Every so often at the AIA-San Francisco Small Firms group, we debate amongst ourselves whether getting our residential projects LEED certified is worth the effort. For most of us, with one-off custom residential new homes or remodels, the answer is no – too cumbersome and expensive. If someone is just looking for “green certification” for a California home project, the GreenPoint Rated system from BuildItGreen is a lot more flexible and user-friendly. However, there are a few architects who’ve really made a big push towards LEED certification on some of their homes. So, what are they getting out of it? How do you decide whether to go for GreenPoints or LEED, and what needs to happen with LEED for the process to go smoothly?
(Home shown above is designed by Sparano + Moody Architecture, and has earned LEED Silver certification. But LEED homes don’t all have to be in the wilderness, either.)
I took a straw poll amongst our design colleagues, one of our GreenPoint Rater affiliates, and also reached out to a few people that we don’t know – architects, builders, and developers – who’ve completed LEED-certified private homes in California. The questions were, more or less:
- Was it worth the effort?
- What did YOU get out of it?
- Did it add value to the property?
- How much did the rating process itself cost?
- What other additional costs were incurred?
- What can architects, builders, and homeowners do to make the LEED process go more smoothly?
We also discussed the relative merits of LEED vs GreenPoint Rated for private homes in California, including when to go for one vs. the other.
Numerous people took the time to share their opinions freely. In no particular order:
- Rob Lehman of Green Score Solutions. Rob has multiple credentials as a GreenPoint Rater, a HERS rater, and LEED AP, and he’s listed on our Green Compliance Plus affiliates page.
- Rich Williams of ArtHaus, LLC, a residential development company near San Diego. ArtHaus specializes in building sustainable high-end modern homes, and their goal is for all their projects to obtain LEED certification.
- Jonathan Feldman of Feldman Architecture. We’ve known Jonathan for years through the Small Firms Committee – he’s completed or is working on six LEED Platinum and two LEED Gold custom residences. He is a strong proponent of the LEED system.
- Dan Johnson of Arkin Tilt, a well-down Berkeley firm that is in the vanguard of sustainable residential design.
- Eco-Struction, a green builder in Ben Lomond, CA near Santa Cruz.
- Ann V. Edminster, home energy/green building consultant and author of the book “Energy Free” which we reviewed a few months back. She didn’t actually comment for this article, but she’s consulted extensively on LEED projects large and small, including helping design teams set priorities, analyze financial impacts, conduct contractor briefings, and prepare LEED compliance documentation. If you’re looking for a feasibility analysis to help decide whether or not to go for LEED, she might be a good place to start.
LEED and the Building Industry
It’s not just architects who care about it. Builders, developers, homeowners, and home energy consultants all have their own perspectives. Half of the private residences listed as LEED Platinum in California seemed to be credited to developers, builders, or design/build firms rather than architects. However, the majority of the LEED Platinum certified projects were large-scale enterprises like the California Academy of Sciences, multifamily housing, or public buildings – not private residences.
Developers Can Have Ideals, Too
Developers and production builders in general have a public image that seems to view them all as solely focused on making a quick buck. If there weren’t mandatory inspections and statewide energy codes like Title 24, the argument goes, they’d cut every corner, slap the homes together as fast as they can, and get the heck out before the homes started falling over. And if there weren’t environmental protections in place, these same profits-before-people villains would pave over every national park and fill them up with cheap condominiums.
Well, it seems that there’s more variety among people calling themselves “developers” than the stereotypes would suggest. I was surprised to see that around half of the LEED Platinum Homes in California were credited to either developers or design/build firms (developers who turn out a few homes at a time). And not all developers focus on tract homes, either.
Project Scale is a Determinant
“LEED was developed more for production builders than for one-off projects. For one-off projects, GreenPoint Rating is more user-friendly and adaptable,” says Rich Williams of ArtHaus. “However, LEED certification confers a certain amount of prestige, and it’s got more brand awareness than, say GreenPoint Rating. A LEED Platinum certification means it’s the best you can get,” he continued. “A GreenPoint score of 220 is a great score, but people don’t really know what that means yet.”
It’s not just scale, but scope that’s important. LEED for Homes has some prerequisites that may involve a total gut rehab – opening and inspecting every wall and ceiling cavity. So you’d better already have planned on doing a thorough job on any remodel – including a thorough review of any existing HVAC and water heating systems. At least with a home that’s new from the ground up, there are no legacy components to worry about.
