To Certify or Not to Certify: Is it a Question?

There are enough green certifications out there to make your head spin: LEED, Passive House, Living Building Challenge, Earth Advantage, Built Green, Energy Start, Built Smart….the list goes on. WHAT does it mean when a project is certified? And WHY would you want to certify your project, or purchase a building that is certified?

The national US Green Building Council LEED standard and the local (King & Snohomish Counties) Built Green program use an easy to understand checklist format, covering all aspects of the building from site selection to materials. Meet a certain number of criteria worth a certain number of points, attain a level of certification. Programs like Passive House require that specific energy targets be met, like a maximum air leakage and maximum heating and cooling demand. Energy Star Certification calls for certain efficient HVAC systems, efficient lighting and appliances, and building envelope. The Living Building Challenge is a straight forward performance standard requiring such benchmarks as net-zero water and energy (see my blog post on the nearby Bullitt Center, which was designed using the LBC). Most of these programs require third party verification and energy modeling for higher ratings.

The Built Green Certified San Juan Channel House, which I worked on while at D+A Studio, features geothermal heat, recycled materials, and low-VOC finishes.

The Built Green Certified San Juan Channel House, which I worked on while at D+A Studio, features geothermal heat, recycled materials, and low-VOC finishes. Photo by Jeff Case.


Standards such as LEED have been criticized for capturing low hanging fruit. Yes, of course, we should continually be striving to build more sustainably, but we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some may argue that drastic changes in how we build are needed, and this is true, but the building industry is a large ship to turn, and any improvement is a step in the right direction. Even little adjustments translate into environmental gains when they catch on and become more mainstream (The motto of Built Green is “imagine if everyone did”). How many people had heard of low-VOC paint a decade ago? Now you can buy it in any hardware store.


A graphic for the San Juan Channel House, mapping the source of materials.

A graphic for the San Juan Channel House, mapping the source of materials.


If you are building a home: should you certify? If you are striving to build green, yes. The truth is, you could do it without a certification. But considering how small a fraction of the overall cost a certification will be, it’s worth it to stay on target and enjoy energy savings and improved indoor air quality for the life of your home, in a addition to all of the external environmental savings. Look at it this way: we need guidelines and discipline. What is a more effective way to lose weight, saying “I am going to eat better” or planning your meals, making grocery lists, making a list of banned foods and packing your lunch? If you don’t have guidelines to meet in attempting to build green, chances are other priorities will take over and green intentions will be value engineered away.

If you’re in the market: certification programs usually have maps or list of certified projects. Built Green has a handy map, with some entire neighborhoods certified. You can search for LEED certified buildings by project type. A certain level of certification ensures that the building performance has been tested by a third party, so the hard work is done and you can move in and enjoy the benefits. The work of greening the MLS is underway, so that Realtors can identify homes with green home certifications. Built Green certified single family homes and townhouses held value better than their non-certified counterparts. (For a comprehensive analysis of this prepared by the other Hamilton, see this PDF report).

If you’re happy where you are: most certification programs have guidelines and options for remodels and retrofits. Virtually all older homes could benefit from some sort of energy retrofit.

What is Passive House?

A few weeks ago I attended a class for Passive House through the Seattle AIA. The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) is a non-profit organization that verifies and approves super efficient buildings (not just houses)-meaning a building that achieves an overall energy savings of 60-70% over conventional building and provides 90% of its heating without mechanical means.

While the PHIUS standards deal mainly with energy use, other certifications, like the Living Building Challenge, deal with “the whole pie” of material use, site location, etc and can be complimentary. The logic behind the concentration on energy use is the carbon footprint of a building: 8% in actual construction, 92% in energy use over its lifetime.

Reduced energy use is achieved by creating a super tight building that uses the sun for heating, through direct and passive solar gain, solar sinks and thermal masses, while providing appropriate shading for warm months.

Sam Hagerman, President of the Passive House Alliance, presented examples of construction techniques frequently used in Passive House Buildings to ensure a “Stem to Stern” blanket of insulation, including liquid applied membranes and flashing, multi-layered walls that eliminate thermal bridging and argon filled triple pane windows with a U-factor of 0.125, with other features such as adjustable exterior shading and louvers and heat recovery ventilators. He estimates the cost to do a Passive House is 5-10% more than conventional construction.

