Green Building Standards
Understanding green building standards will help you—and your customers—stay out in front of this exploding market.
By David Thurlow
More and more these days, homebuilders are adhering to green building guidelines. Growing consumer demand for efficiency, durability, lower lifetime costs, and smaller ecological "footprints” are responsible for terms such as GreenSpec, ENERGY STAR, and Green Globes—as well as for acronyms such as USGBC, GBI, and LEED-H— increasingly becoming part of the building construction vocabulary.
Whether it’s to "save the planet” or save some money, consumers are increasingly motivated to go green. And in spite of what at first appears to be the prelude to a regulatory morass, the rolling out of green guidelines is providing a focus for spec and production builders across the country, as well as new marketing strategies for lumber and building material dealers.
Both builders and developers can see advantages by going green. Benefits include reduced liability, since better indoor air quality and reduced mold and mildew problems mean fewer lawsuits. By promoting greater attention to overall construction quality and more thorough documentation, green building practices also help builders and developers demonstrate due diligence in the event of a lawsuit.
Another factor is that a green rating from a well-known source gives a green builder or developer a means of distinguishing him or herself from the competition. Reduced utility bills also translate into higher net rental income and thus higher building valuation. Some green building measures actually reduce construction costs, and working from the start as an integrated green team offers systems integration opportunities and reduces change orders.
All in all, there’s little reason not to build green, and rating systems or standards allow builders to prove that they do.
So what does this burgeoning movement mean to LBM dealers? Understanding what these current building standards require can help your business sell to and service your builder clients now and in the future.
Overview of Programs
While there are dozens of green building programs across the country on the local and regional level, and several material certification programs—such as Green Guard, Green Seal, and so on—two green building programs are garnering the most attention: One has been developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and is known as LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A second green building program, developed in conjunction with the National Association of Home Builders, is known as the National Green Standard green building guidelines.
LEED standards are perhaps the best-known green standard, and have long been used as a certification process in commercial and institutional projects (the "original” version for new construction was technically known as LEED-NC.) The LEED program recognizes and rewards builders for meeting high building performance standards for commercial buildings.
A new pilot category for residential construction, LEED for Homes (LEED-H), will be ready for full implementation this fall, after a comment period and final adjustments. LEED-H is intended for use with all residential building types, from single family detached to multifamily low-rise, from custom to production and from market-rate to affordable. The line between LEED-H and LEED-NC has been set initially at three stories, the minimum size for LEED-NC residential buildings.
USGBC began the pilot test of LEED-H in August 2005. About 400 builders, representing 6,000 homes across the U.S., have been or are now participating in the pilot program. About 200 homes have been certified through LEED.
LEED levels of recognition:
Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum
These levels recognize building performance in five major areas:
- Sustainable Sites
- Water Efficiency
- Energy and Atmosphere
- Materials and Resources
- Indoor Environmental Quality
According to their web site, USGBC’s goal for LEED-H is to "actively promote the transformation of the mainstream homebuilding industry towards more sustainable practices.” LEED for Homes targets highly performing buildings—one might say state of the art—with its rating criteria and certification.
Matt Belcher, owner of Belcher Homes in Wildwood, Mo., who has been building green for 15 years, says that "green building is what my dad used to do back in 1961, only he didn’t call it green building back then, he called it good building.” Belcher notes that what is now being called efficient, energy-smart, or resource-friendly, was known back then as good old common sense.
That’s true. At its core, LEED-H stresses time-honored building systems and workmanship, with a focus on the building envelope. That by no means exempts traditional framing packages and sheathing, or exterior cladding materials commonly in stock by LBM dealers today.
A builder who decides to seek LEED certification or a USGBC rating needs to involve an inspector from the start of a project. Donny Dorton of Guaranteed Watt Savers in Oklahoma City, traditionally has done audits for the Home Energy Rating System, or HERS. He says, "It’s really best when inspectors are involved before the plans are finalized” to minimize the number of site visits. The bulk of the inspections, Dorton says, are performed via digital photography documentation, as well as with sign-offs from builders and installers.
Once a home is complete, data is reviewed, and the level of performance or "shade of green,” according to the USGBC rating scale or the LEED accreditation level, is determined.
NAHB Offers Green Standards
The other emerging player in the green rating game is NAHB, which developed a set of green building guidelines two years ago known as the Model Green Home Building Guidelines. NAHB is working with the International Code Council to create a national, consensus-based residential green building program, known as the National Green Building Standard, to be certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
The National Green Building Standard for residential construction and renovation was written by builders, architects, environmentalists, and product experts, and will be released in early 2008. The primary difference between NAHB’s program and LEED-H is that NAHB intends to foster across-the-board improvement among mainstream builders using mostly conventional practices and materials. (LEED seeks to encourage cutting-edge building performance.)
The National Green Building Standard program takes into account a home’s lot development, use of resources, energy and water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, durability and ease of maintenance, as well as the builder’s efforts to educate home owners.
Under this program, building materials are addressed mostly in relation to resource efficiency—in other words, being as frugal as possible by using advanced framing techniques, for instance, or pre-manufactured units.
(As an example of how these growing programs can have an impact on LBM dealers, consider that demand is increasing rapidly for Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) that are pre-cut to order. Along with truss delivery and installation, LBM dealers might want to consider adding an additional boom truck for SIPs, or maybe even think about SIPs as part of an installed sales program.)
Costs and Benefits
LEED and NAHB are really going about the same thing with different approaches. LEED, mostly aimed at architects, goes for the brass ring, or you might say the platinum rating.
