Green Certification Programs

As the green building movement has matured, it has grown more regulated and codified, and there has been a rise in reputable green certification programs. These programs generally break out into three categories: programs that certify people, programs that certify products and programs that certify structures. Covering each of these categories could fill a book, so this column provides just an overview of the green certification programs for structures, specifically remodeled structures.

The problem, per se, with remodeled structures is that to achieve green ratings in some leading programs (LEED, NAHB, and Energy Star), you basically have to be working on a gut-rehab project. Frankly, it’s hard to get a remodel certified for green if you are just doing a kitchen and a bath, or a window job. That said, you can make the project very green indeed (albeit uncertified) with your product choices and thermal envelop/air-change strategies. One reason for this obstacle is that USGBC (the parent of LEED) and NAHB come out of a tradition of new building, where it’s far easier to regulate, inspect and document what’s in the building and how it performs when completed.

Today there are three national-scale green building certification programs that remodelers can use, as well as strong growth of local and state programs.

USGBC’s LEED. A very rigorous green program, LEED (usgbc.org) is based on a points system. Through the use of products and practices (and, ultimately, performance), a project moves up or down a green scale. But the sub-program LEED for Homes, or LEED-H, hasn’t exactly taken off the way USGBC’s commercial offerings have, due in part to its compliance costs and the onus of the inspections and record keeping. LEED-H has had even less traction in residential remodeling because some LEED-H points are out of reach — potentially dooming a remodeler to a lower LEED rating — because remodelers are married to projects where they are, and they have no control over points for pre-existing features like building density, site design and building orientation.

REGREEN. USGBC has also created the REGREEN program (regreenprogram.org) with The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). It’s a set of remodeling guidelines for existing homes. Though it doesn’t offer certification of the structure, it basically follows LEED guidelines for 10 types of projects: bathroom remodel, bedroom, deep energy retrofit, finished basement, gut renovation, home performance, kitchen remodel, living and working areas, major addition and outdoor living. As a complying remodeler, you can advertise your REGREEN compliance. (Watch for USGBC to offer official REGREEN certification status.)

Energy Star. Energy Star (energystar.gov) also rates homes, and they have a program to recognize green remodeling. Note that Energy Star rates a home’s energy performance. Though there is an air-change requirement, if you go with this program, you won’t necessary get explicit credit for all the dough you put into indoor air-quality improvement, e.g., low-VOC caulks, adhesives, sealants, paints/finishes, carpets and formaldehyde-free lumber, etc.

To achieve Energy Star, you will have to submit to staged inspections and diagnostic testing. If you are indeed taking a project to the studs and you don’t want to mess with LEED, there is the Energy Star called Qualified New Home Program, which your project may qualify for, even though it’s not “new.”

NAHB. Working contrary to its anti-regulatory tradition, NAHB has gone aggressively into green building, collaborating with the International Code Council (ICC) and ANSI to establish and obtain regulatory recognition for the National Green Building Standard. The Standard has companion programs that will certify structures, remodeled and new, and people, through the Certified Green Professional program (similar to NARI’s). To get your remodeling project scored in the NAHB green standard, there is a Web form distinctly set up for remodeling, and you enter the data to see where you end up in the point system. You do have to submit to staged inspections and diagnostics. But the overall cost of applying, compliance and record keeping is widely seen as less than LEED-H. That said, NAHB has been knocked for “going too easy” on the contractor, which is not surprising, given NAHB’s constituency. Nonetheless, it’s a perfectly good program for anyone with green aspirations.

If these three national programs don’t interest you, look for local programs. They will have equal (or greater) value when you market yourself and your projects as green. The Built Green program is catching on far beyond where it first took hold, and it is available in many areas. Moreover, many progressive cities and states (e.g., California; Michigan; Minnesota; Wisconsin; Austin, Tex.; Bolder, Colo.) now offer green programs or have created their own.

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