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Green Building Curmudgeon

How to Cheat* at LEED for Homes

The road to green certification is paved with low-hanging fruit. This cheat sheet with 22 shortcuts will get you to LEED certification without a lot of trouble.

LEED for Homes is not a program for the faint of heart, but with some good planning the process is manageable and achieving certification is easy.

The subject of many of my talks, as well as a chapter in the upcoming green building textbook I am co-authoring is the concept of “Green From the Start.”

I realize this isn’t all that original, but it is critically important and is always worth repeating, at least until everyone understands and actually does it – then I suppose we can all shut up and go home.

Getting green certification begins with looking at the checklist and planning a design strategy. Sure, you can go the hard route and aim for full credits on every item on the checklist, but for those just trying to dip their toe in the green building pool, this isn’t practical.

Instead, pick up as many points as you can by doing the easy stuff. While this isn’t technically cheating, it will feel like it because many of these things are things that quality builders do already.

In (roughly) the order that they appear on the LEED checklist, here are 22 simple things you can do to get up to _70 points_ on your project.

1. Build a smaller home/call everything a bedroom. Keeping your house below the neutral score for homes of 1900 SF with three bedrooms
will lower the total number of points you need. If your house is big, make sure you have lots of rooms that can be classified as bedrooms to offset the point penalty for larger homes. A bedroom is classified as any room that can be used for sleeping that meets fire and building code requirements. Who needs hallways when you can have more bedrooms?

2. Build near transit, stores, schools, etc. Considering that transportation energy is almost always more than site energy, this one gets some real-world results. Points for infill projects
, homes built on previously developed land, built near existing water and sewer service and near open space all gain points. Up to 10 points are available for location credits.

3. Use less wood. Building with advanced framing techniques is not hard, saves money, makes buildings more efficient, and provides points. Just do it and grab up to 3 points.

4. Build a duplex. High density development is tough to do for custom single family homes, but easy for multifamily projects
. Build on a 1/7 acre (or smaller) lot and get 2 points. Twenty or more units
per acre gets you 4 points.

5. Model your building. Get your rater to do an energy model (HERS Rating) on your project early in the process and play around with different options to make it more efficient. You may find that putting a little more insulation and a smaller HVAC system is cheaper and will get you more points. While it’s tough to approach the 0 HERS score that gets you 34 points, a HERS 70 is not that tough and gets you either 9.5 or 13 points, depending on your climate zone.

6. Leave out the fireplace — get 2 points. No one really needs one anyway, do they?

7. Leave the garage out back. Build a detached garage
, add a breezeway if your clients are afraid of getting wet, and get 3 points.

8. Get your LEED AP Homes designation, or have someone on your team get their LEED
AP Homes designation (regular AP designations don’t qualify) and pick up one easy point.

9. Use your Green Rater. You have to put together the durability management checklist anyway, and if you have your rater independently verify it you get 3 points. This may take a little extra work coordinating schedules and providing some photo-documentation, but it gets you a lot of points for the effort.

10. Don’t poison bugs. Design and build to keep those pesky termites at bay without poisoning
your clients, get up to 2 points.

11. Be stingy with outside water use. If you’re putting in irrigation
, you get up to 3 points for including some simple water efficiency measures.

12. Be stingy with interior water use. Install one efficient showerhead (just one!) per stall, high efficiency toilets
and lavatories (all of them) and get 6 points. Doh!

13. Insulate the hot water pipes — get a point.

14. Use green products and materials. Tracking Environmentally Preferred Products
is kind of an administrative nightmare, but you can pick up as many as 8 points for things like finger-jointed studs, fly ash in concrete, PEX pipe, locally sourced products (within 500 miles), no carpet, and low-VOC paints.

15. Recycle. If there are companies that recycle construction waste
in your area, hire them. You’ll probably save money and pick up as many as 3 points.

16. Three words: Automatic Bath Fans.
Install timers, motion sensors, or buy fans with auto off or humidistat controls for your bathrooms and pick up a point.

17. Upgrade the HVAC filters. You have to put in a minimum of MERV 8 HVAC filters
, so why not upgrade to a 10 or 13 and pick up 1 or 2 more points for not much cost or effort.

18. Take off your shoes. Install a bench
and shelves for shoe storage at the main entry, add one point.

19. Make vacuuming easy. Install a central vacuum system, get another point.

20. Air out the house for at least 48 hours before occupancy. It’s a good idea and an easy point.

21. Vent the soil gasses . If you’re not in a radon risk zone, it’s still a good idea to put in a soil gas vent
system and you get to take a point for not much effort.

22. Brag about your green-ness. Put up a LEED for Homes sign, stick a few pages on your website
about LEED, get an article published, hold four open houses. Pick three and you get a point. These are all good marketing practices and will help you get more business.

OK, class, I think I’ve given you enough for you to digest for today. Your assignment is, based on what you just learned, to look at a recent project you either certified, or thought about certifying, and note where you missed some easy points. Now you know how to pick up those points on the next project. Next time we will discuss the really tough credits to get, the secret credits, prerequisites, and how to handle your documentation.

*No, that title wasn’t my idea. It was my damned editor’s. But I got paid, and you read the article, right?


  1. VJyid7azGL | | #1

    You crack me up
    I love your curmudgeonness Carl. You actually have just provided the most practical, and helpful tool that the average builder could find. Well done.

  2. JFink | | #2

    Great article, thanks Carl.
    Great article, thanks Carl.

  3. doug_horgan | | #3

    EPPs are tough
    Great idea for a column.
    I know you already qualified that Environmentally Preferred Products are a lot of work to track, but I would say it goes beyond that--a couple I tried to verify were not possible. The manufacturers coudln't tell us the content, or whether all the materials came from within our 500-mile circle, so it was simply not achieveable in some cases--which we only realized after spending hours contacting people all the way up the supply chain.
    So these points are doable in some cases, but don't strike me as part of the easy list, unless you're going hyperlocal like a sawmill down the road kind of thing.

  4. Ann Edminster | | #4

    Well done, Carl. Just a few minor comments, using your strategy numbers:

    1. The point of more rooms that can pass for bedrooms is that they can, well, pass for bedrooms! The more people a given area or volume can accommodate, the more efficient the home is at its basic job of housing people.

    9. Use your HERS rater, too, and pick up more points for optional onsite verifications like checking supply and exhaust air flow.

    11. Incorporate even MORE of these efficient irrigation measures and count the excess (up to 4 more @ 1/2 point each for 2 points) in ID3. Minimize lawn area and plant natives and climate-appropriate plants (reducing maintenance at the same time), and pick up as many as 7 points in SS2.

    14. In response to Douglas's comments, just as there is low-hanging fruit in the LEED for Homes system as a whole, there is low-hanging fruit among the EPPs. Hmmm ... maybe I should do a companion blog!

    Carl, really, I'm disappointed, though. This isn't up to your usual standard of curmudgeonliness. Why, this is almost NON-curmudgeonly!! Buck up, man!

  5. c8yrKZBcMQ | | #5

    None of this is cheating!!
    Carl -

    This blog is completely reasonable, and not curmudgeonly at all. A list of simple strategies that can help build a better home.

    I'm so proud of you!


  6. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #6

    Thanks for the comments
    Sorry to not be as curmudgeonly as usual in this particular post. I will try to do better in the future. Ann - look out for the 2nd and final post in this series, I think I cover the other items you bring up. And to everyone, the "cheating" referred to in the title, as noted at the bottom of the post, was at my editor's insistence, it wasn't my decision. He was looking for some controversy (and attention), and hopefully he got it.

  7. greenduck72 | | #7

    I just hope people read the article. The content is wise and absolutely shows that the LEED system understands all the good up-front decisions for greener and smarter homes. "Cheating" in this case is absolutely not - it is following the aspects of the system that make the most sense overall, first, and applying those to the entire process of planning and construction.

    I am sad that the title makes it sound like LEED for Homes is superficial, and can and should be "cheated". I don't like your editors' choice!

  8. kz3TF5gNme | | #8

    Very Tack Title Carl (since you put your name in the article)
    As a Commerial LEED AP, I find this very tacky. is encouraging cheating on LEED.
    What's next? "How to cheat on your taxes". LEED is a great "Best Practices" program. Give it some respect.

  9. catclawd | | #9

    Cheating on LEED Cklist.
    These ideas are not cheating. How about educating the owner and get a point. No Cost to the Contr. Manuals are from the mfgr. and passed on by the Contr. Great PR move on the part of the Contr. Some points need to be scored easy. If only LEED Cert. is scored on get 100 or no Cert.; how many Contrs. would be willing to do it.

    Licensed Michigan GC.

  10. E4CBT2ws7j | | #10

    lighten up LEED APs
    If you haven't noticed most of GBA's content pertains to residential construction, so flexing your muscles as a "commercial LEED AP" establishes little credibility. The truth is USGBC does a better job of giving folks alphabet soup to put behind their names then they do actually transforming the residential construction market toward high performance homes. Carl is simply making light of the fact that LEED H has a few straight forward, common sense, low hanging fruit points that should be integrated in most projects - now if they could do something with the other 90% of the program. Take a joke.

  11. ecdunn | | #11

    Even more of a crumudgon
    Too bad LEED does not give more points for using brooms, rather than a central vacuum or for letting the yard go natural instead of installing an irrigation system. LEED often encourages folks to put in more stuff that is not really needed.

    Less stuff is green!

