Green building certifications for homes, condos and commercial spaces are becoming increasingly common. This trend is largely a response to the rampant "green washing" in advertising whereby marketers have been making unsubstantiated claims about a product's sustainable features. Groups ranging from the US Government to state trade organizations have weighed in on the "green washing" issue and promulgated their own standards governing green building practices. This guide is an attempt to identify the most prevalent green building certifications and to discuss key considerations when selecting a green building certification to pursue. By no means exhaustive, this guide is meant only to serve as a primer and to provide context for further research.  

Certifications Examined

The sub pages of this website examine the following certifications:

Type of Construction

One main point of divergence among certifications is the type of construction covered. For example, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) applies to new construction as well as operations and maintenance. GreenPoint Rated, on the other hand, applies only to new construction and major remodels. Building operations and maintenance are not options. The Living Building Challenge does not have a specific category for operations and maintenance, but it does require an extensive monitoring process before certification. In this sense, the Living Building Challenge represents a hybrid approach because building operations are built into the certification process for new construction. 

Building Use

Beyond types of construction, the certifications apply to various classifications or uses of buildings. Common categories of buildings include single family homes, multifamily homes (sometimes divided into lowrise, midrise, and highrise) as well as commercial. Several certifications, such as ENERGY STAR, apply to all types of buildings, whereas the Green Globes certification applies only to residential (single family and multifamily) properties. In the latter instance, though, a developer can often exclude from certification those portions of a mixed-use building devoted to commercial or retail uses. 

Scope of Certification

Energy efficiency is the most common area of focus among the certifications studied. Beyond energy efficiency, though, the certifications diverge in their approach to sustainability. On one end of the spectrum is ENERGY STAR, which is devoted entirely to energy. It should be noted, however, that the EPA offers the Indoor airPLus label to address indoor air quality, which can be used in connection with ENERGY STAR. On the other end of the spectrum is the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Taking an all-inclusive, holistic view of sustainability, the LBC addresses not only energy consumption and renewable generation, but water conservation, green building materials, ecological impact, public transportation, human health, social justice, and community building as well. 

Market Recognition

This guide looks at the number of single family and multifamily projects certified in San Diego County, California. The number of certified projects reported by the various certifying bodies does not necessarily indicate the true market recognition of a certification, as it does not consider marketing initiatives to raise awareness about the various certifications. The figures do, however, provide insight into how many homeowners and/or developers truly recognize the certifications' value propositions and have felt compelled to act. 


The subsections of this guide detail the costs of each certification. Typically, there is an application fee (a.k.a. registration fee), certification fee, as well as an association fee when a contractor or developer is required to join the certifying organization as a prerequisite to certification. Except for Golden Globes and the Living Building Challenge, most programs do not include fees for third party assessors, which are known as raters, auditors, or verifiers. Also, note that every program requires third party assessors to be partnered with the certifying body (i.e. the USGBC or LEED). Fees for third party assessors depend on local market rates. 

Beyond the fees charged by the certifying organization and related third party assessors, it is important to understand how each certification will incrementally increase the cost of designing and building a sustainable project. The more stringent certifications, such as LEED and Living Building Challenge, require thorough technical documentation, which affects architectural and engineering fees significantly. 


Most of the content contained in this guide was written with a particular multifamily, mixed-use project in mind. Most of the facts were obtained from the various certifying agencies' own websites during February 2015. Some anecdotal evidence was obtained from various green building professionals working in San Diego. The purpose of this guide is provide general background information and context from which you can do your own research to determine which certification is best suited for your project.