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Green Building Curmudgeon

LEED-H Clarifications Raise More Questions Than They Answer

For its LEED for Homes program, the USGBC needs to step back and look at the big picture instead of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic

The LEED for Homes program has an uncanny ability to consistently add complexity and reduce effectiveness with every change or clarification.

In a post from last summer on LEED for Homes, I mused on the ineffectiveness and confusion surrounding the required Durability Planning process, the preparation of a project-specific Durability Checklist, and third-party inspection of this work.

The general consensus among green raters I know is that the entire Durability Planning process in LEED for Homes is confusing, arbitrary, and extremely difficult for most construction teams to get their heads around. Each project team is supposed to fill out a risk assessment form that ranks each principal durability risk as either low, medium, or high, based on the project design and climate. Issues to be ranked include Exterior Water, Interior Moisture Loads, Air Infiltration, Interstitial Condensation, Heat Loss, Ultraviolet Radiation, Pests, and Natural Disasters.

While each issue is critical in high-performance homes, I believe that asking the project team to assess the risk level of each and then come up with lists of specific measures to alleviate these risks is counterproductive to creating durable buildings.

Almost all other green building programs have checklists of requirements and extra-point items that address durability. Simple process: You do it, check it off, meet the prerequisites or get your points. But not LEED for Homes. They need to create a “process” that the team must go through to make sure that the specific items they include in their project match the specific needs of the project and the climate.

In theory, this process may be good, but in practice, teams typically miss critical items, include excessive amounts of items that are marginally effective, and throw in a few that don’t relate to the specific risk. The amount of time spent addressing the durability plan often exceeds the value it brings to a project.

In case you didn’t think it was complicated enough

So, I was on a LEED for Homes conference call this week that included an extended discussion of new clarifications on the Durability Planning process bestowed on us from the USGBC gods in Washington, D.C. The durability plan can provide a bonus of three full points for project teams if they are able to have all their listed measures verified by a third party.

The new ruling determines that to obtain the third-party verification points, the Durability Inspection Checklist must have at least 18 to 20 specific items on it (excluding up to six prerequisites that are required to be on the list anyway). So, you now must figure out how to distinguish between prerequisites and regular durability measures, assemble the list with not too many but not too few items on it, and make sure that all of them are independently verified to get your extra points.

Almost no one understood it before, so why complicate it further?

I have to admit that trying to explain to project teams how to create their durability forms, and reviewing them for accuracy during the process, verges on the comical. In theory, engaging the team to work together to come up with high-performance building specifications is an intriguing idea; in practice, it is like trying to herd cats and ducks together, all of whom would rather be out doing what they normally do. Most green raters are just beginning to get their under-educated project teams to figure out this particular process, when BOOM! The USGBC adds this extra layer of complexity on it.

Why can’t they just act like other programs and put together a list of measures to use if they apply to your project? I do believe that most of the people working in D.C. are well-intentioned and honestly do want to make the program better, but there seems to be a lack of focus and leadership when edicts come down that do little more than make minor adjustments and add layers of complexity.

It reminds me of doctors who prescribe medicine for one condition, which creates side effects, for which they prescribe another medicine. Eventually, most of the medications are only taken to correct side effects, and no one ever considers taking a holistic view of the situation.

I feel like every ruling that comes down from the USGBC is designed to correct a small problem, usually creating other unintended consequences of its own, which then need to be fixed with another ruling. When will someone take a step back and give this program the big-picture overview that it desperately deserves?

One final rant

I also learned that the USGBC is planning to develop an online checklist for the LEED for Homes program, apparently modeled after the NAHB scoring sheet for their green building program. Anyone who has been following me for a while probably has heard me whine about that online scoring tool. While it is comprehensive and lacks many of the obtuse complexities of the LEED checklist, it is so painfully slow that it makes the NAHB program more rather than less difficult to manage. Incidentally, the NAHB has just come out with an offline, Excel-based version of their checklist, which works quite well, due mostly to push-back from verifiers including myself.

