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.