The Green-Standard Battle

With the solid grip the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standard has on the commercial markets, many people ask me if I think LEED will be as successful in the residential space. My answer is a firm “No.”

After establishing a foothold in the commercial market, LEED entered the residential building space with a program called LEED-H, or LEED for Homes. It really hasn’t taken off, and that’s for a number of reasons, I believe.

First, the professional class that drives design in the commercial space is the architect. Even before regulations and laws required LEED compliance, architects had a vested interest in driving LEED because in addition to the energy efficiency and material efficiency of LEED structures, let’s face it, there were higher fees available for LEED architects and for LEED APs (accredited professionals).

The LEED standard is a complicated one, and commercial contractors have been willing to pay a premium to have a trained, certified guide to navigate them through the points-based process. In addition, the cost of non-compliance could mean real financial loss to the contractor and the architect if they don’t achieve LEED status set forth in contracts. So, there has been a natural feedback loop in which design pros spec LEED projects and also offer project management services to comply.

Not so with homes. A small percentage of U.S. homes are architect-designed. Only 6 percent of AIA member-firm revenues is generated by the design of single-family residential homes. So the LEED standard — in the absence of a professional class driving it — actually has to compete on cost, availability of certified inspectors and ease of navigation through the point system. Since roughly 2005, LEED has certified 6,200 homes and a spokesman said they would certify 6,000 more this year using 38 “providers” nationwide.

The National Association of Home Builders — against type, as they come from an anti-regulatory tradition — stepped in with a lower-cost and (relatively) easy-to-navigate alternative to LEED-H with its now ANSI-approved National Green Building Standard. Its rate of adoption among residential builders has been faster and deeper than LEED-H, and it will only get stronger. This is because it is driven in part by the marketing dollars and support of NAHB, one of America’s largest trade associations. NAHB does not have as many homes in its program but its rate of acceptance is far greater than that of LEED-H.

That said, does the ANSI standard compete favorably on cost of inspection and green building compliance? The results of a study I commissioned with another publication not long ago made it clear that complying with the LEED-H standard cost builders much more than complying with the NAHB standard, perhaps $10,000-plus more per house. Since U.S. house prices are calculated on a square-foot basis, it has been difficult for builders to recover those costs for going green in a side-by-side sale with a house of the same size next door that isn’t green. So, builders are naturally going to choose a green standard that: A) provides third-party green rating/verification so they can justify a higher price, and; B) doesn’t cost a great deal to do so. The natural choice is the NAHB standard.

The NAHB standard also is a system designed by builders, for builders, unlike LEED. And that builder tradition is reflected in the inspection, the forms, and even the practices required to achieve the various tiers in the NAHB standard. I recognize there are other state and local programs you can access. For example, Built Green has made great strides at various state levels. So my comments here really focus on national-scale programs. I am not focusing on Energy Star because it is focused almost solely on energy performance, and not material sustainability, IAQ, etc.

Now, I can guess your question right now is: Which standard produces the greener house? After all, the outcome should be the determining factor, not the method, right? Well, I have yet to be convinced that LEED-H produces a measurably, meaningfully greener house than NAHB’s standard.

Which standard will prevail? I think in the residential space, for a variety of reasons including ease of use, cost of compliance, the power of NAHB’s marketing, and NAHB’s efforts to embed its standard in traditional standards like ANSI, NAHB’s National Green Building Standard is the one home designers and builders should get behind.