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.).
â€¨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.
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.