Sufficient scope also implies that there is sufficient budget: not only for the measures, but for the certification fees and the extra paperwork. I wasn’t able to get anyone to commit to a dollar amount for the owner’s construction budget as some sort of threshold to determine if LEED would be worthwhile on a particular project. But, the owner and architect should be prepared for upgrades to products, materials, components, systems, and installation procedures where needed to meet requirements – including baselines for energy efficiency. It’s not always something you can tack on later, either – you can insulate now, but even if the insulation is inspected during construction while the walls are open, if it’s not inspected by a LEED certified “Green Rater” – then you may not be able to claim the credit.
Why Did You Choose LEED?
Jonathan Feldman is one residential architect who’s worked on several LEED certified homes, including the award-winning Caterpillar House, a Carmel residence. Based on my conversation with him, the benefits he sees in LEED are:
- A structured and rigorous process
- Verified materials and products
- Tested and calibrated performance
- Process that is raising public awareness
“On our first LEED project, the client came to us very committed to sustainability. She felt that it was reckless the way the building industry largely ignores the devastating impact that it has on our environment,” said Jonathan Feldman of Feldman Architecture. “We were forced to take a wider and more thorough look at different areas of sustainable design, and LEED forced us to follow through with our early project commitments, and also to keep our clients, vendors, and builders committed. We received considerable goodwill from building departments, homeowners associations, and from the press because our project was the first LEED Platinum project in the area. The owners got a house where all the materials, products, and environmental strategies were more carefully considered, specified, installed, calibrated, and tested.”
Quality control is an emphasis shared by both GreenPoints and LEED – in fact, any green building standard has to consider both construction quality and overall durability. What’s the point in building something that’s going to be torn down in a few years? Better to build it right the first time, and make it something worth keeping around.
Feldman warned that there was a steep learning curve on his first LEED project, but feels that it’s worth it – if it leads to a much-needed sea change in the building industry. “The more architects and builders go through the process, the easier it becomes. I also think that the more architects and builders share what they learn with each other, the easier it will be for all of us. There are those who don’t want to share what they’ve learned with those whom they view as their competition. I find this amazing. If we are truly concerned with making a dent in curbing the devastating effects of the building industry, then we really should be doing everything we can to help every building project move towards greater sustainability.”
Rich Williams from ArtHaus does it out of personal conviction. “LEED for Homes is a goal that I set for myself. I build stuff that I would want to live in. And with a spec home, LEED certification is a recognition of a benchmark. The biggest take-away from my experience building LEED and GreenPoint Rated homes is that we aren’t really ‘building green’, we are really building to a much higher standard of quality. Consumers will know, because of third-party verification, that the home that they will be living in should be more durable, should require less maintenance, should cost them a lot less to operate, should be more comfortable for them to live in, and (the most important one) should be WAY healthier to live in than other homes that are not being built to these standards. As the Mastercard commercials say, that last one is ‘priceless’. You folks understand how to build a better home, but a lot of folks out there don’t, so having these rating systems in place to provide guidance for doing so is extremely valuable, in my estimation.”
The value of having a structured process with some rigor to it was emphasized by several respondents, as a benefit to both GreenPoints and LEED. LEED might be considered as the stricter of the two, because unlike GPR, the bar to initial certification is a lot higher. Even an “average” home can get a GreenPoint score of 75 without too much effort, but to be LEED certified the home must meet a much larger list of mandatory measures.
Rob Lehman reminded me that GreenPoint Rated homes are eligible for additional incentives under California rebate programs such as the New Solar Homes Partnership and California Advanced Homes. If the home is a total gut rehab with all new systems, it may qualify for these programs as “new construction”. So if the client is already thinking about going solar, the rebates can be substantial – and they’re bigger if the home is GreenPoint Rated.
So does that mean that NSHP and CAH ignore LEED certified homes? Not at all. California Advanced Homes rewards it, at least.
- In CAH, there’s a 10% bonus for “Green Home Certification” by a “recognized green building program” and there’s a 15% bonus if the home is 10% smaller than the LEED for Homes size threshold. Yep, LEED has something called Home Size Adjuster which penalizes larger homes.
- NSHP doesn’t appear to reference any green building certifications, although it does mandate energy efficiency. Why? My guess: NSHP is solely about solar power, and reducing home energy use has a direct impact on the PV system size, whereas using low-VOC materials has no impact on the solar array. Both programs use Title 24 as a yardstick – you have to beat Title 24 by 15% or more.
How Much Does LEED for Homes Cost to Do?
