For the past seven years, builders interested in creating sustainable, energy-efficient homes have had a single national standard: LEED.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria – silver, gold, platinum – were created in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council. They’ve been the industry standard, with more than 800 certified buildings.
But, today LEED is not alone when it comes to getting an environmental stamp of approval.
LEED has been joined by some 80 different local and state green guideline organizations.
The result is a war between whose rules will be the national standard, and confused homebuyers who only want to reduce their carbon footprint.
And now, another national group is entering the “green” building arena, creating its own rules about what constitutes a “green home.”
The U.S. Homebuilders Association is seeking accreditation from the American National Standards Institute for its guidelines, which will release their list of standards in early 2008.
Many say the standards are coming in the nick of time because homes contribute their fair share of pollution.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a typical house is responsible for the emission of more than three tons of carbon annually, twice the emission rate of a typical car.
But until a home building standard is created and accepted, architects and builders will continue to use the LEED standards, simply because creating “sustainable” buildings is what the field is all about, said Bob Binder of DLR Group, a Colorado Springs-based architectural firm.
“We have clients asking for it,” he said. “We want to be good stewards of the environment. We don’t want to cause a lot of waste, and we want to reduce utility usage in our country. The design work has a huge influence on that.”
While Binder will use LEED if a building’s owner wants to be certified, he says it isn’t necessary to have the certificate to create a building that is environmentally friendly.
“It’s the industry benchmark right now,” he said. “But we also use sustainability in just the normal building design. Most people want to do it quickly; they want to do it within their budget.”
Basic sustainable principles don’t really cost more, he said. Levels of official LEED certification can increase the cost, however.
“But the point about LEED is to increase the comfort in using ‘green’ standards,” he said.
The LEED process can be time-consuming. The project must be registered and meet prerequisites and performance benchmarks. The USGBC says the LEED certification “reduces operating costs, creates healthier and more productive environments and conserves natural resources.”
But, who needs LEED? The U.S. Homebuilders Association believes the market is driving the green building craze will also set the green standards.
The group surveyed local homebuilding associations across the country and found that more than 97,000 homes were certified by local builder-supported green programs across the country since the mid-1990s.
“This astounding number is yet another indication that market-driven programs – not mandates – are the best way to encourage the growth of green building,” said NAHB President Brian Catalde, a Southern California homebuilder.
The success of voluntary programs led the group to announce its own green standards, accredited by ANSI. The group is also collaborating with International Codes Council to develop the green building standard.
“The success of these regional programs is something that’s very important to keep in mind as the residential green building standard comes closer to completion,” Catalde said. “The new standard won’t replace these programs, but it will provide builders all over the country with common ground – a green baseline that everyone can agree on.”
Binder said the standards were all a good idea, but that any building could become more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, even without the official certification program.
He often suggests using recycled materials, designs within the land that reclaim water resources and other elements that are part of the LEEDS program.
The Ranch Creek Elementary School in Academy District 20 is one of those projects.
The design is completely sustainable, using materials designed to reduce utility and energy costs. The firm also constructed an office building at Peterson Air Force Base that has sustainable elements.
“We get clients who say they want to achieve a specific level of LEEDS certification,” he said. “But we also get others who want to incorporate the principles, but don’t want the plaque.”
And the firm is answering that call: moving toward making each building it designs as environmentally sound as possible – from new HVAC systems to occupying sensors for the lights to save energy.
“It’s not hard to see a significant savings,” he said. “Even with some of the old-school designs.”
And Binder believes that’s what matters – not who designates the certification – but the energy savings, ability to reuse, reclaim and recycle that can be seen from sustainable design uses.