  12. user-659915 | | #12

    'nother curmudgeon here
    Good point Ed. It strikes me as odd - and anti-social - that LEED encourages a few millipars of personal IAQ at the general environmental cost of an extra houseful of PVC pipe. And that you get more points for putting in two kinds of landscape irrigation than you do for just one.

  13. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #13

    Keep an eye out for next post
    The 2nd half of this series should be up shortly. You'll learn about some of the more obtuse and obscure credits in the program along with some hints about hidden points. To Mr. Commercial LEED AP - lighten up. If you haven't read my other posts, please do. I aim to both entertain and inform readers about green building and much of the absurdity out there in certification programs and the industry as a whole. To Ed and James - good points about less is more, but Radon is a risk and the dollar cost and overall impact of preparing for the worst is, in my opinion worth is. As to central vacuum systems, I suppose that we would all be better off if we used non-electric equipment to clean our homes, but if you are going to use a vacuum, central units are much healthier and work better than most portable units. If you don't have any carpet and little upholstery, I suppose you wouldn't need to vacuum much if at all. But if you've never had an electric dustpan accessory for your central vac system, you haven't lived.

  14. Z3Gb5dypUG | | #14

    response to cva builder
    LEED for Homes is not much different than Commercial LEED. It follows the same building blocks to achieve points (and has the low- hanging fruit). Its a concensus based aproach (which includes builders too) and its the best thing out there in encouraging best practices in multiple areas. If you don't like what USGBC is doing, then join your local chapter and get involved. I take my cridential seriously, work on LEED Homes, and do get involved with my local USGBC Chapter.

  15. WhbdbnvAQq | | #15

    LEED Homes and NAHB Green Homes Program
    So, what's the difference between LEED Homes and the NAHB's Green Homes program. Fomr my understanding, not much even as an NAHB Green Verifier. Except that you can get money back for building Green through the NAHB's prgram ($5125 to be exact!) So, many of the principles are common sense and make sense or Cents! We are one of the richest countries in the World but have ot have a program to promote all of these conservation principles. What happens when we contaminate our water supply? Then what? Water already costs more per gallon than diesel or gasoline! So, what's next?

  16. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Jim Coler
    Where do you buy your diesel and gasoline? You said that "Water already costs more per gallon than diesel or gasoline."

    "A family of four using 100 gallons per person each day [12,000 gallons per month] will pay on average $32.93 a month in Las Vegas [0.27 cents per gallon] compared to $72.95 for the same amount in Atlanta [0.6 cents per gallon]."

    I want to know where I can buy gasoline for less than a penny a gallon!

  17. WhbdbnvAQq | | #17

    Bottled Water is what I was talking about!
    Martin, Bottled water is what I was talking about. It's sad to see so many people out there buying water for $1 a bottle when it is only worth about $.06 cents as stated! I agree with tap water being more economical but bottled water is more than diesel and gasoline! It's a fact - when paying $1 for a pint of water, that's $8 per gallon! That's more expensive than diesel or gasoline in most third world countries but sometimes just as rare!
    ~Jim Coler

  18. Joe_Bob | | #18

    question about #17 HVAC filters
    The projects I have pursued LEED certification for have all been commercial. What I have been told by the mechanical engineers I work with is that you can't just plop MERV 13 filters into an air handler. The higher the MERV rating, the harder it is to push air through the filter, so the fan has to be sized accordingly. Higher MERV = bigger fan. (Bigger fan also means more energy use, but that's another credit.)

    Is this a concern with a residential forced air system? Or do they typically have excess fan power such that a MERV 13 filter wouldn't cause issues? Unless I could somehow verify that this wouldn't be a problem I would worry about weak air delivery at diffusers remote from the furnace.

  19. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #19

    Joseph - All filters create some static pressure that must be accounted for in the system design. You are correct that you can't just stick a high performance filter in a system that isn't designed for one, but if you are putting in a new system, it doesn't take much effort to design from the start for a high efficiency filter.

  20. j_ro | | #20

    easiest point ever
    I'm surprised to see that the pre-approved ID point for Building Performance Partnership did not make your list. To earn this, the homeowner simply needs to agree to provide USGBC with information about actual utility usage. For single family, its a no brainer. A bit more of a challenge for multifamily though.

  21. Wypy5LxieE | | #21

    How to cheat? I am not disputing the benebits of the constructiom methods, however, it seems in reality it is only really about the tax breaks. Fill out a form, present the form, end of story, until awarded tax breaks. Where is the Green Inspector? I have yet to see a follow-up from anyone with the authority to deny those tax breaks. If the builder isn't trully invested in the program none of this will happen. I vote for "The Green Inspector"!

  22. user-1047602 | | #22

    Found another easy step with Myenergy
    I just updated our cheat sheet to 23 simple steps that get you up to 71 points.

    Report & monitor utility bills
    Sign up with the USGBC Building Performance Partnership through and report your utility bills to MyEnergy who will give rewards to homeowners for reducing.

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