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LEED location and transportation

LEED for Homes 101: Location and Transportation

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Apr 24, 2019

In last month’s From the Editor column, I provided an introduction to LEED for Homes—a “LEED for Homes 101”—as the basis for understanding the most recognized green building rating system for homes in the world. There are other very worthwhile building standards, but LEED has been adopted in the marketplace more than any other. 

The following eight areas will take you through each of the eight categories of sustainable design, starting with Location and Transportation, focusing on the broader implications of costs and benefits. I am a LEED Accredited Professional, have LEED Gold certified my own house, and led the LEED certification of many commercial buildings. Think of it as a translation of the 105-page PDF full of technical jargon. It is important to note that this column is addressing single-family homes, not multi-family high rises. The LEED rating system addresses both, but there are many different criteria and caveats for multi-family developments.

The overall goal of the category Location & Transportation is to locate your house where it makes sense. Near where you work and play, and not on land that is not suitable for housing development. With one prerequisite and four credits, this category is worth 15 points. Meaning it is the third most crucial category, behind Energy and Atmosphere (worth 38 points) and Indoor Environmental Air Quality (worth 16 points). Here are the five components.

1. Avoid Floodplains (Prerequisite)

The only prerequisite is that you cannot locate your house on a floodplain. That makes perfect sense; why would you want your home somewhere that it might flood? How would you know? In the United States, the definition of “floodplain” is determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which designates areas as “100-year floodplains.” FEMA provides a floodplain map to comply with this prerequisite, where you can enter your address and see if you are out of luck. 

The issue? The actual definition of floodplains and the probability that your location will flood changes over time—due to weather, levees, etc. There is not a lot the LEED rating system can do to protect a homeowner from flood risk. Homebuilders and homeowners need to be aware of this prerequisite. And there is one loophole: if you build on a previously developed site, you are exempt (but might still be out of luck).

2. Site Selection (worth 8 points)

The most significant component of this category, Site Selection, involves choosing “environmentally preferable locations and avoiding the development of sensitive lands.” What does that mean? 

Sensitive Land Protection

If you are building or renovating a previously developed home site, you are golden because that means the infrastructure needed to support your home. Water and sewer lines, electricity lines, gas lines, roads, etc.—have already been developed. This will save you from having to invest significantly more money to build that infrastructure unless you are going for an off-grid house and not planning on needing that infrastructure. The specific LEED criterion is that at least 75% of the land you build on must be previously developed; this will give you four points.

If you are not building on previously developed land, there are more constraints about not building on what is considered “sensitive” land:

  • Prime farmland
  • Parkland
  • Floodplains (which seems redundant to the prerequisite above)
  • Wetlands
  • Within 100 feet (30 meters) of bodies of water, or
  • Land identified as habitat for threatened or endangered species (as determined by an endangered species act).

If you meet these criteria—not too tricky, and it shouldn’t cost you more—your project earns three points. And, if you develop on a site that is within ½ mile (800 meters) of a previously developed site (termed “Infill Development”), you can earn another two points.

Open Space

Are you near a park or open space? Studies have shown that being outside in nature provides significant health benefits. According to Science Daily, “exposure to green space reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.” Spending time outdoors has even become a prescription for health—a “nature pill”—that has decreased cortisol levels, the stress hormone. 

The LEED rating system recognizes this and rewards projects with one point for being within a ½ mile (800 meters) of a publicly accessible open or green space that is at least ¾ acre. 

Would this point cost more? Depending on the neighborhood, home values could be higher the closer you get to great parks.

Street Network

This component of Site Selection is slightly complicated in terms of calculating. It is still worthwhile if you are located in a densely populated area and are hunting for more points. You first have to get a map and draw a circle around your property, where the radius is ¼ mile (400 meters). This will get you to about one square mile around your home. Then, you need to count the number of street and sidewalk intersections within that circle. For one point, you have to keep counting until you get to 90. Gated areas, bodies of water, and cul-de-sacs/dead-ends are excluded. The LEED rating system encourages higher density living and development.

Bicycle Network and Storage

There is a common theme in this section: access to modes of transportation other than single-occupancy vehicles is better for the planet—and your health. A project can earn one point if your house is located within 200 yards of a bicycle network that connects to and is within 3 miles of:

  • At least ten community resources (see number 4 below)
  • A school or employment center, or
  • Public transportation stations such as bus stops or light rail

To achieve this point, you also must have a place to store your bicycle. Any single-family home with an enclosed garage meets the criteria for “bicycle storage.” If a house does not have a garage, it can still easily meet this requirement.

Creative bike storage idea courtesy of Not a Paper House

bike storage staircase
Creative bike storage idea courtesy of Not a Paper House

3. Compact Development (worth 3 points)

Do you want to live close to your neighbor? The only way to get even one point here is to live in a neighborhood with at least seven housing units per acre (17 per hectare) of buildable land. If that density level goes up to 20 units per acre (50 per hectare), you can get three points. For context, that means the average lot size in your neighborhood cannot exceed 0.143 acres. The median lot size for new single-family homes in the U.S. was 0.19 acres in 2015, with quite a bit of regional variability. So basically, your house and all of your neighbors’ homes need to be on a small lot. 

This credit intends to promote more compact development to conserve land and encourage walking communities. Buying a smaller piece of land can undoubtedly save you money upfront and save ongoing expenses of property taxes, yard, snow, and landscape maintenance. And maybe you’ll like your neighbors!

4. Access to Community Resources (worth 2 points)

You can get one LEED point for being within ½ mile (800 meters) walking distance of at least four “community resources” (for two points, you need to be within 12). Community resources include what you might expect: locations you would want to be near: a grocery store, pharmacy, clothing store, bank, dry cleaner, restaurant, health club, salon, place of worship, post office, public library, medical clinic, school, childcare facility, recreation center, etc.

The intent might be obvious: encourage bicycling or walking to do your errands. Even if you depend on an automobile, being within ½ mile of these resources will reduce your transportation requirements—and save you time and money on fuel. These points could cost you more: typically, land and home values near these community resources tend to be higher.

5. Access to Transit (worth 2 points)

Reducing the need for your car for transportation is the continued theme here. Your home should be within ½ mile (800 meters) walking distance of bus rapid transit stops, light rail, heavy rail, or ferry terminals. If it’s a regular transit stop, you need to be within ¼ mile. What’s more, these stops must have a frequency of at least 72 daily trips during the weekday.

Again, you may pay more to be near such high-frequency public transportation, but the idea is to save money, energy, and time. This credit also encourages higher density living, one of the central tenets critical to a more sustainable society.

Bottom Line

The location of your home may have the most significant impact on your overall health, happiness, and the planet. So choose wisely. If the location you select is near parks, great outdoor spaces, and many community resources, you may indeed pay more. But your health and your pocketbook will be better off the entire time you live there—and that value will remain when you end up selling your home. Remember, real estate agent's mantra: location, location, location! It has an immeasurable impact.

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: 2021-11-30T14:41:40+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman