After several years of tentative steps, national green building programs are making strides toward getting their residential guidelines—and their delivery systems—up and running. Just finishing up is the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes pilot project, a year-and-a-half-long experiment that involved more than 200 builders and resulted in 31 green-certified homes. Demand for the program is strong. The USGBC currently has applications from builders for 3,100 more homes, about 400 of them multifamily units.

If LEED for Homes targets the top 25 percent of the market, in rigor and program costs, the National Association of Home Builders is aiming for a broad swath of builders. Last year at least a dozen state and local Home Builders Associations launched green building programs based on guidelines NAHB published in 2006, and about 18 more are in the pipeline, according to NAHB green building program manager Emily English. Then there are the building science-based national programs that focus on energy efficiency, such as the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America and Masco Contractor Services' Environments for Living. EFL has certified more than 100,000 homes since its inception in 2001 —most of them for big production builders in the southern United States. Add to those the plethora of other well-run regional efforts too numerous to mention, and you've got an extensive green matrix. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the respective groups have done a lot of protocol-borrowing and consultant-sharing, resulting in a rather complex emerging industry characterized by offshoots, adaptations, and practical alliances. As these disparate green benchmarks start to jell, architects and builders are weighing in on what makes sense, and what doesn't.

  • Credit: Rich Lillash

green bugs

While receiving praise for its rigor and marketable cachet, most of the LEED for Homes criticism revolves around its scoring system. One practical problem with a national program is that it's difficult to anticipate the range of circumstances that a rating system should address. But incoming critiques from architects such as Amy Sims, who worked with Ray Kappe, FAIA, to design the first LEED Platinum home, are helping USGBC smooth out the kinks. Sims was the project architect on the model prefab house for LivingHomes, a startup in Santa Monica, Calif. In an odd twist, the fact that the house has no air conditioning—none is needed in the temperate climate—originally meant forfeiting credits attached to an energy-efficient duct system. However, the architects were able to submit a credit-interpretation request explaining that their ventilation measures should still be worth a point. The design team also applied for and received credit for using an alcohol-based fireplace. “We looked into other programs but chose LEED because we felt it was the most comprehensive,” Sims says. “There are still bugs in it, but it's helpful as a marketing tool and as a way for us to gauge how green we really are.”

LEED's point system is a particularly thorny subject for Peter Pfeiffer, FAIA, a principal of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects, Austin, Texas. Practicing in a city that already has a stellar green building program, he's frustrated with the bureaucratic wrangling required to get LEED credits aligned with local conditions. “Their points don't necessarily relate to what's effective in our climate,” he explains. For example, “They give a point for gray water reuse and a point for rainwater harvesting, when rainwater harvesting can provide 10 times the amount of water per dollar spent, and it doesn't smell.” Another bone of contention is the ventilation standard. On a recent house, he continues, “We lost points because, in our hot, humid climate, it doesn't make sense to bring in so much fresh air. It just consumes more energy. Whom do I assign in my office to go through and argue these points?”

The program's rigid format has left Pfeiffer skeptical of whether it's destined for use beyond a specialized high-end niche. “It's very complicated to rate a house through LEED,” he says. “One has to strive to find that sweet spot between something that's verifiable and authentic and something that's acceptable to the building market; they haven't found it yet. It takes an awful lot of effort and money, and you just have to ask, What is the homeowner getting for this?”

Philosophically, Kevin Pratt, AIA, of Kieran-Timberlake Associates, Philadelphia, also objects to LEED's prescriptive mode and its tendency to “gild the lily” when there would be an economic argument against certain green measures, particularly at the higher certification levels. “Solar panels are still very much not cost-effective in the standard application,” he says, “yet a lot of people are putting them on things.” Pratt notes that, particularly on big-ticket projects that are candidates for LEED Platinum status, building a thermodynamic model of the house is a better way to fine-tune energy performance than following a checklist.

Lance Hosey, AIA, LEED AP, a director at William McDonough + Partners, Charlottesville, Va., agrees that a checklist format, by its nature, misses the boat. “The point of sustainability is to recognize that what you do in one area has consequences in another area,” he says. “When you break requirements into individual components, it's missing that point.” For example, the credit for using a rapidly renewable material, like bamboo from China, contradicts the credit for using local resources. And the credit for using local resources says nothing about the material choice. “You could build a house out of solid plutonium, and as long as you get it [from] down the street, it counts,” Hosey says. “You could have a LEED Platinum building and virtually every credit you qualify for could be compromised.”

Even so, “It's easy to slip into LEED-bashing because there are things about it that are frustrating,” he says. “But the huge caveat is that we wouldn't be having this conversation if not for USGBC, because it's raised consciousness almost overnight.”

Despite its shortcomings—and perhaps because of its high standards—LEED for Homes does mean something to the general public. “It requires you to be much tighter about your specs, and it guarantees to homeowners that they're getting the right stuff,” Pratt says. “But it's only at the high-end custom home-building level that people are willing to pay for it.”

USGBC, for its part, is tweaking these issues by, among other things, broadening the range of circumstances in various categories, building in more flexibility for builders to qualify for the program, and adjusting the home size calculator to ease the penalty for large homes. “Because it's a high-bar program for leaders in the industry, we said we'll keep the bar high but give people more opportunities to meet that bar,” says Ann Edminster, LEED AP, an architect and USGBC consultant in Pacifica, Calif.

Once there's more mileage on the tires, USGBC expects the verification costs—now averaging upwards of $2,000 per custom home, less for production homes—to go down. Jay Hall, acting program manager of LEED for Homes, attributes some of the high costs to the handholding that LEED providers have had to do with builders, and to the fact that the current scarcity of providers means they often have to travel long distances to jobs. Even so, he estimates that the average LEED-certified house costs $60 more per month over 30 years, including verification costs, while saving 30 percent on energy and water. The net effect, he says, is that the cost of a LEED home is about the same as one that's built only to code.

But whether LEED can improve the environmental score of housing on a grand scale is up for debate. Some argue that, for starters, it makes more sense to get 90 percent of builders to do houses that are 20 percent greener than to get 25 percent of builders to do homes that are 50 percent to 75 percent better. Edminster thinks there's room for everyone. “LEED for Homes may or may not represent more value than a local HBA program, depending on the strength of the local program and how widely recognized it is in the consumer base,” she says. “Early on, when we looked at how and why to develop LEED for Homes, we gathered together folks who run those local programs and said we want to do so to fulfill a niche, not to put them out of business. We heard that leading builders would like someplace else to go when they've topped out of the local program. The other piece of that equation is that there are huge areas of the country not serviced by local programs.”