How much does it cost? GreenPoint Rating fees seem to be lower than those LEED certification, although I don’t have hard data to do a good fee comparison. Here are a few price points:
- Word of mouth on the street is that it costs $15,000 to get a private residential project LEED certified.
- Rich Williams quoted a fee of $5,000 for getting a 3,000 SF home LEED certified – that’s what it’s costing him – he didn’t include construction costs, though.
- Jonathan Feldman was a bit more specific: estimated rating cost of $5,000 – $10,000 in fees, required advisors, and testers, and another $8,000 – $12,000 for construction practices, materials, research, and design time. “Less in the cases where the clients manage the process themselves,” he added.
Cost analysis can be tricky, because some of it might be things you were planning to do anyway. And with something like LEED, which references other building standards such as Energy Star and (in California) Title 24 energy compliance, assigning weighted costs to requirements can be difficult. Some costs could be incurred during the energy analysis, which is required by both GreenPoints and LEED. In California, projects must exceed Title 24 energy efficiency standards by 15% or more. And, sometimes to get this, a particular project might need upgraded windows, more insulation, higher efficiency systems, or other measures. If you weren’t planning to do these things before, then yes – they’re additional. If you’re just going for the label, that might not be a good reason by itself to go for LEED – or any green certification beyond what local building authorities may require.
“Don’t do it just for the label,” warns Jonathan Feldman. “It’s asinine to jump through that many hoops just for a label. Do the measures because you were going to do them anyway.”
Commercial projects can cost a lot more. Rob Lehman mentioned a LEED certified multifamily project in San Jose with 90 units that cost $90,000 for the LEED certification! “There aren’t that many LEED Green Raters available and they’re expensive,” he noted. I don’t know how this broke out – I’m guessing it likely included the rating, the documentation, and the additional construction costs all rolled into one. And, for a large project like that, having the entire building LEED certified could boost sales and/or rental rates, “especially in certain areas,” he noted.
Does It Add Value to the Property?
Does LEED certification add value to the home? Depending on how you define “value”, here are a few possible definitions:
- A premium that homebuyers are willing to pay, as demonstrated by home sale data
- What realtors and listing services believe are the features that people care about
- What lenders are willing to finance when doing their value assessments of a sale property
- Something that brings the homeowner long-lasting satisfaction, comfort, and enjoyment
The problem is, we don’t really know how much value green building adds to single-family residences, because home listings don’t track green certifications of any kind. So, if a home sells for more, or sells faster, how do we even know whether “green” had anything to do with it? And how can we compare the value of a GreenPoint Rated home vs. a LEED certified one vs. an unrated home that nonetheless has the same green features as a rated one? Thus, data is anecdotal at best.
It seems that the general public is a lot more savvy about Blue Book car values than they are about their own homes. To the extent that they think about it at all, they’re likely to go for spot fixes based on a one-size-fits-all rumor like “I hear that radiant barriers are cool” instead of taking a wholistic approach. A minority of homeowners are DIY energy nerds, who cheerfully experiment on their own homes and report the results, successful or not, for the sake of knowledge sharing alone.
“The MLS real estate listing service does not yet include third-party verifications for any green building programs, so it’s hard to tell exactly how much more the same home would sell for – or how quickly,” said Rich. Rich cited a Portland study claiming an 18% premium, although he personally thinks that 10% is a more reasonable assumption to make. “People want a green home, but they don’t want to pay more for it,” he added. Sometimes green homes sell more quickly, which can be a big advantage to those looking to recoup their investment.
The value of the LEED brand was discussed. A GreenPoint Rated home can have a score anywhere from around 50 to 300 points – but GreenPoint Rating is only within the State of California. LEED has better nationwide brand recognition, and its three designations – Silver, Gold, and Platinum – are simpler to understand, even if the process to achieve them isn’t.
I’d also hazard a guess that homeowners who’ve actually been through the process or who have chosen to invest in the purchase of a LEED certified or GreenPoint Rated home are likely to be happier and more satisfied with their homes than people who are just looking for something affordable. “Most people hate their homes,” was the astonishing opinion of one HVAC engineer whom I met at a Title 24 class last fall. “If they spend any money on improvements, they want it to be something they can see, like a granite countertop.” Both LEED and GreenPoints are intended to create a home that is more comfortable to live in – less drafty, less noisy, and with better indoor air quality – and I’d guess that many people assume that a high level of comfort and control is out of reach, so they just learn to live with whatever they’ve already got.
