November  16, 2001

Bulletin #52, The Sick Building (Part 1) (November 16, 2001)

ZZZ Sheet Metal had found itself carried along on the wave of the design/build phenomenon. While the HVAC subcontractor had initially struggled in its undertaking of design responsibility, it ultimately came to prefer the design/build approach. There was more profit and a far higher level of control. ZZZ knew how to install a basic, functional system, and had found that, with relatively minor variations, the basic system could be adapted to take care of the air-handling needs for most projects.

One of ZZZ’s most ambitious undertakings in the design/build arena involved construction of a headquarters building for DoughDot, a high-tech firm. One of the primary design objectives for the headquarters was maximum energy efficiency. The placement of the building on the site, the construction materials, type of windows, doors, lighting, floor plan and other components were geared toward minimizing energy use. Special reflective glass was to be installed on the outside of the building to reduce the impact of solar energy. The type and extent of insulation went far beyond normal commercial specifications. ZZZ was instructed to design the air-handling system with a focus on energy efficiency and minimum energy use. The cost of construction was only a secondary consideration.

The subcontractor designed a system that included heat pumps, high efficiency fans, almost innumerable zones and complex, computerized controls to balance the heating and cooling requirements. For the CEO of DoughDot, the building was to be a showplace of corporate responsibility and innovation. ZZZ’s design was approved with few changes. The HVAC subcontractor implemented the design, and the building was completed on schedule (although well over budget). ZZZ had learned a great deal from the project, and had also made a large profit. A picture of the building was placed on the cover of the new ZZZ marketing brochure, along with a testimonial from the DoughDot CEO.

It was approximately two years later that the president of ZZZ saw the article in the local newspaper. Employees of DoughDot had begun to complain of headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. What had apparently begun with a few employee complaints was now becoming a broader phenomenon. The number of sick days had apparently exploded, and some employees were insisting that they could not continue working in the building. Workers’ compensation claims were being filed, and productivity was falling. Those employees who were still coming to work at DoughDot had started to attribute every sniffle, cough or headache to some mysterious condition in the building. According to the article, the mindset of the employees had reached something close to a panic level.

Several days later, a call came in to ZZZ’s offices. The CEO of DoughDot had called the general contractor and architect. The company had also hired an environmental consultant in an attempt to determine what was occurring. While no definitive answer was yet available, the consultant had referred to the possibility of a “sick building syndrome.” The DoughDot CEO had immediately endorsed this conclusion, assuming that, if his people were sick, the building must be the cause. If the building was “sick,” those who built it must be responsible. As the CEO put it: “heads will roll.” The situation had gotten to the point where the DoughDot CEO was actually considering moving the entire operation out of the building. When the general contractor heard that “heads would roll,” it suggested to DoughDot that ZZZ would also be appropriate for a head rolling, since it had designed and installed the HVAC system. The general contractor also suggested that, if there was a problem, experience dictated that the air-handling system was the most likely cause. The HVAC subcontractor was asked to meet with the other parties to discuss what was occurring, responsibility for the problems, and the potential solutions.

ZZZ’s president attended the meeting along with the project manager. At the meeting, the subcontractor’s representatives found themselves in a room filled with representatives of the other parties, as well as their attorneys. To open the meeting, DoughDot’s consultant reviewed the testing that had occurred, and the inconclusive results. The physical conditions manifesting themselves through the employees were very hard to pinpoint, and there was a wide range of symptoms. However, the consultant speculated that if there was a “sick building syndrome,” it was likely related somehow to the quality of the air in the building. He raised questions as to the adequacy of outdoor air exchange, as well as air circulation within the building. He noted the absence of filtration devices within the air-handling system. He also mentioned that several air intake vents were located near the entrance/exit to a multi-story parking ramp that had been added after completion of the headquarters' building. (Several times per day, cars were backed up in long lines entering and exiting the ramp near the intake vents.) The consultant also noted that adhesives, carpeting, upholstery and office equipment sometimes contributed to an unhealthful building condition. However, at each stage, the consultant circled back to the issue of air quality. As the meeting went on, all eyes in the room came to focus on the ZZZ representatives.

The ZZZ president had battled his way through many problems in the past, and he had no intention of simply caving in, and accepting responsibility for the so-called “sick building syndrome.” He referred to the consultants’ conclusions as “nothing but speculation.” Where were the facts? Was the HVAC system not functioning in compliance with design specifications? If there was an air quality issue, could it be attributable to other building design problems that prevented proper air circulation? Had anyone thought to move the air intakes when the parking ramp was built?

Even more pointedly, the ZZZ president asked: “How do we know that there is a problem with the building at all?” Could this really be a case of mass hysteria triggered by a few disgruntled employees? He asked the DoughDot executives whether there was any pattern to the employee health complaints. It was sheepishly disclosed that the complaints had begun with several employees having a history of absenteeism, performance issues, and work-related injuries. There also seemed to be some parallels between those complaining most vigorously, and those receiving poor performance reviews. Smokers seemed to be particularly susceptible to the coughing-related symptoms. It was also mentioned that the first complaints had come in only a few days after an exposé on a national news show about lawsuits concerning “sick building syndrome.”

The ZZZ president continued by stating that if there was no proof of a specific defect causing actual health problems, it was his position that DoughDot was simply caving in to hysteria. That was its problem, but not the problem of the subcontractor. The ZZZ president ended the meeting by stating: “You can keep on testing until the cows come home, but don’t call me until you actually find something. To tell you the truth, I would recommend that you focus on psychological counseling for your employees or hiring people who are willing to work for a living, rather than pursuing a witch hunt against construction professionals.”

DoughDot continued to lose employees and watch its productivity drop as those employees who remained at work spent increasing amounts of time “surfing the web” for articles on sick building syndrome and indoor air contamination. The president of DoughDot knew that if he did not take dramatic action, the firm might fall apart around him. There appeared no alternative to a lawsuit. Along with the possibility that a lawsuit might help to get the problem fixed, the president of DoughDot believed that such a lawsuit would also improve employee morale by showing that the company cared about its people.

Shortly thereafter, ZZZ found itself a defendant in the suit along with the architect, general contractor, other subcontractors, suppliers, the carpet manufacturer, the building maintenance firm, and the local municipality that had inspected the building and issued the certificate of occupancy. Surprisingly, the lawsuit did nothing to calm the nerves of DoughDot’s employees. It simply increased the level of hysteria, and confirmed for many of the employees that the problems were real. There was talk of a class action suit by the employees against DoughDot, as well as the firms that built the building. Even by the standards of ZZZ, this looked to be a major league mess.

Next month’s Contracts Bulletin will further discuss the “sick building syndrome” phenomenon and some steps that an HVAC subcontractor can take to protect itself, particularly in a design/build scenario.


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