From: Allyson Wendt, BuildingGreen, More from this Affiliate
Published December 21, 2007 03:23 PM

Homes Get Their Own LEED

This model modular home, built by EcoUrban Homes in St. Louis, earned LEED Platinum in the LEED for homes pilot project.

When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) first rolled out the LEED for Homes rating system pilot in 2005, it faced a number of challenges, including creating a provider network, training raters, keeping registration and certification fees low, and convincing homebuilders and homeowners that certification was worth the expense. 

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Now, with about 10,000 homes registered for the pilot and close to 400 certifications delivered, not to mention a lively public comment period, USGBC has had ample opportunity to learn from experience and improve the rating system, which is currently out for member ballot and is expected to launch by the end of 2007.

One aspect of the system that hasn’t changed much is the “Home Size Adjuster,” which allows smaller homes to achieve certification with fewer points than larger homes. The effect of this adjustment can be dramatic: up to ten points are added to the performance thresholds for large homes, or deducted from the thresholds for small ones, creating a 20-point spread.

Both the number of bedrooms and the square footage of the home are taken into consideration, so larger homes for large families are not penalized. Laura Uhde, director of residential green building services for Southface in Atlanta, said that they expect the Home Size Adjuster to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of large homes. “We are hopeful it will help change the direction of increasing home sizes in the industry,” she said.

Not all reaction has been positive, however.

The attention to home size produced several negative comments during the public comment period. Bill Harrison, AIA, the designer of EcoManor, a LEED Silver, 6,100-ft 2 (570-m 2) demonstration house in Atlanta, claims that penalizing large houses will slow the adoption of green building practices. “The people who can afford the green technologies are going to want a 6,000-square-foot house, at least in the South,” he said, arguing, “It’s about bragging rights at this point.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for USGBC, however, was creating a provider network to handle the hundreds of thousands of certifications, each with a field inspection, that USGBC wants to perform each year. “We wanted to be very careful that we didn’t have a centralized bottleneck,” said Jay Hall, acting director of LEED for Homes.

To distribute the work, USGBC followed the example of Energy Star and created a network of LEED for Homes providers. Organizations across the country hire and train raters, who perform field inspections and hire staff to help builders through the certification process. Of the 12 original providers, six also run local or regional home certification programs. “In every case, our program was somewhat more aggressive than those existing programs,” said Hall, noting that it doesn’t seem to be a problem for providers to be involved with two rating systems. Southface, which created and supports the EarthCraft House program in addition to LEED for Homes, hopes that USGBC will do more to support local programs as it promotes LEED: “We feel that any home obtaining LEED for Homes certification should also work to comply with the local green building program for dual certification,” said Uhde.

With only 12 providers to cover the country during the pilot, builders in some regions had to travel quite a distance for training. Jay Swoboda, project manager for EcoUrban Homes in St. Louis and builder of a LEED Platinum modular house, said, “The biggest challenge moving forward will be having more raters in the field.” In order to register as a LEED for Homes builder, Swoboda traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attend a one-day training session for builders, which he described as fairly nontechnical. Despite the brief training, he said, the paperwork for certification was often challenging, and with only one rater in St. Louis, scheduling an inspection took some time. Comparing LEED for Homes to Energy Star, Swoboda noted that LEED was more aggressive but also commented, “The program that has the most teeth, that challenges builders the most, needs to have the most resources to help builders with the certification process.” USGBC is working to get more providers; it’s now up to 18, according to Hall, and it will be at 42 by the end of January 2008.

By the end of 2008, USGBC hopes to have 100 providers on board, with many more raters available for field inspections. Hall also noted that there is a steep learning curve for first-time LEED for Homes builders, which raises both the need for provider staff and the costs of certification. Provider organizations offer consulting services along with the verification and certification services, and 20 to 30 hours of consulting is not unusual for a first-time LEED builder, Hall said, in addition to the eight hours required to verify documentation and inspect the house on site.

During the pilot, USGBC charged $150 per builder plus $50 per project (which could include one or more units), while providers were free to charge what they needed to cover their time and costs. As it rolls out the final rating system, USGBC is moving to a model that requires the registration of each project rather than each builder. The combination of verification and consulting services often brought the total costs of certification well above the $1,000 per project USGBC was aiming for, not including the builder’s time, according to Hall, although costs usually went down as a builder became more experienced with the rating system. Costs for production builders, especially, can be much lower, thanks to a sampling protocol that allows them to have just one in seven homes inspected on site after they have proven, through several certifications, that they are building each home to LEED standards.

Uhde would like LEED to provide more oversight, however. “LEED for Homes should represent the highest standard for quality assurance and require every home to be physically inspected. The standards for the residential program should be consistent with the LEED commercial rating standards in which every building is commissioned,” she said. The premium for a LEED-certified home, Hall says, is averaging 3%—5%, including both the cost of green features and the cost of certification after the builder is over the learning curve.

At that level, the additional monthly cost on a 30-year mortgage would be offset by the savings in utility bills, according to Hall, resulting in no net increase in the total cost of ownership. Nevertheless, the premium and the costs of certification have given rise to concerns that building to LEED standards is too expensive, particularly for affordable housing projects. Thanks to a partnership with the Home Depot Foundation, however, funds are available to help affordable housing organizations with certification costs: $500 to $1,500 is available to each qualifying project depending on the number of units. In addition, Hall said that affordable housing is often smaller, more energy efficient, and closer to public transportation than market-rate housing—all of which earn points in the system. As a result, Hall noted, for affordable homes “it’s almost easier to get certified than it would be for market-rate homes.”

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