The Evolution of Green Building

LEED for Homes is just around the corner. Will it fulfill its mission to integrate with existing green building programs while helping out in locations where no such program exists?

November 01, 2004
November/December 2004
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2004 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        How is the effort to create a national green building program progressing? According to Dennis Creech, executive director of the Southface Energy Institute, in Atlanta, Georgia, pretty well. Creech is a member of a committee that was formed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) to develop a national green building program for homes. (See “Who Says a House Is Green?”HE Sept/Oct ’03, p.8.) “Efforts to create a national green building standard are very important to transforming the home building market,” Creech says.That’s why he’s investing the time and effort to help create the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program. LEED for Homes, or LEED-H, is an effort that USGBC hopes will build on its successful and well-known LEED for commercial buildings program (see “LEED-H Nears Completion”).
        However,“home building is local,” says Creech.The LEED for Homes program will use a completely different model than LEED for commercial buildings.“Commercial buildings are built by architects. Homes generally are not,” says Creech.And there are national organizations of architects, such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA), that can push green building values and concepts to their members nationally. There isn’t a similar group for homebuilders.“We have to think of green building in terms of local builders,” says Creech.
        Creech has the wisdom of experience. Southface’s EarthCraft House green building program is set to help build 2,000 energy-efficient and sustainable homes in the next year that are easy on the environment and easy on the health of the occupants.The EarthCraft House program has captured 5% of the residential market for new homes in the Atlanta
area and wants to increase that to 10% in the next few years. (Atlanta is a large market; it builds about 50,000 new homes a year.) “We’re not interested in boutique homes,”Creech says.“We’re interested in transforming the residential market.”
        How can the success of local programs like EarthCraft House translate into creating a national green building program? “There are five key components to most local green building programs that should also be the center of a national green building programs,” says Creech.“These are site selection, including how a site handles water runoff and supports smart transportation; energy use;water conservation; sustainable materials; and the health of the occupants.” Integrating these basic elements into a national program requires some artistry.“Protecting salmon waterways may be a priority in the Northwest, and that will inform how they handle site selection and water runoff. In Atlanta,we’re concerned with soil erosion from water runoff, and we’re also very concerned with air quality.We have a lot of air conditioners in the area.”Those air conditioners require a lot of electricity, which burdens the electric grid during peak hours in the summer.And the power plants that make that electricity pump a lot of pollution into the air.
        Creech also believes that any national program should be based firmly in building science. In other words, green building programs should look at the whole house as a system. Greg Thomas, president of Performance Systems Development, a consulting firm specializing in home performance and energy efficiency, and president of Performance Systems Contracting, a contracting company— both in Ithaca,New York— echoes Creech’s concerns.“Green has become a popular label, and it seems more holistic than home performance, but the green label is not controlled,” says Thomas.“Some green building programs place an emphasis on using sustainable materials and are not as concerned with energy efficiency.” For Creech and Thomas, green building must integrate whole-house home performance.
        And any national green building program should make the health of the occupants a top priority. For example, EarthCraft builders earn points for building according to the guidelines of the American Lung Association’s Health House program.“There are other healthy house programs out there.A national program should build on these existing programs,” says Creech.
        Local programs are successful when they work in tandem with other local, state, and national home building stakeholders. (For examples of successful local programs, see “Three Green Building Programs.”) The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) sponsors a program for tree conservation called Building with Trees. Atlanta builders earn points toward receiving an EarthCraft House designation by following the NAHB tree program. Southface also works in cooperation with the national Energy Star program, the Atlanta Home Builders Association, and other partners.
        Perhaps Creech is strongest in insisting that a national green building program be market based.“The best green building programs won’t stop pollution unless houses are built and sold,” he says, and “with green building programs, the technical issues are the easiest to solve.Achieving market acceptance is the hardest issue.” Creech thinks that a national program should set a standard high enough to contribute meaningful benefits for the environment and for the health and comfort of occupants, but low enough so that mainstream builders can understand the green building concepts, implement them, and then sell the house at a profit. Most of the builders in Georgia come from small construction companies that build 10 to 200 homes a year.These builders don’t have the luxury of investing in much training and research. Green building measures must fit easily into their work flow.
        Thomas has some concern about setting the bar and leaving it there. If the bar is set low enough to achieve widespread initial success, then how can a green building program raise it after that? “Does it stop with education and getting everyone on board?” Thomas asks.Thomas recommends that national green building requirements be raised over time, and that case studies show the national green building community how to raise the bar.
        A national green building program has to respect local climates, local topography, and local building codes. Creech uses Energy Star Homes as an example.“The building codes in Georgia are pretty stringent compared to the codes across the border in Tennessee. It’s easier for a builder in Georgia to meet the Energy Star requirements.” But that means that the people who build across the border may not be as motivated to build to the Energy Star standard—it’s too much of a push. Energy Star takes this difference into account by adapting its standards and requirements by region, and by giving builders some flexibility in how they meet the Energy Star energy efficiency standards.Any national green building program must do the same.
        A national green building program that focuses on the basics of site selection, water conservation, energy efficiency, sustainable materials use, and indoor environmental quality; that is market based; and that respects local differences in setting its standards will be a success. Success, for Creech, comes down to market transformation.“That’s number one for me,” he says. A national program will have the reach to bring in new players to green building. A national program can support the growth of smaller and less developed local green building programs.And a national program can increase the visibility of the existing programs.All that adds up to more healthy and energy-efficient homes; less pollution; and cleaner water for salmon and other creatures.

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