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LEED for Homes 101

LEED for Homes 101

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Mar 26, 2019

If you are a residential architect or homebuilder, what do you think of the LEED for Homes rating system? In my experience, most home professionals shy away from LEED certification for two reasons: (a) they view it as extra costs to “just pay for the plaque,” and (b) they do not want to tackle the extra documentation work required—and they may tack on a hefty extra fee to cover that learning curve.

As a LEED Accredited Professional who did the documentation on my own home, as well as for many other projects under various LEED rating systems (LEED for Existing Buildings, LEED for New Construction), I can attest to the extra documentation work. And, there are some extra costs for LEED project registration and review.

So, why did we LEED Gold certify our own home, and how did it come to be that there are over 22,500 certified homes in the United States (as of March 2019), according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Project Directory

In this article and in the next series of From the Editor columns, I will seek to answer this question by providing an up-to-date translation of LEED for Homes that can be used and understood by homeowners and home professionals alike. Because the truth is, most homes will not go through the process: professionals may not have their own staff to walk them through LEED certification, may not have clients asking for it, and may not have the time or inclination to go get training. But for the benefit of the homeowner and our planet, most homes should—and could—at a minimum, be built to LEED standards.

USGBC logo

LEED Background

LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), a member-based non-profit formed in 1993, created and manages all LEED rating systems. Initially targeting the commercial building market, the first LEED rating system was developed and unveiled in the year 2000 to help new construction become “greener”—meaning more high performance. 

Why? Buildings contribute greatly to resource depletion, accounting for 40 percent of US energy consumption, 13.6 percent of potable water use, and about 40 percent of municipal solid waste, according to the LEED Reference Guide for Building Operations and Maintenance(2013, pages 4, 133, 306). Buildings also have a significant effect on our health and well being. We spend 90% of our time indoors, and the U.S. EPA estimates that indoor air quality can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.

To address a wider population of building types, the USGBC then introduced LEED for Existing Buildings, LEED for Core and Shell, LEED for Interior Design, and LEED for Neighborhood Development. Each rating system has its own reference guide and requirements, though the process for each is similar. The USGBC has overseen the certification of over 92,000 buildings in 165 countries, and the trend continues to grow.

LEED for Homes was introduced in 2008 in recognition of the environmental impact of the residential sector, as distinct from the commercial sector: homes consume 22 percent of the nation’s energy. The LEED for Homes Rating System applies to homes that are newly constructed as well as existing homes that are going through a major remodel—meaning it would need to be almost completely rebuilt, including new HVAC systems, to be eligible. (Unfortunately, there is no LEED rating system for existing homes—yet!)

The LEED for Homes Rating System is built around eight credit categories of sustainable design: 

  1. Location and Transportation
  2. Sustainable Sites
  3. Water Efficiency
  4. Energy and Atmosphere
  5. Materials and Resources
  6. Indoor Environmental Quality
  7. Innovation
  8. Regional Priority 

The weight of each credit category is driven by a point system [AG1] [MS2] for certain planning, design, and building decisions. Each of these eight categories carries a different weight in the rating system, energy being the largest and therefore most important.

Certification can be achieved at four levels, with a minimum of 40 points for base-level certification, 50 points for silver, 60 points for gold, and 80 points for platinum, out of 110 total possible points. 

Any new home can be LEED certified, even if it is extremely large; the rationale is that a huge green home is still better than a huge not-green home. LEED rewards or penalizes projects for its size, compared to its “reference” home. Specifically, projects can earn one additional point for every 4 percent decrease in square footage, or lose one point for every 4 percent increase in square footage, compared to this “reference” home. For example, the reference 3-bedroom home is 2,200 square feet (204 square meters), so for every additional 88 square feet, you’d lose a point and have to find that point elsewhere. 

It should be noted that any level of certification requires that all eighteen prerequisites be met. If even one prerequisite is not met, the building cannot be certified.

Two clarifications are needed in talking about LEED. First, products are not LEED certified, but they may qualify for LEED points (often called “LEED compliant” products). Second, people are not LEED-certified; they are accredited—as in, I am a LEED Accredited Professional (there are over 200,000 “LEED APs”). Only buildings and neighborhoods can be LEED certified.

 The LEED Process

The LEED process requires registering the project through the USGBC website and establishing a relationship with a local LEED for Homes Provider before beginning construction. This is key: planning ahead can avoid all kinds of problems and actually save the homeowner money with reduced change orders and better coordination among sub-contractors.

But the key differentiator of actually going through the LEED certification process is that it requires third-party verification—which means you get the peace of mind knowing that the builders are doing what they committed to doing. Each project is assigned a “Green Rater,” who conducts several site visits and inspections during the construction process. He or she will also conduct a blower door test, a duct leakage test, a local exhaust test, a supply airflow test, irrigation verification—all of which serve to verify that your home is airtight and durable. You’ll also have your home energy modeled, which means you’ll have an understanding of how energy efficient your home is designed to be. 

Having an owner’s advocate like that is truly beneficial, as homes are probably the biggest investment we ever make. And the truth is, if you don’t go through the certification process, you will miss something—guaranteed. (In my work as a LEED consultant, I have led the LEED certification of over two million square feet of commercial projects, and we always found improvements that the architect, builder, or facilities manager had missed.)

The Costs 

The real question everyone wants to know: How much more does LEED certification cost? There are really two parts to this answer. The first concerns the actual LEED fees: registration, third-party testing, and verification, and final review for certification. For us, those costs came to $3,075, which was paid by our builder[AG3] , Streeter & Associates. In the USGBC’s list of LEED-certified projects, Streeter gets the accolades for building a LEED-certified home, so it made sense to them to absorb it as a marketing expense. The fees are broken down as follows: 

  • The USGBC requires a $150 fee for registration and $225 for certification = $375 (for non-members, the total would be $555).
  • Green Rater: We paid $1,800 for all third-party testing and verifications, though that was ten years ago; that fee can vary widely. 
  • LEED for Homes Provider: $900 to Building Knowledge Inc., who verified all documentation from me, the builder, and the Green Rater. (This fee would have been substantially higher if we had used their consulting services and if I hadn’t been the project manager.)

The second part of the answer relates to the cost of all the more sustainable technologies and features of the home that helped us reach the gold level of LEED certification. How much more did that cost? The truth is, some materials cost less than traditional products, some cost more, and for some, there was no difference. Many things that did cost more reduced our operating costs so much that we got an easy return on our investment. A few things cost more and have no financial benefit whatsoever. That’s the beauty of this business, and why Rise is here to help. (I also address all of this in my book, Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth, and Soul.

The Benefits

1. A high-performance, holistic framework

The first benefit is simply the rating system itself: it is an extremely robust set of guidelines and green building principles developed by experts from many different fields in the building industry. It is holistic in both breadth and depth, but more importantly, it provides metrics by which we can define and measure our performance. These metrics help us wrap our brain around what we actually mean by building “green,” or more sustainably.

2. Lower operating costs

On the financial side, studies have shown that LEED-certified buildings have 34 percent lower CO2emissions, consume 25 percent less energy, 11 percent less water, and cost 19 percent less to operate. That decrease in operating costs continues every year—and savings add up even more as utility prices increase. 

3. Rebates and Incentives

In terms of subsidies, most energy efficiency investments are eligible for rebates, but those can be awarded regardless of LEED. Some states, like New Mexico, have a sustainable building tax credit and actually dole out a tax refund if your home gets LEED certified. It’s always good to check with your local utility, state, and federal government for rebates.

4. Higher resale value.

The USGBC reports “the market for houses with green certifications is 10 to 14 percent more than for comparable homes without them.” Why? Because LEED certification communicates that the home has been built to LEED standards, and that it has been third-party verified (see above, under the LEED Process, which is the biggest benefit). While more difficult to prove with a single home, it could make the difference between selling and not selling a home.

In my next From the Editor columns, I’ll go through each of the eight categories—the prerequisites, which credits and important and why, and the costs and benefits. It is my hope that this series will help architects and builders consider LEED for Homes for their clients in the future, or at least know enough to be able to design and build to LEED standards.  Your clients will thank you!

Note: a portion of this article was excerpted from my book, Building a Sustainable Home: Practical Green Design Choices for Your Health, Wealth, and Soul, with permission (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018). 

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: 2020-12-10T16:02:09+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman