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LEED v4.1 for Homes 101: Translating The Energy & Atmosphere Prerequisites

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Dec 17, 2020

As part of our LEED for Homes From the Editor series, we have introduced LEED for Homes 101 and provided an in-depth guide on the first three out of eight LEED categories: Location & TransportationSustainable Sites, and Water Efficiency

What Does the LEED Residential v4.1 Category “Energy and Atmosphere” Address?

Energy & Atmosphere tackles a home’s energy usage and its effect on our atmosphere—meaning the ozone layer and climate change. As the most heavily weighted LEED Residential section, a project can earn up to 40 points out of 100 total points.

Because it is such a large topic, we are dividing it into three posts: 

  1. The three prerequisites (this article),
  2. The primary point earner: annual energy usage, and
  3. The minor point earners: hot water distribution, HVAC start-up credentialing, and refrigerant management.
WRI Building Emissions
Building Emissions Impacts. Photo Credit: WRI

Why Does LEED Care About Energy Usage? 

Three Reasons. First, our homes cost money to operate. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the average US household spent almost $1,400 on energy in 2019. Our primary energy consumption is our demand for heating and cooling, ventilating, hot water, appliances, and lighting. 

Second, energy typically comes from burning fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change. The National Academy of Sciences says that residential energy use accounts for 20% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. 

And third, a home’s ability to use energy significantly impacts our comfort and quality of life. Think about how much we heat and cool our homes, how we rely upon our indoor lighting, power outlets, and Wi-Fi. What would we do without energy? Since most of us cannot (or do not want to) live without power, the LEED rating system encourages energy efficiency. Fun fact: the World Watch Institute ranks building energy efficiency as the number one most affordable way to cut emissions, compared to agriculture, industry, transport, and waste. 

What are the LEED Residential v4.1 Energy and Atmosphere Prerequisites?

I like to view the LEED prerequisites as best practices for any home builder. Consider the 16 (formerly 18, in prior versions of LEED) prerequisites. If you follow all of these, you will have a high-quality, healthy home that costs less to operate, is built to last, and has a smaller environmental footprint. The three prerequisites in the Energy and Atmosphere category are:

  1. Meet Minimum Energy Performance 
  2. Install energy meters in the home, and 
  3. Homeowner Education

What does the LEED Residential v4.1 Minimum Energy Performance Prerequisite Require?

This first LEED Residential v4.1 prerequisite intends to “improve the building’s overall energy performance and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.” Sounds simple, but what does that mean, and how do you accomplish this? There are three parts, detailed in the sections below:

  • ENERGY STAR for Homes
  • ENERGY STAR Appliances
  • Fully Ducted Ventilation
ENERGY STAR Certified Homes Silvergate Homes
ENERGY STAR Certified Homes. Photo Credit: Silvergate Homes


The first part can be tricky, as it entails meeting the requirements of ENERGY STAR for Homes, version 3. Most people think of ENERGY STAR for appliances, but entire homes can be ENERGY STAR certified too.

For LEED Residential v4.1, a home must meet the specified minimum efficiencies for the following:

  • cooling equipment
  • heating equipment
  • the tightness of a home’s envelope 
  • windows and doors
  • water heater
  • thermostat and ductwork
  • lighting, and
  • appliances. 

The efficiency levels required vary depending on where you live (your climate zone).  Complying with this prerequisite requires coordination among the homebuilder, the HVAC system designer or installer, and a “Rater”—a building professional who can help coordinate the entire process. To find a green rater in your area (either in the US or Canada), go to this page

Ultimately, you’re looking for a strong HERS rating to emerge from all the efficient technologies you have hopefully implemented. The better the HERS rating, the more energy-efficient the home, and the more money you’ll save. Studies have shown that it’s worth it. According to a 2016 ENERGY STAR study that covered various homes in different climates, the one-time upgrade costs range between $1,000 and $1,500. At the same time, houses realize a 20 to 25 percent savings—between $360 and $745 per year—on energy bills compared to that same home built to code. So, the upgrades pay off within a matter of a few years. And suppose the incremental upgrade costs get wrapped into the mortgage. In that case, the study shows that the homeowner sees a positive cash flow ranging between $23-$55 per month in every geographical location.  

For meeting the LEED requirements, hiring a green rater can cost a homeowner or builder around $1,000-$1,500, though that fee varies widely. 

Energy Star Fridge Homes by Highgate
Energy Star Fridge. Photo Credit: Homes by Highgate

ENERGY STAR Certified Appliances

The second component of meeting this first prerequisite is much simpler. At least one major appliance must be ENERGY STAR certified (or performance equivalent outside the US). Major appliances include the largest energy consumers in the house: refrigeratorsdishwashers, or clothes washers

This prerequisite is one of the most manageable requirements to meet. It is neither difficult nor more costly to purchase an ENERGY STAR appliance than other alternatives. (Of course, if you had not intended on buying any of these appliances, it indeed would be more expensive!)

Ductwork Installation

Fully Ducted Ventilation

The third part of this prerequisite requires that all duct runs be “fully ducted.” What does fully ducted mean? If you think about metal air ducts behind walls, that qualifies. Some builders use building cavities—such as the space between floor joists or wall cavities–instead of ductwork (typically made from aluminum or galvanized steel) to move air throughout the house. Most building codes do not allow this. According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, this is because using building cavities for return-air is one of the primary causes of duct leakage. Not only is this a waste of energy, but it can also cause reductions in indoor air quality. If your home is built to code, this should not be an issue. 

Why Does the LEED Residential v4.1 Require the Installation of Energy Meters?

The second LEED Residential v4.1 prerequisite requires that homeowners install whole-house energy meters—for electricity and gas, if applicable. The intent is to encourage energy efficiency by making sure homeowners have some awareness of their energy usage. Energy metering systems are comparable to some cars’ dashboards that show how our fuel consumption goes up and down with our driving habits. Energy meters can bring more visibility to our energy usage and help reduce it. 

Note that LEED requires an energy meter, which only shows total energy consumption. If you’re going to invest in metering, which can cost in the $200 range, you might as well go the extra mile and invest in a smart home energy monitor. These benefit from connecting with an app, which can more easily show where and how you are using your energy. 

The LEED language also encourages (but doesn’t force) homeowners to share energy usage data with the US Green Building Council. Imagine a national database of home energy usage that could help feed the MLS system to provide more information on homes for sale. It could also help people better understand their energy costs based on geographical and climatic differences and create benchmarks for energy competitions and challenges.\


What Are the Requirements of the LEED Residential v4.1 “Homeowner Education” Prerequisite?

The third LEED Residential v4.1 prerequisite related to energy is all about making sure the homeowner knows how to operate and maintain the home properly. As technologies have advanced, taking care of a house has become more complicated. One of the central tenets of a more sustainable home is sustaining its ability to perform over time. This ongoing maintenance covers topics like maintaining your refrigerator, keeping your dryer vents clean, or caring for wood window frames

Operations and Maintenance Manual

LEED requires that homeowners (or whoever is responsible for maintaining the home) receive an “Operations and Maintenance” manual. The binder needs to include everything about LEED certification, ENERGY STAR for Homes version 3, all product manufacturer manuals, guidance on how to use all of the installed equipment, and even advice on more personal choices such as cleaning supplieswater-efficient landscaping, options for purchasing green power, etc.  

Owner and Builder Walk Through

This third and final prerequisite in the Energy section also requires that the homeowner have a minimum one-hour walk-through with the builder (or whoever is most knowledgeable about operating the home). The walk-through must include identification of all installed equipment as well as how to use and maintain everything. 

Does this cost more? It shouldn’t cost more money unless your builder decides to charge you for that hour. It does take upfront time, though—but with a big reward: your home will last longer, and it will be more energy-efficient. 

Pool Cully/EEFAS
Pool in LEED Platinum Home Photo credit: Cully/EEFAS

What Are The Benefits of an Energy Efficient Home?

A more energy-efficient home has a multitude of benefits:

  • It will cost less to operate. 
  • It will be more comfortable: fewer drafts and leaks, more consistent air temperatures.
  • It will be healthier. Ensuring the house and ductwork is well sealed, and vents operate correctly will help protect your indoor air quality. 
  • It will have a smaller carbon footprint, contributing to the fight against climate change.

If you are pursuing LEED certification, it’s essential to follow these prerequisites. But even if you’re not pursuing LEED certification for your home, meeting these three prerequisites will pay off for decades - improving your health, your wealth, and the planet!   

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: 2024-01-31T18:34:30+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman