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Green Building Curmudgeon

Green Building Programs: Time for a Do-Over?

Why is it that the things I care so much about are now making me so crazy?

The current unrest in the green home certification industry is driving me and many of my associates a little crazy. Maybe it's a conspiracy? Wouldn't you be paranoid, too, if the whole world was out to get you?

I’ve been involved with green building certification programs for about 10 years now, starting with my work with Southface and the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association in developing the EarthCraft Renovation program. Since then, I have become a HERS rater, an NAHB verifier, a LEED Green Rater, a BPI Building Analyst, an EarthCraft Technical Advisor, a Green Communities Technical Advisor, and a Building America Builders Challenge verifier (I don’t think I left anything out). In these various capacities, I have certified many single- and multifamily units under most of these programs and, until recently, felt pretty comfortable managing them and explaining the various—and sometimes conflicting—requirements of each to my clients. While I was aware that there were some changes on the horizon, it seems that the upcoming changes in ENERGY STAR and the ripple effect through other programs have taken myself and most others in the industry somewhat off our games.

What’s the schedule?

ENERGY STAR versions 2.5 and 3 have been in the pipeline for a while, and although I have been keeping up with them in theory, I have not yet taken the time to sit down and go through them in detail, nor have I yet taken the two-day required class for raters. The raters I have spoken to who have taken this class seem to be a frustrated bunch, many having only recently entered the industry looking for a new source of income. The general impression is that the new versions will likely lower the number of builders seeking certification—not good news for the rating industry and the thousands of newly trained professionals looking for business opportunities.

I believe it is important to raise the level of performance of our buildings, but the complexity of the new ENERGY STAR, as well as many other certification programs, deserves some reconsideration. LEED for Homes, scheduled for a new version release in late 2012, has not yet shared publicly how the program will relate to ENERGY STAR Version 3, nor has the NAHB Research Center said anything publicly on the subject that I am aware of. EarthCraft House is scheduled to release a new version in March 2011 that will, hopefully, clarify some of the confusion. Right now it is a challenge to know how much work will be involved in certifying future projects, making it hard to provide pricing to potential clients. It’s enough to drive a rater crazy.

I don’t need any stinking consensus

It seems to always be a big deal that many of these green programs were developed by “consensus,” supposedly leading to the best outcome, but I fear that I must disagree with this opinion. We need to only take a look at our dysfunctional legislative bodies to see just how effective (or ineffective) we can be when trying to come to a consensus. When we look at things realistically, there are lots of constituencies involved in green programs, each one having its own goals to work toward, everyone compromising, until we end up with something that ultimately pleases very few people and leaves everyone else feeling slightly abused. I do not come to this opinion from experience; rather, mostly as an outside observer of the various committees assembled to create these standards. I am willing to listen to anyone’s opinion to the contrary. While I don’t know that there is necessarily any better way to create a program, I don’t believe that the consensus model (or muddle) brings us the best product. Rather, it brings us one that offends the smallest number of people.

Eschew obfuscation

One of my favorite pieces of graffiti—“eschew obfuscation,” which I translate to “avoid overcomplication”—is something I would like to see all the various and sundry green certification programs take as their mission statements. Unfortunately, “overcomplicated” seems to be the key to most programs. If it’s not a long checklist like the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) or EarthCraft House, it’s a dense, interpretation-heavy spreadsheet like LEED for Homes. Even ENERGY STAR, which in Version 2 was pretty straightforward, seems to have become obfuscated, at least for the time being, in Version 3.

I’m not sure if there is a better model out there, but I believe, deep down, that there must be a better way. I have always had a theory that compared to a democracy, a benevolent dictatorship (if the dictator was truly benevolent) might be a better system to live under. I get so disgusted by politicians; I think that anyone who aspires to public office should be denied the opportunity. Some as yet unnamed higher power should just appoint people based on merit, with no opportunity for them to decline. I realize that I am being totally delusional, but it’s my blog and I can write what I want, and you’re reading it anyway.

So why can’t we just pick the smartest people, sit them down, and tell them to put together the most effective, simplest, and least expensive green building program? If we pick (or someone from above chooses) the right people, we might end up with something that doesn’t continue to drive us crazy. I’m just sayin’.


  1. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #1

    Now this is amusing
    The same week this is posted, I am invited to be part of one of the task groups of the Consensus Committee for the update of the National Green Building Standard! Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I will not be able to be there as I will be in mortal combat with Michael Anschel at ACI in San Francisco.

