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Green Building Curmudgeon

Beautiful Simplicity

Envisioning a straightforward path to green building

Complying with most existing green building programs is complicated. Are there ways that the certification process can be simplified?
Image Credit: GBA

Back in 2010, I presented a case for simplifying green building certification. I was frustrated with the complexity of every green building program I was working in and felt there had to be a better path for builders and consultants to create and verify high-performance buildings.

Little did I know that eight years later I would be involved in several projects seeking similar simplification.

First steps to KISS (Keeping it Simple, Stupid)

My personal involvement in simplification came through a project my firm worked on for Pinewood Forest, a new community south of Atlanta. The developer’s goal is to create a sustainable community adjacent to Pinewood Atlanta Studios, one of largest movie studio complexes outside of California.

As part of their sustainability goal, they wanted to have all the homes “green building certified”; however, the participating builders were looking for something different from the available certification options. During a full-day charrette with the developers and key builders, after we reviewed the available green programs, a decision was made to create a custom green certification program for the project. Using elements from programs we work with, including EarthCraft House, NGBS, LEED, and Energy Star, we developed a simple prescriptive worksheet for each builder to use as a guide for their homes.

We agreed that builders needed a simple, easily interpreted system, eliminating options that were inappropriate or unlikely to be used in this climate or development. We achieved consensus from the builders on what techniques they would use, such as advanced framing, sealed or properly insulated vented attics, low-VOC finishes, etc. Meeting program requirements is not a big reach; rather, it is a way to simply codify reasonably high-performance construction in a way that is manageable in the often unwieldy home building industry. The local electric utility, Coweta-Fayette EMC, agreed to provide mid-construction and post-construction verification inspections.

We worked hard on managing the certification process, the result being a simple Excel workbook with 6 tabs, roughly in order of the construction process:

(1) A pre-construction checklist that lists each item that must be included in the project. This is for the builder to use for reference when buying out the project

(2) A rough inspection checklist identifying each item to be inspected prior to drywall installation. Broken down to work area (Attic, Walls, Ceilings, Floors, Crawl spaces, etc.), this can be used by the inspector to review each area of the project and confirm that all requirements are met, without going back to areas of the house multiple times to confirm each different requirement

(3) A final inspection checklist identifying each item to be inspected at completion. Similar to the rough inspection checklist, this is separated by building area to speed up the inspection process

(4) A blower door and ductwork checklist which includes targets for duct and envelope leakage and a place to list HVAC equipment details.

(5) A ventilation and HVAC sizing worksheet that includes a calculator for the whole-house ventilation rate and entries for HVAC design calculations and equipment capacities that determines if sizing is correct.

(6) A documentation and verification page listing all information the builder must supply to confirm that the project meets requirements (such as using non-invasive plants, finish and sealant VOC content, construction waste recycling, etc.).

There are no points and few options — just a straightforward path to a good building. It’s not groundbreaking, but it does provide guidance to builders on how to make their homes better and for inspectors to confirm the work is done correctly.

Although we have not been involved in the implementation of the program, we understand that it is being used and that the builders like it. For critics who will complain that this program doesn’t go far enough, keep in mind that Georgia is still on the 2009 IECC, and most homes barely meet even those requirements. The prescriptive nature and format of this approach can be changed to reflect any level of building performance — as was done with recently with EarthCraft.

Spreading the gospel

In the fall of 2017, soon after we finished our project for Pinewood Forest, EarthCraft, our regional green building program, held their annual Technical Advisor meeting. At that time, they entertained ideas about how they could update and improve their program.

We shared the program we had created as a suggested route to take, and it was well received. In early 2018, EarthCraft released their new single-family certification program worksheet based on our earlier work. (Note that the Excel file you download has disabled macros, so it isn’t fully functional. You can download the full worksheet at this link. Look for EarthCraft House Version 2.)

Currently in the pilot phase, the program is getting a good reception from builders, and we are certifying several homes through it.

Next on EarthCraft’s agenda is to update their multifamily, renovation, and other programs to bring them up to date — and, we hope, to maintain similar levels of simplicity.

On deck

As a task group member for the 2018 update of NGBS/ICC-700, I am currently involved in the development of a similar path for this program.

A small group of us worked diligently to come up with an appropriate list of prescriptive requirements for this program as an option to using the full scoring system. One key difference from my earlier experiences was the need to have options for all appropriate building components in each climate zone. Another difference from the Pinewood Forest and EarthCraft programs is that NGBS requires a code-language style document because it is a standard developed under the ANSI adoption process, scheduled for early 2019.

Assuming this alternate path is adopted as part of the Standard, it will be available for builders to use, or for any municipality to adopt as code. As the adopting agency for the standard, Home Innovation Labs will be responsible for creating a system for builders and verifiers to use to implement the program, as they have done for the program since the first version.

Currently, builders using the three programs we usually work with can choose from a total of over 1,500 points between them (EarthCraft: 355 points; NGBS: over 1,100 points; LEED for Homes: 110 points). By eliminating the use of points with the new EarthCraft program, we have trimmed the total available points in these three programs to about 1,200 points, and if the new NGBS program is approved, the only program requiring points will be LEED.

