cold desert nights.


While I am truly gratified by the growing attention being paid to energy efficiency and the environment, and I’m not even put off (too much) by instant experts, I had been a little concerned by the gaming of the system I’d seen as the focus of some.  I’m happy to report such was refreshingly absent from last week’s seminar, and have come to believe that even a system which can be gamed is an improvement over no system at all.


That is, infants are convinced to try to avoid soiling their pants because of a desire to be like their role models, and LEED accreditation is beginning to convince developers (what!? who!?) to think Green. This is beginning to work especially well as more and more design professionals discover that supposed cost premiums are minimal, paying for themselves in two or three years.


You don’t suppose that’s why all that stuff about Net Present Value and Sinking Funds was on the Professional Engineer’s licensing exam do you? 




I may actually be forced to go do this thing (become a LEED Accredited Professional) myself.


Sometimes ya just gotta laugh, ‘cause life can’t really be so stupid. (Can it?)


The first page of my professional brochure (which is comprised by, among other things, issues of this newsletter dating back to 1991) is a c.v. of Székely Engineering with the top half of the page being a short description of what we (I) do, as well as a listing of my professional/ technical society memberships.  The bottom half of the page is a listing of projects I’m particularly proud of, some of which have won awards, or been otherwise distinguished by general mass media attention.


It is thus with a great sense of irony that I find myself being sued over a project I had just added to that list last year.


I’ve been in private practice for about 26 years now, and it’s the second time I’ve had personal experience with the legal system as a litigant.  That is, while I’ve been an expert witness on perhaps two dozen occasions or so, and it never ceases to amaze me how late in the game I get called in to try and reconstruct some long past chain or chains of events, being  served as a defendant in a lawsuit is a whole other matter. 


As is unfortunately the case in most such instances, neither experience has done much to mitigate the less than favorable feelings I share with the public at large with regard the legal system in general, and attorneys in particular.


The first time, I was brought in as a fourth-party defendant when an unnamed celebrity’s upstairs neighbor sued her for $2,000,000.00 for damage allegedly caused to the neighbor’s walls and artwork during the gut renovation of the celebrity’s Fifth Avenue apartment.  After $10,000.00 in legal fees (this was back in 1989), 20 percent of which came out of my pocket,  the plaintiff’s attorney stipulated that I didn’t belong in the case because, as the mechanical engineer, I had absolutely nothing to do with the demolition of walls in the celebrity’s unit, which was the alleged cause of the alleged damage.


The new one is even better, if such a thing is possible.  I participated as the MEP engineer on the gut rehab of an Institutional Facility in Port Newark New Jersey, a project which had languished for a year or so since I’d come aboard in early 2003, until construction finally began, late in 2004.  By that time my client, the Architect and Structural Engineer, had fallen so far behind in payment that I’d not only told him I’d have to stop work on the project, but I took the unprecedented step of writing directly to the Owner advising them I’d be forced to attach a lien to the property, if payment were not made forthwith.


I had also by then had about three months of submittals sitting on my desk, and had warned my client repeatedly that my retention of the submittals unacted upon was not doing the project any good.  Every week or so the HVAC Contractor would phone or e-mail me to ask if the impasse had been broken.  Finally, about a week after I’d written the Owner, the Architect paid me, and I turned around the three months worth of shop drawings in about another week.  The HVAC Contractor was so gratified to hear we were moving again, that he e-mailed me that he was glad to be able to get his crews back on the job. 


I was thus extremely perplexed when I’d heard from neither the Contractor nor the Architect ever again. My repeated phone calls to each went unanswered, and I finally faxed the Architect in the spring of 2005 inquiring as to the project status.  I never got a reply, and as of today, no one seems to be able to find the Architect.  I then got served on December 1, 2006, for a project I’d thought was dead.   


Go figure.

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