Don’t Forget: Factor In Energy Savings
Lower operating costs should be factored in to the value equation as well, particularly energy savings. Both LEED and GreenPoints mandate energy-efficient homes – and they both give points beyond the minimum of 15% over “standard” (Title 24 in the case of California). The exact amount of savings will vary by project, and of course if you invest in renewable energy as well as energy retrofitting, the savings will increase. Don’t forget to factor in sudden utility price increases, not that those ever happen… right, Gray Davis?
It could be argued that one can build energy-efficient homes without getting them LEED certified or GreenPoint Rated. However, having a committed process to enforce a level of structure and rigor throughout the project can help guide decision-making and keep the team focused on the right goals. This is one point Ann Edminster makes in her book “Energy Free” – think about why you’re doing it and what your general strategy will be upfront, and then use it as a road map later on.
The other argument – namely that LEED certified buildings aren’t really more energy-efficient – seems to be based on outmoded assumptions. After reviewing the LEED for Homes criteria that include, among other things, requirements for demonstrated overall energy-efficiency (using the HERS index or, in California, beating the Title 24 energy code by 15%), and Energy Star rating, I don’t think it’s possible to go through all that and NOT have a more efficient building. There’s a whole other set of arguments on the counter-effect of efficient buildings actually encouraging more usage – but that topic will have to wait for another day.
Isn’t LEED for Homes Too Cumbersome?
The main critique of LEED for Homes, especially compared to GreenPoint Rating, is that LEED is cumbersome and inflexible. Why would anyone bother when they could just get the project GreenPoint Rated instead? That’s the California voluntary green building standard from BuildItGreen and it’s being adopted by many jurisdictions as a local requirement anyway.
I put this question out to one of our Green Compliance Plus affiliates, Rob Lehman. Rob said “I’d take GreenPoint Rated over LEED for Homes any day” and mentioned the following items:
- GreenPoint Rating is more practical, user-friendly, and affordable. There are a few mandatory measures and the rest are items you pick a la carte. So it can be less stringent but that’s up to you, how many measures you want to include in the project. Because the barrier to entry is lower, it’s actually more of an incentive to get owners to agree to go through the process. Most California jurisdictions that require GreenPoint Rating have reasonable score requirements, at least for now.
- GreenPoint certification is faster and everything goes through the GreenPoint Rater. The LEED application has to go through review in the D.C. headquarters of US Green Building Council and that alone can take up to a year. The USGBC doesn’t respond to questions that quickly, either.
- LEED is very strict and the process is bureaucratic and inflexible. You have to first get your “scenario” approved (by the D.C. central office) and then if you change anything later on, you have to get those changes formally approved as well. Rich Williams added another piece here. “LEED updates can be hard to figure out. Some of them apply retroactively to past projects, some only to projects done in certain years. But what do you expect from an organization that’s based in Washington, D.C.?”
- The LEED mandatory measures are costly. One example that Rob Lehman cited: LEED requires Energy Star certification, which has an extremely stringent quality of insulation inspection – a lot stricter even than the HERS QII credit. It involves a lot of extra sheet rock, building of chases, and even more site visits than a HERS QII inspection.
Rich Williams actually disagreed about LEED being too cumbersome. “Achieving a basic level of LEED is not that difficult,” he said. “It’s like riding a bike – really hard the first time, but then it quickly becomes second nature.” He sees the main challenge as one of training the production builders to be aware of the standard and to follow it. Still, he says it doesn’t make sense for all projects.
One Sustainable Architect’s Viewpoint
One of the other respondents who had an unusual and dissenting viewpoint was Dan Johnson of Arkin Tilt Architects in Berkeley. They’re just finishing a LEED Platinum house in Palo Alto. Although most of their projects are not certified in any rating system, they are nonetheless quite advanced: off grid, energy independent, passive solar design, renewable energy systems, water collection, extensive attention to sustainable material selection, minimal site impact.
“We prefer to build green without doing paperwork required by a rating system. Since our future work is based on high performing buildings and client referrals, we already have an incentive to stay at the front of green design without cheating just to make claims. To reduce our clients’ costs, I’d prefer not to spend their money on administrative overhead. Our name is our green brand.
“I would agree that LEED-H costs the owner lots of money in administrative time, proportionally more for smaller houses. The hours spent on paperwork and calculations do not add any real physical value to the home. The owner could instead spend these thousands of dollars on energy upgrades to the home to get better ecological value for the dollar.
Dan echoed a sentiment that we’ve heard from a few other people, namely, that voluntary certifications don’t do that much to save the planet because the bulk of construction projects will build to code but not beyond. In order to make a real impact of any magnitude, it’s the building codes that have to catch up, and the role of innovation is to prove the concepts, but that’s all it can really do.