  2. Natur Haus | | #2

    Amen Carl!
    The thing about these programs is that they haven't converted the non-believers(unlike totalitarianism). Everyone who is building to these standards would be (and are) doing so even without the programs, and the non-believers following in code compliancy. So, why pick the pockets of those doing the right thing? The content , not the label, should be what counts, and the ones with the content don't really need the label. I have been building to high level LEED(and etc;) for years without "someone" telling me I'm doing it right. We should be enforcing penalties for the lack of better building methods and strategies, then we would really see an increase in homes built to greener standards.

  3. user-944200 | | #3

    My relationship
    This article just summed up my love/hate relationship with these Green/Energy Programs. What do you think of this approach? I'm a small 20-30 Production builder. I'm want to implement our own program not written by bureaucrats and I control. I plan on marketing the HERS score, energy savings and our green practices. The HERS score has it own line item on the MLS pages and it is the easiest to educate the concept of the score. Our rater will drop his price significantly to eliminate the ES,LEED, NAHBGrn paper work and he will just model and do the end testing. I just feel these programs are only as good as how much you market the brand name and when was the last time you saw Energy Star, LEED or any other program market themselves? They all need to be taught to the prospected buyer. We will educate 10 fold and market our own brand. Most importantly we will able to do as much or as little depending on environment and specs we are building in at that time. I'm the estimator, purchaser and superintendent and this part of it is the only function that has my head spinning at all times. It is time for a change for us and this will greatly lower our cost and feel we'll be able to promote a whole lot more of the green practices that are not currently recognized by some these programs. Thanks and I enjoy your blogs.

  4. EJ Palma | | #4

    Carl, I applaud your straight
    Carl, I applaud your straight forward delivery of the realities and myths of rating programs. Your decade of training and implementation of these programs gives real life credibility and insight to your observations. As Matthew and Rich so aptly explained in their comments, should it not be about the personal ethics and consistent quality of the product that one designs and builds. Building an energy efficient, environmentally and client friendly green home evolves from the commitment of the designer and builder coupled with the needs and support of the client. It is very evident to any of us familiar with these programs that it is all about marketing and market share to the larger bureaucratic entities. The smaller local programs are more beneficial to the public and are excluded from the list. As a builder I have been involved in energy efficient quality construction, retrofitting, and weatherization of existing homes for thirty years so I totally agree with Matt and Rich. In general none of these rating programs have addressed the existing building stock until recently, and it is a weak gesture to boot. New homes can easily be built to high efficiency details and quality if the designers and builders dedicate themselves to that commitment. They will always be able to find clients that can afford these kinds of homes and the renewable technologies that are included. But the quality and potential energy efficiency of the existing building stock is where the impact can and will be the felt on the greatest levels. It is also the demographic that has the greatest need for the beneficial effects of energy efficiency, renewable technologies and green building. All of these programs cater to the needs of a specific demographic because certification is expensive. Most existing home builders, remodelers and renovators need to be convinced that they and subsequently their clients will benefit from this. As the saying goes, "follow the money", which is the primary driving force. A more pragmatic approach (and most would feel that I'm completely wacked out for this idea) would be to offer the certification for free or as a minimal fee to the designer and builder, and pay the raters directly from the bureaucracy as support professionals. That would never happen because it would drastically reduce the cash flow of the USGBC, and other entities like them. For all of the good that they all have done promoting green building , their primary goal is to make money and control market share. They are doing quite well on that level, while the general public still is not on board for the ride (you know me and social justice). When we can read about the actual performance statistics of Energy Star homes which are really not that impressive it becomes almost laughable. With the upgrade and stringency of the building and energy codes, and better enforcement procedures many so called baseline builders of homes are producing more energy efficient and quality built homes. More builders involved with existing housing are remodeling and retrofitting to higher efficiency standards also. As a building official for 21 years I have inspected new Energy Star homes, new baseline homes, and existing renovations for code compliance. I have found builders and designers of all three categories who do not understand proper orientation to the sun or even know how to use a simple compass or understand what magnetic variation is in regards to proper orientation.. Yet many of the new projects are Energy Star certified. I do believe that we need strict prescriptive standards for construction, in order to increase the energy efficiency of new and existing homes and commercial buildings. If all of these rating programs can be simplified, offer economical certification fees, and work with each other on universal standards for compliance I believe that would make them more attractive. The bottom line is commitment to the ethics and standards of green building and design by all the professionals and tradesmen involved, and a public that is included and educated to understand the benefits of their commitment to purchasing or renovating homes to these standards. With the adaptation and enforcement of the 2009 & 2012 International Green Construction code, 2009 & 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, 2008 and better National Green Standard ICC 700, and the 2009 & 2012 International Residential Code, energy efficiency standards, quality construction standards and green building standards in residential buildings will become better due to the enforcement of the standards. Where will that leave the high priced corporate green bureaucracies that are in control now? Only time will tell.

  5. kevin_in_denver | | #5

    HERS on the MLS

    I think you're on the right track... HERS is the rating system that is understandable, repeatable and lets us compare apples to apples.