NAHB guidelines are geared towards builders, hoping to ultimately green up their tool bucket and materials pile a little bit at a time, hopefully resulting in a greener housing stock and labor pool at some point down the line.
If there is one consistent complaint from builders who would like to build green homes, it's about certification fees, which can be high, particularly for LEED-H homes.
One could certainly argue that the upfront costs of certification will be covered on the back end, but still, in response to the sticker shock, many state and regional homebuilders associations are offering their own programs. NAHB says that there are now 24 local green building programs based on its voluntary guidelines, with more than 100 in development.
Take for example Build Green New Mexico, developed from the NAHB guidelines and launched by the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico. With this certification program, a 2,000-sq.-ft. home can be tested and certified for less than $800. In contrast, the same house could cost as much as $3,000 to get LEED-certified.
Because NAHB guidelines can be adapted to fit local requirements, the local New Mexico program stresses increased requirements for water conservation over the national NAHB guidelines.
The ability to regionalize the guidelines is what is fueling the adoption of the NAHB program, according to Calli Schmidt, director of environmental communications for NAHB. "A water conservation program in Albuquerque is not a water conservation program in New England.”
What many of these regional NAHB-based programs do is ease builders into the green arena. Also, ANSI is turning the NAHB green guidelines into standards, and many builders are already familiar with ANSI. In addition, some regional programs offer a web-based certification system—much like the NAHB's—which proponents say translates into lower costs because a certifier doesn’t need to fly in from hundreds of miles away, often the case with LEED.
What Does "Green” Look Like?
A high-performance, good green house built to LEED or NAHB standards can look exactly like any other house and contain conventional building materials.
These days, with manufacturers rapidly responding to green demand by lowering VOC content or increasing recycled content, much of what LBM dealers already have on the shelf contributes to a building’s "green-ness.” The potential greenness of a product itself—not just the construction techniques that use that product—can also be ascertained by third-party certifiers.
One such third-party certifier is Scientific Certification Systems in Emoryville, Calif. SCS is accredited by the International Forest Stewardship Council to independently certify "well-managed” forests, as well as companies that handle wood products from those sources.
Besides chain-of-custody verification, building material manufacturers also go to SCS to determine recycled content, as well as salvaged wood, reclaimed agrifiber, and formaldehyde-free claims. SCS-certified products include carpet, moulding, doors, drywall, pest control, paints, insulation, and cleaning products.
Building supplies that meet LEED standards should be marketed that way at the dealer level. Just as consumers are eligible for tax rebates and credits by choosing ENERGY STAR products, builders are too, by choosing the right doors, windows, roofing, and insulation—a good selling point.
A Changing Landscape
While greener building is a trend that isn’t going away anytime soon, the process has faced a few bumps.
Criticism of the LEED program comes from both environmental groups who say the criteria aren’t stringent enough and from industry groups who say the process and the cost are too burdensome.
Regional LBM associations are also paying close attention to green building legislation working its way through their state capitols. Some legislation in the works would require government buildings to be built to LEED criteria, without consideration of other programs. Opponents point out that LEED recognizes only FSC-certified lumber by the Forest Stewardship Council, while NAHB recognizes the separate standard set by the Forestry Stewardship Initiative (FSI).
In Colorado, for example, the Mountain States Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association worked to amend a bill in the Legislature so that it required a "high-performance standard certification system,” not just LEED. Similar efforts are underway in Texas and in the Northeast.
Observers worry that limiting certification to just one program may squeeze smaller dealers who could face supply issues with FSC. Proponents say this will improve over time, noting that the number of FSC-certified suppliers has more than doubled in the last few years.
Opponents also say that LEED awards limited points for wood, favoring instead concrete and steel. LEED supporters note it does not take points away for wood, and that wood, especially panelized products, plays an important role in green building. Regardless of the certification process, the green building movement requires dealers and distributors to understand how their products fit into this market, and to take advantage of the market differentiation and consumer awareness brought about by the publicity surrounding the various guidelines.
For the latest detailed information on LEED applicable materials and products, visit BuildingGreen’s online version of GreenSpec, the BuildingGreen Suite, at www.buildinggreen.com. You can browse by CSI designation, homebuilder category, green attribute, or by LEED credit. Listings are updated every 30–90 days with direct links to manufacturers’ web sites.
How Do Builders Go Green?
There are any number of ways to build green, according Alex Wilson, who is executive editor of Environmental Building News and president of BuildingGreen Inc. in Brattleboro, Vt. Wilson, a nationwide pioneer in the green building movement, points out that building materials are just part of green building picture. "You can build a green home by building a tighter envelope, paying attention to orientation, and reducing job site waste, for example,” he says. "It’s not necessarily the stuff you use, it’s how much of it you use, and how you put it all together.”
Whether builders are following LEED or NAHB guidelines, they don’t need to work with unconventional materials such as hay bales, soy-based paint, or solar panels on every structure—far from it. For instance, building materials in and of themselves are not assigned a point value by LEED. The only building materials that by themselves have a separate rating or certification are those determined to be ENERGYSTAR efficient. (Builders still have to use them as part of a building system, however.)
In BuildingGreen’s GreenSpec Directory, a building material’s applicability to a particular LEED category or NAHB guideline and the use of that product helps builders achieve a certain credit. The final completed building is what receives certification, based partly on how much of an applicable product—say 100% recycled HDPE moulding—is used, based on a percentage of overall materials budget.
A contributing editor for Green Builder Magazine, David Thurlow has writen about energy and efficiency issues for 15 years.
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