Sustainable Buy-Ins

425 Grand Concourse in the Bronx is a mixed-use and mixed-income development with 277 units of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. The 26-story tower is designed to Passive House standards and surpasses the Enterprise Green Communities certification criteria.

For many new homeowners, energy savings, better indoor air quality and water conservation are an expectation. What’s good at work is now good for home. Mirroring that desire is the growth in green home certification programs for single- and multifamily construction. Some programs are similar in approach and scope, others are very singular. Knowing your options will help you find the best program for homeowners and developers to meet their sustainability needs.

“The residential market actually has more certification program choices than commercial,” said Brett Little, executive director, Green Home Institute, Grand Rapids, Mich. Green Home Institute is a residential green education and green certifier serving single family new construction and remodeling.

“Today’s discussions of green construction are increasingly being framed as reducing the carbon footprint,” Little said. “Beyond energy reduction is a rising concern for indoor health. Water conservation has also become more pointed. Homebuyers are making more environmentally friendly landscaping choices and are interested in community connectivity and walkability.”

It seems the principles of green design are catching up with the general public. According to Statista, surveyed U.S. single-family homebuilders expect more than 30% of their work to be green home construction by 2022. Some 40% of multifamily builders expect more than 90% of projects to be sustainable. Finally, 20% of responding remodelers expected at least 90% of their projects to be green-driven by 2022.

“The consumer now wants an indoor environment that supports health from air quality to good lighting to sustainable furnishings,” Little said. “Today, artificial intelligence [A.I.] such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and others are helping control lights, including LED smart bulbs that offer color rendition. A.I. is interacting with smart thermostats, cameras and security systems. It’s not a far jump before added sensors in the home extend beyond energy use and start measuring, communicating and mitigating air quality.”

Mordor Intelligence shared that the worldwide smart homes market was valued at $64.60 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $246.42 billion by 2025. Smart homes represent the deployment of security and surveillance systems, lighting systems, HVAC control, and energy management. Smart sensors, control valves, actuators, air conditioning systems and room heaters, among other systems, represent a greener home. Such interest cues up work for the electrical contractor and points within a green certification program.

The 100-year-old Holt Residence in Providence, R.I., is a LEED for Homes Platinum-certified house.
The 100-year-old Holt Residence in Providence, R.I., is a LEED for Homes Platinum-certified house.

The home-certification landscape

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes may have popularized the concept of residential green building certification in the United States, but it is one of many programs. BREEAM, which predates LEED, has a residential component. Other programs are Green Globes, PHIUS (Passive House Institute US), and the WELL Building Challenge and Living Building Challenge (both multifamily only). Programs may integrate RESNET’s Home Energy Rating System (HERS), Energy Star for Homes, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s airPLUS for indoor air quality or WaterSense for water efficiency. The National Association of Home Builders, in association with the International Code Council (ICC), has its ANSI-accredited National Green Building Standard (NGBS) now in its ICC 700-2020 update.

Several of these programs (e.g., LEED for Homes and Living Building Challenge) also have a pathway to net-zero-energy design. Energy Star has its Zero Energy Ready Home program. Such pathways may help meet ever-more stringent state or local codes and standards

Enterprise Green Communities

This year, under California’s Title 24, all new homes in the state must be designed for net-zero-energy operation. Title 24 sets minimum energy-saving requirements for new buildings and renovations that will reduce energy used for lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation and water heating. The state’s proliferation and encouragement of solar power extends to a residential interplay with smart-grid power delivery. At a local level—and in a big way—New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act of 2019 aims to reduce citywide emissions 80% by 2050. Multifamily housing also will play a role.

For clarity and assessment, the plethora of programs can be sorted by type. Some (e.g., HERS Index) are energy-code-driven. WaterSense and airPLUS target better building practices. Energy Star for Homes, NGBS, or GreenStar are for high-performance green homes. GreenStar is popular with remodelers. Those who want deeper sustainably might pursue LEED for Homes, Enterprise Green Communities or PHIUS. Those reaching for regenerative practices might look at the Living Building Challenge.

“I think the diversity of green certifications is a plus because it lets project teams more easily meet their project goals,” said Jamie Carr, partner at EcoAchievers. “For example, if you have a client who wants the lowest energy use possible, PHIUS is a great certification, but that might not be the best choice for a production builder. That builder who has tried Energy Star but for one reason or another found it difficult or wanted a most holistic certification may find NGBS’ new, streamlined “Certified” certification a great option.”

Carr observed congruence between client goals and certification objectives is allowing builders and contractors to focus more on what’s important to their clients and less on performing work or checking boxes that may be required for certification.

