the cost equation

LEED's demanding structure gives HBAs plenty of opportunities to stake out a middle ground. A prime example is the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri, which is complying with NAHB's suggested point scale in all seven categories (lot design, preparation, and development; resource efficiency; energy efficiency; water efficiency; indoor environmental quality; operation, maintenance, and homeowner education; and global impact). For $250, builders can get their projects certified. A third-party Home Energy Rating System (HERS) official checks for energy compliance, and the local gas utility signs off on other categories based on documentation the builders provide.

Belcher Homes' president and founder Matt Belcher, who also serves as HBA's president and chairs its Green Builder committee, is one of roughly 20 contractors who've signed on since the program's launch in 2005. He says he routinely builds to the Gold level, which is 40 percent more energy-efficient than code. “I thought I was doing a good job with waste and material purchasing, but this program has reduced my waste by two-thirds and tightened up my bottom line,” says Belcher, who plans to work across party lines. Once a LEED for Homes provider becomes available nearby, he expects to offer LEED as an upgrade from the HBA program.

In arid Albuquerque, the folks at the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico have increased substantially NAHB's green guidelines on water conservation, raising from six to 30 the number of points required for the Bronze level of its Build Green NM program. Armando Cobo, AIBD, a designer and former builder with an architecture degree, says custom builders pay about $800 to have a local HERS rater test for energy efficiency and certify that the water-saving features have been installed correctly. A USGBC member who participated in the LEED for Homes pilot, Cobo notes that, particularly for affordable housing, choosing between the two will likely come down to cost. “LEED Silver is similar to Build Green NM Gold,” he says. “At that point, you're achieving 40 percent energy reduction over code, and with Build Green you can save maybe 3 percent.”

Other architects believe LEED's brand recognition—and regular spec updates from unbiased technical advisory groups—are worth the money. Houston architect LaVerne A. Williams, AIA, LEED AP, is a volunteer advisor for Green Globes, a national materials-rating system affiliated with The Green Building Initiative, the marketing arm of NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines. “The GBI is for builders, not for the consumer,” says Williams, whose firm, Environment Associates, has three LEED homes under way. “It's ‘green-wash' to a great degree, and I'm not in favor of it because there's no [across-the-board] third-party verification.” One of the LEED homes he's working on is also enrolled in Austin's green building program, and he'll use some of its testing to reduce LEED's verification costs.

While top-tier programs are a stretch for production builders in entry-level markets, some are taking them for a spin around the block. Mack Caldwell, AIA, LEED AP, recently designed a zero-energy starter home for Ideal Homes, Oklahoma's largest home builder. With some creative partnering with subs, suppliers, and Building America, the house—which includes 28 solar panels, a geothermal heat pump, and a tankless water heater—was built for just under $200,000. It was LEED-certified after construction, and Ideal Homes is leasing it for a year to monitor energy use.

After the test period is up, the builder will decide which measures are worth exploring. Caldwell, a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma who's also employed by Ideal Homes, says that the builder applied to LEED for Homes because it wanted full third-party verification. “You have to prove you're good to an unbiased authority, and LEED is that kind of rating system,” he says.

As these eco-conscious programs evolve, architects and builders stand to become better-educated, and the competition for bona fide green building will become tougher. The goal, though, is that such standards will eventually become obsolete. “At some point, the hope would be that these strategies are so endemic to the industry that we won't need a filter,” Hosey says, “and that ultimately, there will be no products out there that don't comply across the board.”