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Green Rating Systems: Which One is Right for You?

Different green rating systems solve or create different problems depending on who’s using them and what they hope to get out of them. A real estate developer or builder might want bragging rights to help sell their homes while a municipality simply needs a third party standard to fortify minimum code requirements.  Homeowners want something to help them navigate the increasingly complex task of home purchase.  Environmentalist and academics want all of the above and more.

Meanwhile, some rating systems have become truly big business. The two largest – LEED-h and NGBS – compete shamelessly while fetching fees from $900 – $2300 per house. But these indispensable fees pay for the testing and verification that prevent such standards from becoming rubber stamps. If the sticker shock worries you, there’s always Energy Star, which actually gives varying rebates for attaining modest to ambitious energy performance. And underpinning the entire assortment is the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). This is the bedrock of energy compliance and is both cheap (actually, free) and mandatory. But remember that energy standards are only a single aspect of the more comprehensive green standards.

Each day brings a new program focused on some aspect of building. From housewrap to air quality, the constellation of organizations is dizzying – Forest Steward Council, Greenguard, Floorscore, Greenlabel, C2C, Green Seal, BREEAM, Green Globes, Environments for Living – just to name a very varied sampling.

Finally, there are several local building codes that are more rigorous than even the national players – Austin, Boulder, and California’s new Green Building Standards Code are a few that come to mind.

So which programs work best for you? Beyond the mandated energy codes in your community (which are generally quite modest), here are a few suggestions.

Typical First-time Homeowners

At a minimum every new home should be designed to meet the federally funded Energy Star standards.  Though entry-level certification is trivial, the advanced levels typically produce homes that are 15% more energy efficient than the IRC (International Residential Code) and up to 30% more efficient than non-rated homes. In addition to tax credits and rebates earned through this program, the resulting design will use less energy for the life of the building.

Beyond just energy, the NAHB has published a painless set of Green Guidelines that will help the beginner get their bearings with regard to resource conservation, health and general sustainability. This is really not much more than a primer but it’s a very good introduction.

Far better and almost as accessible is the National Green Building Standard, also from the NAHB. Without getting too complicated or too expensive, you can design or purchase a home certified to be environmentally sound, healthy and even more energy efficient than some levels of Energy Star homes. Indeed, the rebates and tax credits from the Energy Star program can more than pay for the certification and testing fees associated with this program.

Green Homeowners and First-time Green Homebuilders

Because the Energy Star and NGBS programs are designed to attract and educate large numbers of homeowners, they initiate at a fairly low level. Nevertheless, they are both organized around graduated levels of certification which allow more enlightened homeowners to seek higher standards. But remember that even in its most robust form, Energy Star remains a metric for energy only while NGBS is a full spectrum green rating system.

For “traditional” homebuilders wishing to transition into green materials and methods, the NGBS is probably the easiest “first rating system.” Because it is more flexible and considerably less expensive, it is very popular.  Customers recognize it and there’s a  community of fellow builders familiar with the paperwork. Because it is based on an upwardly graduated point system, this may be the only rating program you every need.

This is also a great program for real estate developers who wish to create green neighborhoods. Many prefab manufacturers are embracing this rating system so their products will greatly advance a developer’s green agenda.

The Sustainable Change-Maker

For customers and professionals who are truly passionate about improving our built environment, the upper levels of either the LEED-h or the NGBS program will provide state-of-the-art rigor. Indeed, the customer and builder become a single team at this level, willing and determined to do whatever it takes to meet the highest standards of sustainable design. Besides meeting the highest standards for envelope, land use, resource conservation and health, meeting this high level usually involves innovation.

And for those only focused on energy conservation, there’s the Passiv Haus program. Not for lightweights, this German-born program produces “net-zero” designs that are so energy efficient they don’t even have heating or cooling systems.

To learn more, check out:






John Connell serves as Design Director at Connor Homes, a company specializing in the design and manufacture of early American-style homes, in a process Connor Homes refers to as ‘mill-built architecture,’ allowing for the best of historical early American architecture, design aesthetic and details, coupled with the aforementioned benefits of factory built. 

John Connell is the Founder of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.

John Connell
John Connell is the Founder of Connor Homes, author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.
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