While there is no love lost for the LEED for Homes Excel spreadsheet, I am really concerned that, based on previous behavior, moving this particular part of the program to an online tool — if it isn’t thought through completely and systemically from the very beginning — may very possibly make things worse, rather than better.

I once saw some brilliant graffiti at a bar: “Eschew obfuscation.” We would all be well served if this was taken to heart.

12 Comments

  1. Tom Flanagan | | #1

    Public Input on 2012 version of LEED for Homes
    Hi, Carl -

    Work is well under way on the first major revision of the LEED for Homes rating system, which will be launched after it goes through USGBC's consensus process: first, review by our member-driven committees, followed by public comment, and finally USGBC membership review and approval in 2012.

    USGBC invites you (and everyone reading this!) to participate in the first public comment period for the 2012 version of LEED for Homes, which opens Sept. 10. Check http://www.usgbc.org/homes or follow @LEEDforHomes on Twitter for updates and to download a copy of the proposed 2012 version of LEED for Homes.

  2. Philip the Rater/Builder | | #2

    Big Picture
    Carl,
    I couldn't agree more with this article. I wonder what percentage of builders go through the LEED-H program and are so turned off with the process/paper work that they never participate in another green building project more less LEED-H? The majority of the feedback we get is..."ya, we'll never do another project." Is this how you change an industry?

  3. Bruce Glanville | | #3

    LEED-H vs Code
    I currently have 8 LEED homes cerified since 2008 as a Green rater. Currently I feel that the entire program is built on quicksand. Weren't we supposed to be building or homes on rock foundations? Appologies to Harry Belefonte...............But there seems to be more paper and bureaucracy than content. 2015 code will include, water conservation, IAQ, 50% reduction in energy use (over 2006) so why do we need LEED, or any other system? We instead should be training code officials to understand the issues that were the original rock foundations for the building science that we all wish to apply.

  4. Steve Pitchford | | #4

    LEEDs inspector
    Wow! I've been thinking about picking up a LEED's certification at my local community college as a means to earn additional money, but worried if there was a market for these inspectors and if it would be worth my $1500 investment. Guess I'll sit on that idea for a while.

  5. Christin K. | | #5

    LEED Homes Documentation
    Having a background in BD+C as well as having consulted, Green Rated, or designed over 100+ LEED Homes units, I can honestly say that compared to commercial, the documentation required for Homes is relatively easy to use. No, not every builder will make it a long term decision to build LEED Homes, the system is geared toward the top 10% of builders who are willing to go above and beyond to deliver an exceptioanl project. Many will find it too cumbersome, but with the help, assistance and education it does become a status quo. We use a handful of the same builders now, because they have completed a few projects and now know the system well enough to run it almost without the need of consulting services. This system does require additional work, but when has anything worthwhile not required additional work. If it were easy, everyone would do it, and that is where local codes come into place.
    LEED is always staying ahead of the curve, once something becomes local code LEED will replace it with something more innovative. That's why they roll out changes every 2 years, to keep it cutting edge, but acheiveable. I have noticed that when left up to builders, LEED is not commonly a goal, but with affordable developers, government agencies, HUD etc. LEED and sustainable design become almost mandatory in order to receive grants and funding. More incentives come out everyday that will make the system more advantgeous to use, but for many it needs to be something they want to do, even if the paperwork is not.