“GPR and LEED can validate the work of innovators and help them market their products, but this hasn’t improved the quality of the bulk of new construction [which is mandated by code]. In the absence of high government standards for construction, the LEED award is useful from a consumer’s perspective because it verifies quality claims. However, since LEED-H is no longer very far ahead of the code [in California at least], even the marketing value is not there anymore.
“Now that we have CALGreen, the code minimum has caught up to LEED. It seems that fully of half of the credits in LEED-H are code-minimums now that CALGreen is in effect. So the argument against the usefulness of LEED-H certification has more weight this year. Do owners want to spend money on LEED-H documentation showing that their house meets building code? The cities already provide this service through the plan check and inspection process.
“I would like to see more green compliance handled through the normal code compliance pathway administered by the government, to reduce layers of oversight. It would make sense for LEED-H and GPR to go away, now that the code has caught up, or to raise their standards, to remain relevant as a high bar for innovators. In this regard, PassivHaus and the Living Building Challenge have taken the lead as the high bar for innovators to distinguish themselves. LEED has been so successful in California that LEED is now partially redundant with the building code.
“When a city requires GPR or LEED-H certification as the worst allowable construction, can the architect really take credit for “Leadership…” anymore? In lieu of these award systems, I would like to see HERS launched as a statewide mandatory energy labeling system; new homes are scored on the HERS index during plan check and existing homes are scored at time of sale.
Well, that blew my hair back a little. Both USGBC and BuildItGreen because have been extremely successful because they set a high bar. In California, that bar gets raised up every three years, and very likely these voluntary green standards will continue to improve as well. Sustainability is a moving target, one that every person on Earth will have to wrestle with at some point – on a global, national, local, and personal level – whether we want to or not.
Do’s and Don’ts for LEED for Homes
OK, I’ve recovered sufficiently from the boldness of Dan’s words to abstract a few guidelines for residential architects who may be considering whether to get a California home project “green” certified, either through LEED or through GreenPoint Rating. These notes would still be relevant for other certification programs as well.
- DO review local jurisdictional requirements before doing anything else. Some places require GreenPoint rating based on the sized of the house; others may adopt CALGreen tiers beyond the minimum. Or, they may offer expedited plan checking for certain programs.
- DO ensure that the owner is fully committed to the ideals of sustainability, and not just the label. Why are they doing it?
- DO plan for the chosen certification early, including an ongoing assessment of the impact that the certification may have on project budget and scope of work.
- DON’T forget to factor in any incentive programs that may be available.
- DON’T forget to list the intangible, non-monetary benefits of any sustainable measures. A correctly designed, high-efficiency heating system might cost more, but you’ll be more comfortable. Maybe a lot more comfortable. Ditto using low-VOC materials.
- DO Spend a few hours with a good green building consultant. Spend some time reviewing the required and optional measures in both sets of standards, and make sure that the mandatory measures are feasible and affordable for your project before committing to the whole process. At this point, the owners may feel that they have to choose between scope of work and certification – “If I get LEED certification I won’t be able to afford to do as much as I’d wanted” – so consider carefully how your clients’ money will be spent.
- DO read the manual. Both GreenPoints and LEED for Homes have handbooks describing their requirements in detail. The entire project team should know what the requirements are, and how they will be verified.
- DO try to build up some in-house knowledge of various green building codes and standards: CALGreen, GreenPoints, and LEED. If your’e inclined more towards LEED, get a LEED AP designer on staff if you can. Same goes for BuildItGreen – try to have someone who’s a Certified Green Building Professional, and who knows the GPR system well.
- DO partner with a good green builder – someone who’s worked on LEED or GreenPoint Rated homes before, and who can handle the paperwork.
- DON’T do it just for the label. Jonathan Feldman was emphatic on this point. “Don’t do things just for the points. Do things that you were going to do anyway. You’ll have a better product in the end, better quality control and better durability.”
- DO embrace an integrated design approach. Mitchel Slade, President of Eco-Struction, had some good advice for the entire team, including owner, architect, and builder: “Be malleable. LEED for Homes certification should be one continuous process, not a set of individualized tasks.”
There’s a lot of room for differing opinion, and no doubt some readers will find some statements above to be objectionable. There simply isn’t room to do full justice to every fact and argument in one blog posting. We encourage you to comment on this article and share your own experiences. All comments are moderated, so please use a valid email address, keep your comments directly relevant to the article, and please be sure that your message is respectfully worded. ;-0
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.