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sustainable building certifications

Building Certification Programs: A Comprehensive Guide

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Oct 6, 2021

A couple of decades ago, "green" buildings were widely seen as a niche market for people with money to spend on expensive home upgrades. Today, however, sustainable building practices have shown substantial growth and are becoming an ever more frequent part of our collective housing stock.

As the economic, health, and environmental benefits of "green" buildings continue to become more apparent, sustainable building practices continue to gain in popularity. Homeowners can opt for simple, DIY upgrades such as installing FSC-certified hardwood flooring or a smart thermostat. Building certification programs incorporating third-party verification can help reduce your home's environmental footprint further and save you money.

Table of Contents

  1. What Is the Purpose of Green Building Certifications?
  2. Is Third-Party Green Building Certification Verification Important?
  3. What Is Passive House?
  4. What Is LEED?
  5. What Is The Living Building Challenge?
  6. What Is GreenStar?
  7. What Is GreenBuilt ?
  8. What Is RELi Building Standard?
  9. What Is The WELL Building Standard?
  10. What is ENERGY STAR Home Certification?
  11. Which Certification Program Should You Choose?

What Is the Purpose of Green Building Certifications?

The buildings where we live, work, and study directly and indirectly impact our health, financials, and the natural world. There are around 81 million buildings in the United States alone, all of which require resources and materials to be built, energy to operate, and waste streams to be managed. Today, most buildings—including the homes we live in—have huge impacts on the environment. Around 39 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings. The EPA states that "548 million tons of C&D (construction and demolition) debris were generated in the United States in 2015—more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste." The roughly 126 million households across the country use an average of 300 gallons of water daily, for an average daily requirement of close to 38 billion gallons of water.

According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, the creation of green building standards, certifications, and rating systems strive to mitigate the impact of buildings on the natural environment through sustainable design.

Sustainable homes and buildings utilize ecological design, improved building techniques, high-quality construction materials, and new technologies to use the land, water, and resources more efficiently. They also help reduce energy demand, improve indoor and outdoor air quality, and increase the usage of recycled materials in home construction. Sustainable homes can reduce environmental footprint and impact and become a regenerative part of the local landscape. They can also generate more clean and renewable energy than they require.

Is Third-Party Green Building Certification Verification Important?

Construction companies understand that sustainable buildings can demand a better price on the market. According to one recent study, "green designations increased selling prices by 1 percent, green features such as drought-tolerant plants and irrigation systems increased selling prices by 2 percent, and energy-efficient features such as Energy Star appliances, windows, and HVAC systems raised selling prices by 6 percent."

Unfortunately, when extra money is to be made, many companies will engage in "green-washing" practices, making extravagant claims regarding the sustainability of their home. While not every sustainable construction company will knowingly make untruthful claims, third-party verification systems and processes allow homeowners and potential home buyers to trust the credibility of a specific sustainability designation. Thus, building certification programs exist to demonstrate the trustworthiness and credibility of certain sustainable home features through independently verified and accurate data.

As many cities and regions actively implement policies to reduce their CO2 emissions and environmental impact, homeowners might find available programs offering rebates and incentives for achieving a certain level of home sustainability. Third-party verification systems attached to building certification programs allow governments and stakeholders to ensure these rebates and incentives are destined for homeowners whose houses are making significant environmental improvements.

The Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), established in 1990, was the world's first green building rating system. Today, dozens of certification programs for homes and buildings offer a unique take on maximizing sustainability. Below, we provide a summary of the leading building certification programs.

Passive House Logo

What Is Passive House?

Passive House is a rigorous building standard that drives homes to be resilient, healthy, economical, and environmentally friendly. Homes built to the Passive House standard use a building envelope first approach consisting of air sealing, insulation, and no thermal bridging. Building penetrations, such as windows and doors, are all extremely high-performing. There are currently two widely recognized Passive House standards: The International Passivhaus Standard and the Passive House Institute US Standard (PHIUS).

The Passive House Standard has three certification levels. Passive House Plus certification is net-zero, Passive House Premium will be net-positive energy usage, and EnerPHit Passive House certification program is for retrofits. Compared to current code minimums, Passive House's reduce space heating and cooling demand by 80-90%.

LEED logo
Photo Credit: USGBC

What Is LEED?

The United States Green Building Council's LEED program was launched in 2000 and registered around 5,000 projects in its first six years. Today, over 80,000 projects are participating in LEED across 162 countries. LEED, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification program for green buildings administered by the United States Green Building Council. This holistic, third-party verified program offers a concise framework for implementing energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, waste reduction, site stewardship, and efficient use of materials and resources. This voluntary rating and certification system is a point-based system with points awarded on a 100-point scale, and credits are weighted to reflect their potential environmental impacts. Certification is awarded at 40 points; silver at 50 points; gold at 60; and platinum at 80. LEED started with commercial buildings but has a rating system for new home construction and major renovations. Learn more about the rating system here.

Living Building Challenge Logo
Photo Credit: International Living Future Institute

What Is The Living Building Challenge?