  6. Edward Palma | | #6

    Whatever happened to "Keep It Simple"?
    Good morning Carl. I have just returned from some fishing and sun on the Rhode Island coastline. A true vacation of pleasure reading, beach and a few fish caught and released. I have not read any of the GBA blogs until today. Your point about over complication is excellent. Although I agree that we need programs to educate the builders and give them a road map to follow, I feel that that the competition in green rating programs is causing them to become highly overcomplicated, self promoting, and muddled in bureaucracy. Claims of ultimate member certification, only serve to camouflage the bureaucratic edicts that get presented. As each of these programs works to establish their place in green building the competition seems to make them lose sight of the people that they are trying to educate and inspire. Leed being the first to establish their program has become caught up in their own bureaucratic shuffle for awhile, with others beginning to follow suit in the highly competitive marketplace. They are becoming like the course that you "had" to take but really didn't like in college. In my opinion green building is a technical science coupled with a philosophical practice. If one is trying to inspire a builder to educate themselves and practice the philosophy and science, it seems counterproductive to mire them in bureaucratic paperwork that most feel is a pain in the butt. If "you" as a consultant are having trouble explaining the changes to Leed for Homes, it must be very difficult and confusing for the average person to understand. I have been a licensed BO for 20 years, a registered contractor for 29 years, and am presently working to add CGP certification and specialization in the NGBS. I have witnessed the rise and fall of the green building market through Reaganomics and beyond. Green Building is strong again and it needs to inspire those that have never practiced the science/philosophy before to come on board. Although we need these programs, the programs need to remain simple enough to be clear and precise about what they are teaching, and what they are asking the builder to do. As the saying goes "you catch more flies with honey than salt". I agree with Bruce Glanville regarding the training of code officials to carry the ball. It amazes me as I maintain my BO certification yearly, how many BO's do not care to know or know very little about any of the green codes or building science. This is a major obstacle that needs to be reformed. This arm of the building sector is essential to promotion of green building and building science in the future. In reference to Christin, your comment is well taken, but to me a bit exclusionary. When did targeting the top 20% of builders become a valid solution to, energy consumption, climate change, building science, and comprehensive change in the overall philosophy of the general building sector? That idea represents a conscious exclusion of the builders and designers who may dislike or feel pushed away by the bureaucratic paperwork. It certainly does not promote the inexperienced person to jump in. Being on the cutting edge is one thing, but failing to attract those that may want to change and could help the cause is another. The whole point of this is to attract more builders and designers, and to educate the masses. We have already witnessed in the last 30 years how easily a great philosophy can be squelched by lack of numbers in participation, and lobbyists. Corporations still rule what gets mandated in the building and energy sectors. We have seen our representatives cave in to Big Oil, Coal and Gas, while becoming firmly entrenched in their back pockets since the Carter presidency. The Gulf Oil Crisis is a stinging reminder of our fossil fuel controlled society. A comprehensive Climate Bill has not been passed as we witness the hottest summer on record worldwide, combined with a host of destructive major weather patterns as a result. The building sector has a major responsibility to change their part of this mess. Cutting Edge needs to become more attractive, less bureaucratic, and promote inclusion for all.

  7. User avater
    James Morgan | | #7

    This looks to be turning into
    This looks to be turning into a close parallel with organic certification for farmers and growers. Many organic pioneers in our area have turned away from the label because it has become so mired in expense and bureaucracy. Does organic certification and inspection serve a purpose in keeping the big ag producers (somewhat) honest about their inputs? Certainly. Does it have value in the dialog between small local CSA producers and their customers? Maybe not so much.

  8. Anonymous | | #8

    LEEDS AP
    After getting my LEEDS Green Associate I am stuck without recent experience on LEED certified project. Neither the Los Angeles chapter or the Central Coast chapter have projects for me to volunteer on. It used to be almost anyone could take the LEEDS AP, now it is a challenge. I purchased a fixer upper and plan to LEEDS for Homes major renovate it as a way to gain the experience so I qualify for LEEDS AP. My twenty years of experience and as an ASHRAE member mean nothing, nor does the $100MM CHPS project I am building. Seems that LEEDS has become too exclusive for their own good.

  9. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #9

    Simpler is Always Better
    I've been watching from the sideline, stubbornly NOT going for LEED qualification. In building code terms, LEED is far too prescriptive and not performance oriented. Throw in "too complex for real customers" and too expensive, and what you have is nearly worthless.

