March 12, 2015

Introduction

If you have ever looked into getting your home or building certified as a "green" project, you've likely been overwhelmed by the number of certifications available on the market. Numerous organizations -- even the Departments of Energy and Environmental Protection -- have developed their own sustainable building standards and related certifications. What makes choosing a green building certification so difficult is weighing the pros and cons of each program as they relate to your project. The best certification for your project is going to be one that fits within your budget and schedule, showcases the performance of your building, resonates with your target customers, and promotes your desired brand/image. This post will highlight several factors that builders and developers ought to consider when choosing a green building certification. 

There most recognizable and common certifications in the Home Performance Industry include:

NameOrganizationGeographic Coverage
ENERGY STAREPA + DOENational
National Green Building StandardNHAB + Home Innovation LabsNational
Green GlobesGreen Building InitiativeNational
GreenPoint RatedBuild It GreenCalifornia
LEEDUSGBCNational
Living Building ChallengeInt'l Living Future Inst.International

Cost

Most developers need to stick to a budget and carefully manage costs. Green building certifications vary significantly in their costs, so it is important to weigh the benefits against the price tag. When considering the cost of a certification, you will want to investigate:

Application Fee: Initial payment to get your project registered and to gain access to certification materials, processes, and support. 

Certification Fee: Paid when project has been approved and certification has been granted. 

Rater Fee: Paid to the third party assessor who verifies all standards have been met. 

Team Increases: Higher design, engineering, and management fees to account for increased workload and oversight responsibilities. 

Of these costs, team increases can be the most significant. Some of the more rigorous programs, such as LEED Platinum or Living Building Challenge, require the architect and engineering team to participate throughout the certification process and submit significant documentation. The additional hours and associated professional fees add up quickly, sometimes as much as $100,000 for a large multifamily project. 

Hassle and Time

There are a variety of factors that influence the overall hassle and time required to complete certification. The first factor is the amount of time a certifying body takes to grant certification once building is complete and all documentation is submitted. On the short end, Home Innovation Labs, which administers the  National Green Building Certification, will rule on an application and get back to the applicant within one business day. At the longer end of the "time" spectrum is LEED. The USGBC can take several months to approve an application for certification. 

As briefly discussed under the "cost" factor, certification programs require different amounts of supporting documentation. ENERGY STAR requires that raters simply use checklists to indicate certain building practices were followed, which is a relatively low threshold. More rigorous programs, like LEED, require developers to show architectural plans, engineering reports, specification sheets, and receipts for products purchased. 

Beyond the documentation required for certification, several programs require the applicant (i.e. the builder or developer) to join their organizations. Sometimes this is as simple as joining a trade association and paying a nominal fee. Other programs, such as ENERGY STAR, require builders/developers to become full-fledged partners. While partnership is usually free, the builder/developer must attend special training seminars. 

Market Recognition and Visibility

For many builders and developers, a green building certification is a valuable sales tool. Selecting a green building certification that is generally recognized and respected by the consumers in your market is important. Since you probably do not have the time to survey the general public about how they perceive the various certifications, you will want to find out how many projects have been certified under a particular program in your area. Although inferring market recognition from the number of certified projects ignores marketing and outreach efforts, it can provide a cost-effective way to make "apples to apples" comparisons. Most programs post regional certification data on their websites, so it should be readily available. If not, calling the program administrator usually proves fruitful. 

When evaluating and comparing certification statistics, though, it is important to distinguish between stand alone projects versus units. For example, a program might claim 250 certified homes in an area, but in reality, it is one large condo complex with 250 units that has been certified. While condo statistics can be helpful, they are inherently different than statistics for single family homes. It is more impressive to say that 250 individual homeowners have recognized the value proposition of a certificate and acted upon it than it is to say that one developer made the decision to certify 250 condos prior to selling them off individually. 

Fit

Another point of divergence among certification programs is the intensity of their energy standards. Some programs only require that your building perform marginally better than a building constructed to code, whereas others specify that your building must produce more energy than it consumes (net positive energy). There is a gigantic difference between these two standards, so you will want to find a certification that reflects the energy goals of your project. For state-of-the-art buildings, developers may want to consider a more rigorous standard, such as Living Building Challenge, which will set the project apart. With that said, it is also important to balance cost and market recognition against prestige. 

In addition to the rigorousness of the standards, programs take different views on sustainability -- some more limited than others. ENERGY STAR, for example, limits its scope to energy and water conservation. While these are certainly important factors, there are many other practices that contribute to making a building sustainable. For example, the Living Building Challenge examines whether the site is located near public transportation, whether or not the project promotes social justice, etc. You will want to ask yourself whether the certification covers all the sustainable features and/or practices associated with your building.

Brand Development and Marketability

Finally, a green building certification can play an important role in shaping your brand as a builder, developer, or even as a property manager. Not all certifications are created equal in the eyes of the green building community. We have already discussed how certification programs have different views on sustainability, levels of rigorousness, costs, and marketability. Yet another consideration is the quality and integrity of the organization that created the certification. Was the certification developed by a for-profit company or by a non-profit trade association? In the latter case, does the association represent all segments of the industry? How will the program benefit if you purchase the certification? Is their goal altruistic (i.e. create better buildings and a stronger industry) or is it simply to increase profits?

Any other factors one should consider when selecting a green building certification? If so, leave your thoughts in the "comments" section below. Thanks!