“Furthermore, as certifications evolve, they generally get better in response to feedback from users,” he said. “Having a diversity of certifications makes the marketplace a competitive one, and those certifications that are ultimately going to succeed are those that are the most responsive to user feedback.”

Headquartered in Chicago, EcoAchievers provides diagnostic testing, education and consulting services for high-performance homes and multifamily projects.

LEED for homes

The places certification will go

Affordable housing has become another fertile market for green construction.

“The Enterprise Green Communities standard provides a pathway for the affordable housing community,” said Lindsey Elton, president and partner at EcoAchievers. “It is akin to LEED, addressing sustainability on a broader scale. It also uses Energy Star as its basis for energy compliance and is free to users. Incoming credits for the 2020 update will address actions that can move a multifamily building to zero carbon, all-electric or all-electric ready.”

Maureen McGeary-Mahle is managing director of Sustainable Housing Services for Steven Winter Associates Inc., a research, consulting and advisory firm in Norwalk, Conn., with offices in New York and Washington, D.C. While she is encouraged by the growth in residential green certification, she feels more robust messaging is still necessary to further educate the homeowner and developer on the value of green home construction.

“Educating on the benefits of green requires the appraisal community to get on board,” she said.

Some of this has begun. The Appraisal Institute has in recent years provided resources centered around sustainable property valuation. Nearly 400 appraisers have completed the institute’s Valuation of Sustainable Buildings Professional Development Program certification. For its part, members of the National Association of Realtors can earn a GREEN Designation to better educate customers interested in green homes.

This Platinum LEED v4 home in Norwalk, Conn., was gutted and remodeled using smaller mechanics. The house load was reduced by more than 50%, helped in part by LED lighting. The homeowners are currently working a new single- family house that will feature Tesla Powerwall home battery storage, EV charging and Wi-Fi appliances.
This Platinum LEED v4 home in Norwalk, Conn., was gutted and remodeled using smaller mechanics. The house load was reduced by more than 50%, helped in part by LED lighting. The homeowners are currently working a new single- family house that will feature Tesla Powerwall home battery storage, EV charging and Wi-Fi appliances.

“The appraisal industry wasn’t distinguishing between a certified green building and one with green features,” McGeary-Mahle added. “There is a story to tell in the positive and measurable difference behind a building that has been performance-tested by a third party, versus a building adding some green features.”

Like Little and McGeary-Mahle, Elton has seen an evolution in home certification programs that work to achieve high energy efficiency and building decarbonization (the elimination of combustion fuels) in the home.

“We see electrification on a number of our projects, notably ones focused on reducing a carbon footprint,” Elton said. “For instance, we see more electrical being used in net-zero projects, on projects that favor solar power and pursue available tax credits and incentives. With Passive House, we see solar and net-zero objectives, as well. Zero carbon is coming.”

 The affordable-housing Selinon Park Apartments in Portage, Mich., achieved Energy Star and Enterprise Green Communities certification.
The affordable-housing Selinon Park Apartments in Portage, Mich., achieved Energy Star and Enterprise Green Communities certification.

Elton is encouraged by efforts that bring public attention to energy-efficient homes. One such effort is the GreenBuilt home tour held each summer by the Illinois Green Alliance, affiliated with USGBC. The event showcases high-achieving sustainable houses that have earned third-party certifications and national green building standards. Last year’s GreenBuilt drew 400 attendees to 17 green homes across greater Chicago.

“Most of the programs I work with have been around since 2005 or longer,” McGeary-Mahle added. “These certification programs have shown longevity. They continue to get more complex but conversely, more project teams have had experience with them. Programs have raised their own bar having more stringent measures to meet. Also, in their original forms, they were intended to be optional.

"Much of our work is driven by a mandate to use them in one locality or another. I’ve seen LEED as a requirement or alternatives such as NGBS. Financing partners might require certain levels of green certification. Affordable housing programs and housing finance authorities can drive certification, too. We also face increasingly stringent codes, which may intersect with point systems in a certification program,” she said.

In one example of a certification program becoming a mandate, Arlington County, Va., looks to LEED as its community standard for green homes. The Florida Green Building Coalition’s Green Home certification standard borrows from other programs but is its own animal.

“The idea of a healthy home interior is giving a new boost to green and green certification,” McGeary-Mahle said. “It’s reigniting an interest and passion. Electrical contractors may face new technologies, such as an exterior heat pump water heater. This technology will require the expertise of the EC, the plumber and HVAC contractor. I’m seeing the need for collaboration firsthand as I work on a new home for myself that aims to be all electric, net-zero.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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