    Here's a solution I've been mulling:

    1. Let the building departments adopt the 2009 energy code as they wish. Then STOP any code changes forever, except for safety items. The technology is still changing too fast to attempt to follow it with prescriptive code "improvements". Another reason for freezing the code is to prevent those pesky unintended consequences that aren't even discovered for 20 years. (see Solar Driven Moisture in Brick Veneer at BuildingScience.com)

    2. Then let builders build as they see fit. Good ones will keep improving the sustainability of their product. (If you care enough to be reading this blog, you're probably one of the good ones)

    3. Here's where we replace prescriptive with performance: You can't get any sort of LEEP (Leadership in Energy Efficiency Performance) rating PRIOR to building anything. To get a LEEP rating, the home must have a simple Web-based monitoring device installed for at least one year. The cost of this should only be $1000-$3000, it only needs a handful of measurements, some of which are already there, like kwh consumption, water consumption, gas consumption. Add two indoor temperature readings, hot water tank inlet and outlet, outdoor temperature north side of house and south side of house, major appliance electricity consumption, etc.

    This data can then be used to "normalize" the performance results. The square footage of the house is completely left out of the normalization calculations.

    4. The LEEP rating is in dollars, the only unit that makes sense to everyone. (Just like a yellow EPA EnergyGuide label for appliances). A true net zero energy house gets a LEEP rating of $0/yr. If you put on excess PV panels, and the utility pays you for your excess production, then your LEEP rating can be calculated to equal what the utility pays you for the year, and is negative, say -$200/yr. A 1000 sq. ft. home built to 2009 code minimum might get a rating of $800/yr. A 2000 sq. ft. home built to 2009 code minimum should perform a little better per sq. ft. than the 1000sq.ft. home, so it might get a rating of $1400/yr.

    This performance rating will always guide the builder in the right direction.

    5. The other non-energy efficiency related metrics can have their own rating, such as LEEPdurability, and LEEPwater. A near-zero maintenance house might have a LEEPdurability rating of $30 per year, while a house that needs painting and new light bulbs often would be rated at $300/yr. Again, the LEEPwater rating is in $/yr. Oh yeah, don't forget LEEPembodiedenergy. That could be in kwh.

    The ratings are thus understandable, simple, standardized, and allow the builder his own solutions rather than any suggested by LEED.

    Eventually these ratings will be meaningful to buyers, and that's when the builders learn they must generate good ratings. That's what I like, market forces in play instead of federal policy!

    Since this is so similar to the appliance rating program, the LEED officials must have studied the method, but I can't figure out why they rejected it.

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Kevin Dickson
    Kevin,
    As far as I know, no one has yet invented a Web-based monitoring device for firewood consumption or wood-pellet consumption.

  11. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #11

    Field Results vs LEED Checklist
    Martin,

    That's true enough, but the way LEED handles biomass appliances is arbitrary and unhelpful.

  12. Anonymous | | #12

    So far so good
    The LEED for Homes project that I am working on has been going smoothly. The project includes a great home builder, a full architectural and engineering staff. The project also included an entire specifications manual written by the architects and engineers with LEED and Energy Star in mind. I doubt the LEED process would have been possible without this. The typical home usually doesnt involve architects, engineers, and detailed specifications.

    Remember that LEED was written by architects and engineers. Maybe there is something to be said about why the process is geared towards this professional sector. Bulk homebuilders and developers make cheap and mostly crappy homes. The LEED process is designed to construct thoughtout, mindful, heathly homes. The process for LEED for Homes isnt difficult if the right people are on board. If a homebuilder or contractor has too much difficulty doing LEED, then they arent the right people to design the home in the first place. I'm not trying to imply that they dont do sound construction, just that they probably shouldnt be trusted to design an actual 'green' home, not just a greenwashed home.

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