The Living Building Challenge of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) is widely considered to be the most comprehensive and rigorous sustainable building standard. Why? First, the regenerative design framework of this program seeks to allow buildings to give back more than they take from the surrounding environment. According to the EPA, the Living Building Challenge “supports building structures that are restorative, regenerative, and an integral component of the local ecology and culture.” This voluntary certification system includes several subject areas: sustainable sites, energy and water efficiency, material and resource use, equity, aesthetics, and indoor environmental quality. Second, certification is based on actual rather than modeled or predicated data, so you must operate the building as designed. There are fewer Living Building Challenge-certified projects globally than many other certification programs because of its rigorous requirements. You can read more about the Living Building Challenge.

greenstar certified logo
Photo Credit: Green Home Institute

What Is GreenStar?

The GreenStar Certification Program began in Minnesota but is used in seven Midwestern states today. One of the unique aspects of this certification program is that it is available for minor retrofits and renovations, thus making it one of the only certification programs for homeowners who don’t have the money for a complete carbon zero retrofit of an older home. This program is centered on what it considers to be the five pillars of sustainable homes: energy, health, water, materials, and place. The three levels of certification (gold, silver, and bronze) consider the main components of a residence, including outdoor/site, building envelope systems, mechanicals, electrical/lighting, plumbing systems, fixtures, finish materials coatings, and waste management.

greenbuilt certification
Photo Credit: GreenBuilt Alliance

What Is GreenBuilt ?

GreenBuilt is a voluntary green building certification program administered by the Green Built Alliance, which started in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2001 and has expanded to neighboring states. The program is tailored towards small to medium-sized home construction companies looking to build a niche with homebuyers interested in a sustainable home. The levels of certification for new home construction include Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Net-Zero Ready, and Net Zero, and the program offers several benefits to builders, including a certificate for meeting green-building guidelines, technical and marketing assistance, and field consultation. The GreenBuilt Program rates homes based on several aspects of sustainable home construction, including site and landscape, water efficiency, building envelope, heating and cooling systems, appliances and lighting, indoor air quality, and building materials.

RELi logo
Photo Credit: The C3 Living Design Project

What Is RELi Building Standard?

The RELi Building Standard is unique. It focuses its certification on the need to build resilient homes and communities to the increasingly common weather extremes associated with global climate change, natural and human-made disasters, and resource depletion, an unfortunate element of our current society. This building standard combines sustainable and regenerative home guidelines with credits considering emergency preparedness, adaptation, and community vitality. Categories for this building certification program include Panoramic Approach, Hazard Preparedness, Hazard Adaptation, Community Vitality, Productivity / Health + Diversity, Energy / Water + Food, Materials + Artifacts, and Applied Creativity.

WELL Building standard logo
Photo Credit: The International WELL Building Institute™

What Is The WELL Building Standard?

The WELL Building Standard was developed to address health and wellness primarily. A multi-attribute performance-based standard and certification program for new and existing buildings have been used by over 3,500 projects. The building concepts included in the certification program include air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community, and innovation. The evidence-based program aims to include all demographics and economic groups, and special consideration to less advantaged or vulnerable populations. It also draws upon industry best practices and proven strategies, offering consistent findings across the relevant field or discipline.


What is ENERGY STAR Home Certification?

ENERGY STAR's residential program is popular in several states, where more than a third of new homes get certified. Canada has its version of ENERGY STAR, adapted for the Canadian market. ENERGY STAR homes must perform 10% better than homes built to current building codes and at least 20% above average dwellings of similar size. For certification, homeowners have their houses verified by an energy rating company. The Canadian version covers the same territory as the American version for appliances and residential certification. Homes built to ENERGY STAR requirements benefit from lower utility bills and more efficient heating and cooling equipment. You can often fetch a higher price when you sell it after certification.

ngbs green certification

What Is The National Green Building Standard™

The National Green Building Standard™ certification is an independent, third-party verification to ensure a home is designed and built to achieve high performance. It focuses on six key areas: Site Design, Resource Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Building Operation & Maintenance. It is the only residential green building rating system approved by ANSI as an American National Standard. What makes NGBS unique is that its third-party verified certification program means that homes are built in compliance with the NGBS and focuses on three primary attributes:

  • Healthy Homes (ex: indoor air quality)
  • Lower Operating Costs (ex: cost-effective energy and water efficiency practices), and
  • Sustainable Lifestyle (ex: reducing home maintenance through enhanced durability)

Which Certification Program Should You Choose?

Are you wondering which certification program (if any) is right for you? They are all great and will deliver a better product than merely building to code. Note that we did not include the Passive House or Energy Star programs, as those are more focused on energy and less holistic—but if energy independence is your primary goal, then start there. Since LEED is the most prevalent for a comprehensive rating system, finding a LEED Accredited Professional to help you through the will most likely be the most natural path. But if you believe that buildings should be regenerative and restorative (and why shouldn’t they be?), go for the Living Building Challenge. It’s all about matching your values to your home.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2023-06-15T13:43:38+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.

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