Graham Irwin, a certified Passive House Consultant, presented some interesting numbers relating to air leakage. In standard construction homes, 40% of air leakage comes from the crawlspace, which is detrimental to indoor air quality because of potential radon infiltration. The average home in the US has the equivalent of a 3 square foot hole due to small air leakage. A 9mph wind effectively produces a 30% drop in R-value (the measure of thermal resistance in building materials, the higher the better).

Click here for a handy list of Certified PHIUS Projects. The Kiln Apartments in Portland, currently under construction, are intended to become the largest Passive House certified project in the US, with energy performance 65-75% better than Portland’s already progressive energy standards.  The Stellar Apartments in Eugene, OR, are built to Passive House standards and provide affordable housing.

How do you build and certify a Passive House building? See the Step-by-Step Guide and Fee Structure.

Coming soon to the blog: Should you certify your home?

New in my Neighborhood: “The Greenest Commercial Building in the World.”


The Bullitt Center, a project of the Bullitt Foundation, will soon be open in the Capitol Hill Neighborhood of Seattle, just east of downtown. You can check it out at the Grand Opening on Earth Day, April 22, 12pm-5pm.

It’s not every day the “The Greenest Commercial Building in the World” opens along ones walk to Trader Joe’s, but I’m sure I’ll take it for granted soon enough as I balance my bags of gnocchi and hummus, like when my walk to the grocery store included the Pantheon when I studied abroad. But for now, it’s all very exciting. A few weeks ago I was able to go on an industry tour, where we saw all of the geeky green features, like the leachate storage tanks for the composting toilets.

There’s no need for me to go into a lot of detail about the sustainable design and the Living Building Challenge, since all the information is widely available. I’ll just share a few anecdotes that stuck out to me and some photos below.

The Living Building is much more straight forward than LEED, in that there are clear but very difficult do-or-die imperatives, like the building must create all the energy it uses. Denis Hayes, the President of the Bullitt Foundation and founder of Earth Day, hopes that building to the Living Building Challenge (emphasis on the challenge) will become less difficult in the same way LEED has in becoming more mainstream. One of the most difficult aspects was dealing with the LBC’s list of banned materials. The MEP contractor was challenged to find electrical wiring without PVC coating (the hemp alternative can cost up to ten times more), and solder for the mechanical systems that did not contain lead.

Hayes hopes the building can serve as an example and a catalyst that can be repeated, and hopes to share some of the information from the material specifications for future LBC hopefuls.

A New York Times Article from 2011, “The Self Sufficient Office Building” by Bryn Nelson, shares my favorite anecdote about the materials challenge, and how the construction process is spurring more sustainable practices in manufacturing:

“[Developer] Point32’s team persuaded Building Envelope Innovations, of Clackamas, Ore., to reformulate its Wet-Flash sealant, a liquid spray that creates watertight and airtight barriers, to exclude phthalates, compounds that mimic some human hormones and have been linked to disruptions in the endocrine system.”

The most fascinating aspect to me is the water and waste system-or rather, how out of whack our conventional handling of waste is, in that we use potable water, not soil, as its conduit. See the “Intact” and “Broken” charts for the Human Nutrient Cycle in the Humanure Handbook, pages 10-11. The LBC requires net zero water and stormwater handling onsite, and no chlorine at the tap, which is still being worked out with the City of Seattle.

So far, so good: The composting toilets, benign to the close observer

Bullitt Center exterior sun shades

Exterior sun shades for blocking heat gain before it enters the building. The large operable windows allow natural light to penetrate deep into the floor plate. The sun shades and the windows are both automatic, adjusting to the light and the temperature.

The enticing stairs: typically closed off and out of the way, here the fire stairs are open and welcoming, in order to entice tenants away from the elevator. Since the building must produce more energy than it uses, every watt counts.

The dense urban neighborhood of Capitol Hill allows decreased parking requirements (as in, one accessible space/loading zone). The south facade looks over my neighborhood (the charming flat white roof of my building can be seen from the 6th floor), recently dubbed “SOMAD”(South of Madison Street) by Seattle Magazine.