Green home building's time has come. Energy-efficient and more sustainably built houses are proliferating around the country. Also on the rise is a greater understanding among consumers of the many benefits these houses offer. But in the crush of green propaganda, home buyers and owners may be missing some important information about green home features and actual performance, largely because there's no standardized method for communicating such information.

That's why green prefab architect Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP, of Oakland, Calif.-based Michelle Kaufmann Designs (MKD), has released a white paper calling for a universal sustainability labeling standard—an ecological performance scorecard much like federally required nutrition labels for food. In "Nutrition Labels for Homes: A way for homebuyers to make more ecological, economical decisions" (available here), Kaufmann and co-author Kelly Melia-Teevan, MKD's media coordinator, propose a labeling method that would make it easier for home buyers to understand the environmental, health, and financial costs and benefits of any particular house. The authors believe such labels would not only be valuable to consumers, but would also demystify sustainability and help grow the green home building industry.

"The way we build in the United States is, in a word, unsustainable," Kaufmann says. "That needs to change. Standing in the way of change, however, is the fact that consumers don't have access to the information that could help them make better purchasing decisions. Sustainability labeling would speak directly to home buyers and allow them to make truly informed decisions about the houses in which they choose to live." It also would make comparing any two or more homes bearing the label much easier on an apples-to-apples basis.

More-savvy home builders also stand to benefit from using ecological performance scorecards, she believes, giving them a marketable advantage over builders of conventional energy-hogging McMansions.

"Nutrition Labels for Homes" explores the environmental impact of the building industry and the financial benefits of green homes, and proposes a methodology for creating such scorecards or labels. The authors also offer examples of energy consumption study data comparing a green home to a comparable conventional home.

Their proposed "Sustainability Facts" label would report on a home's estimated annual energy usage, water usage, and carbon emissions, as well as the percentage of environmentally sustainable materials it contains, average rate of air exchange, and VOC levels, allowing home buyers to see up front how much a house would cost to operate on a monthly basis.

Although any label or scorecard would exist independently of national or local green home building programs, they could easily be applied to homes built under such programs. "The information it expresses will be based on some of the same [quantitative] data used by these programs to evaluate homes, but it will be more universal and give a more complete picture of a home's 'green quotient,'" Kaufmann explains. "Sustainability labeling would not just be for green homes, but for all homes."

Kaufmann believes it's the responsibility of the residential design and construction industry—individuals as well as organizations—to "voluntarily and collectively initiate a sustainability labeling program," but that the federal government also should be involved in regulating such a program, just as it regulates the use of nutrition labels on food.

"My strong hope is that the introduction of sustainability labeling would not only lead to greater demand for sustainably designed homes, but also that the demand would eventually grow to such a degree that traditional and unsustainable home construction methods are one day permanently abandoned. That would be a major victory for the well-being of our environment," she says.