    HERS on the MLS is huge, but only a small percentage of realtors and homebuyers can grasp it quickly enough for it to affect their decisions.

    As I've been saying, only a HERS score converted to Dollars Per Year will get the message understood by the marketplace.

    There a several builders now doing their own conversion:

    All the other ratings are quickly sliding to irrelevance.

  6. qPs599BSFH | | #6

    Eschew obfuscation
    I love the idea of keeping it simple.

    Performance based option.
    - metered energy use is 50% less energy than 2003 CBECS average of a 2,000 sf home based on region.
    - 500 people/ sq. mile population density by ZIP code and census data.
    - Exterior lights shall be cutoff type.

    Or if you want precriptive rather than performance based strategy.
    - Building no larger than 2,000 sf.
    - R-XX Roof insulation
    - R-YY Wall insulation
    - Max ZZ% wall area is windows. Specify window performance.
    - No incandescent lighting.
    - Energy Star appliances.
    - 500 people/ sq. mile population density by ZIP code and census data.
    - Exterior lights shall be cutoff type.

    It's not earth shattering but I think it will out perform most of these standards. It's simple. And should avoid 6,000 sf McMansions from claiming how energy efficient they are.

    I decided to removed my own recommended R-values for the insulation since all of you know more then I do about home construction. My initial thought was 50/30 for the roof and walls but I'm sure many will disagree. Just wanted to focus on the simplicity and not the numbers.

  7. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #7

    Need to Think Beyond Energy
    I appreciate all the comments, and the simplicity of either using the HERS index or a basic prescriptive path and building size does address energy but does not include important issues like location, water efficiency, material use, etc, all of which add complications. While I like the idea of simplicity, and I believe that it is physically possible to create a green building program that is truly simple, I am not sure that as an industry we have the will to accomplish it, so I am resigned to working with what we have for the foreseeable future.

  8. kim_shanahan | | #8

    benevalent dictators
    Holladay, Wilson, Gibson, Seville, Listuburek, Yost, Chandler, et al. Change the website from Green Building Advisor to Green Building Politburo and come up with the simple formula you say you desire. You know that is what you want and what we need. Why else have you spent so much time filling your heads with more information than any of the rest of us can ever hope to absorb. Narrow the consensus building group and git 'er done!

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Kim
    I'm the guy who wants to give labels (maybe the labels can have Five Gold Sustainability Stars) to anyone in the world why didn't build a new building during the last ten years. You get a demerit if you build a building -- no label for you.

    So I'm probably not the guy to join the new Politburo.

  10. Jeff_Gephart | | #10

    With many years in the trenches implementing the programs you mention I have more crudely advocated for program simplicity. Those around me I'm sure are sick of hearing me ask if a procedure or system conforms to the KISS principle, "keep it simple stupid". I attended an EPA/HUD Lead RRP training just yesterday and have to wonder whether the procedures to be followed for notification, verifying compliance, and record keeping will just drive more business to uncertified fly-by-night firms who don't do the right thing when renovating and economically undercut their responsible competition.

    I'm not saying building to the Passive House standard is easy, especially in Vermont, but it sure is a breath of fresh air to see a program that is so clearly focused and unincumbered by extensive paperwork. I grant that Passive House doesn't formally address all the components and choices that other green building certifications address via checklists or point systems; however, PH instructors and consultants I've met seem well versed and committed to improving the sustainablility of their buildings.

    I will also chime in in agreement with how important it is to get HERS scores into the MLS system. Only after our populace (and particularly the other important market actors: realtors, appraisers, and lenders) is finally aware of and routinely looking for that information do I think there is a chance of greater understanding of the more complex rating systems.

  11. user-991187 | | #11

    Challenging adventure
    I'm just beginning a challenging phase of my life as a real estate broker specializing in green homes in the Seattle area. I'm BPI certified, have gone through the LEED AP class, and have been an avid green home follower for years so I'm quite familiar with green home topics. Our MLS doesn't include a HERS rating field, but it does include an Environmental Certification field in which an agent can add Energy Star, LEED, BuiltGreen (our local program through the MBA), Third Party Verification, and Other. I'm finding that many agents have no idea what these labels mean and even stand for. Agents will include the Energy Star simply when there is one Energy Star appliance in the home, and will market certified homes without having any knowledge of what caused it to be certified. Developers of new homes won't even include a list of green features at their model homes. So, the promotion of green homes to buyers (and RE agents), at least in this area, is like teaching a baby to walk when it's barely crawling.

    I do believe that an EPS system will take effect here eventually, and feel that once that takes place, the word 'green home' will become a thing of the past as the codes are rewritten to require the higher standards.

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