I look forward to the day when there are no points to worry about. I believe that having a simplified, streamlined path to high-performance building certification will continue to expand all certification programs, including NGBS, in the single-family arena.

Finally, U.S. Green Building Council will soon release version 4.1 of the LEED for Homes rating system. The new version is intended to streamline their certification process, and I look forward to seeing the results of this effort.

A long time coming

Looking back at my 2010 post, I was either prescient in visioning a simple certification system, or slow to come to the realization that it could be done. Regardless, I am hopeful that we are moving into a new era of green building that will lead to wider adoption through a simpler process.


  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    Simplicity does makes it better, but...
    IMO, this "points" programs have allow participants to used them to get marketing certifications at levels that are bellow codes, and the programs to collect fees, pay more consultants and make it more complicated. Its a racket! I stopped promoting those programs long a go for such reasons. I believe in the ZERH program where there are not points to get and builders can choose how to build a house as long as the meet a low 50s HERS score, a minimum ACH50 and ES certification, which is a lot less expensive. Obviously to make it ZER one needs to make the building envelope, appliances, lighting and water distribution as efficient as possible so renewable solutions are as small as possible.
    The proof is in the low amount of certifications to all programs to the amount of houses built in a year by the members of these programs, usually not even a 10%. Hopefully your efforts help inprove on that.

  2. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #2

    Agreed, Armando
    We do a lot of certification with all the "point" programs and there is a lot of gaming, as well as a lot of energy expended trying to figure out what to do and what not to do. I like simple prescriptive options - they should work for most projects, and if they don't builders can default back to more complex worksheets for unique situations. The Pinewood and EarthCraft programs don't go as far as ZER, but they are getting builders to step up the quality of their work significantly from typical practices. We're seeing better (and code complaint) insulation, air sealing, HVAC sizing and duct installation. Small, but important steps. Also, Georgia isn't moving to the 2015 IECC until 2020, and I expect that enforcement will be spotty at best even when the new code is in place, so we have to rely on 3rd party programs to step up the quality of work.

  3. ohioandy | | #3

    the value of programs
    Carl, this sounds like a great step forward. As a builder who has pushed a project through LEED for Homes, I am the first to gripe about the points and the gaming. But, I have tremendous respect for what these groundbreaking programs have achieved. The points schemes seem tiresome, but they've served from the beginning to be a rigorous and visionary standard to challenge our building codes, our builders, and our clients. They're imperfect, but at the same time they were structured to be continuously improved; LEED will have succeeded when it becomes irrelevant.

  4. leighadickens | | #4

    pros and cons of points vs checklists
    this, jokingly, makes me think of this comic:

    But, humor aside, I understand why the different programs have developed as they have--different visions and goals (and end users) are involved, as well as the random rules of what gains traction where. Here in Western North Carolina I see many builders having moved to Green Built NC, our own, local program that has a development story similar to early EarthCraft, because of the simplicity (though it's still a points based system, it requires Energy Star as a baseline, which is not points based, so it's a mix.) I've noticed that when you're lucky enough like I am to do much work in a market where green building certification is popular enough to have gotten some appraisal/resale value traction, it's more successful in terms of client recognition of the program and even appraiser/real estate recognition to use the program that's most often been used in that market already. Easier to get subs who are used to the program, as well.

    Complexity and confusion is one of the biggest reasons I'm still up against in the custom home sector for homeowners who say they want a green building to nonetheless decide not to do any green certifications at all. Bot the complexity of the program itself (the LEED for Homes checklist has run many an aspiring project off) and the sheer number of program options out there to wade through and decide between if you're not not in a market where one has come to dominate (and associated acronyms to try to understand), when homeowners and some builders only somewhat understand what a green building program even means, much less possess the bandwidth when processing their new dream home to try to to understand the differences and which one is right for them.

    I do tend to prefer checklist based systems myself---typically easier to understand, usually simpler, and results are more consistent, but I see the pros and cons to both approaches. The one thing gong for points based systems is evident in the custom home world that I mostly play in, (as opposed to the spec world, where a builder can pick a program and exercise full control in the design and selections process to comply with it): the variable of having the client with their preconceived dreams and ideas to have to work around. Sometimes even those clients who seem fully on board with green certification, who come to you because you do it and who claim to highly value it, have some design goal or selection choice they've made that they are very attached to, to that happens to violate something in a green building program. Sometimes you can convince them that design goal or selection is not a good idea and here's why and here's an alternative that complies with the green program, sometimes, the client heart wants what the client heart wants, and when that means the client has to choose between the real but ultimately somewhat nebulous value of green program they ultimately don't really understand that much, and their heart's can guess which one wins. Points based programs sometimes give more ability to recover from that somewhere else in the project, and since they still force better practices overall even if you end up just choosing to do them in some areas, and you still have the benefits of third party verification and usually some performance testing, you still get a better house out it than if there were no certification.

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