An Introduction to Residential Green Building Certifications: Part I


Aug 26, 2022
An Introduction to Residential Green Building Certifications: Part I

Certification programs represent a major part of the green building industry, affirming specific achievements and credentials and encouraging the development of leading-edge practices and materials. It can be challenging for someone new to green building to gain proficiency or to understand how to approach this field and to figure out where or exactly how to begin a green building journey. At the same time, there is only so much information one can gain from research. Although a wealth of information exists, its sheer volume can be confusing and it can be unclear what to learn first or the steps one can take. Fortunately, several industry leaders with experience in both using and creating green building certifications made time to share their understanding of the role that certifications play in the green residential market.

Thank you to the following individuals:

Marla Esser Cloos, Green Home Coach
Sheridan Foster, Elemental Green
Matt Hoots, Sawhorse Inc.
Brett Little, Green Home Institute
Carl Seville, SK Collaborative


What is green building?

Green building is essentially thoughtful design and execution, representing a more holistic understanding of building science with five main pillars or areas of focus: energy, materials, water, health, and place. Green building also describes a process and can represent more than one point in time, encompassing the strategic planning, design, construction, and operation of a building throughout its lifecycle, from material sourcing through end of life, to optimize the building’s environmental impact. Green buildings share general characteristics, but specific definitions which generalize the concept of green building aren’t always accurate for individual projects; different owners, occupants, and other stakeholders might embrace the concept in its entirety, while others may choose focus areas based on personal, professional, or individual project goals. Green buildings are generally high functioning, lowering operational and energy costs by 25% in the US and up to 40% globally, and consuming 11% less water in the US and up to 30% less water globally (WGBC, n.d.). Green buildings are also healthier for the occupants with mindful selection of materials and educated indoor air quality choices, equipment, and practices, also further improving occupant comfort. Green building designers and owners work to reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels through efficient equipment selection, electrification, and renewable energy, when possible, to improve energy efficiency and occupant health. Green building practices reduce a building’s impact as much as possible with optimal use of resources, but there is also a regenerative movement to construct buildings that have a net positive influence well into the future. Green buildings are increasingly valuable as real estate investments, but it’s also imperative to build sustainably to meet critical climate goals. Globally, the construction and operation of buildings produces 39% of carbon emissions, 28% from building operations and 11% through materials and construction (WGBC, n.d.). Buildings therefore clearly present a significant opportunity to lower impact and emissions to mitigate the worst results of climate change.


What is a green home?

Green building includes both commercial and residential buildings, but the green residential market refers to living spaces as opposed to commercial office buildings, or institutional, educational, industrial, and other buildings. The green residential market tends to provide more options for certification paths and more choices to make a home sustainable. As previously noted, the exact definition of a green home varies, as homes may be new or existing and decisionmakers can make different choices on the level of sustainability or which specific attributes to pursue, but the top benefits of green homes generally include lower energy costs and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Many green homes have improved indoor air quality, as proper ventilation is important for health and is even more essential when tightening up a home’s envelope to achieve increased energy efficiency. Green homes are increasingly electrifying, shifting from fossil-fuel burning equipment in favor of electric equipment. In addition to generating less pollutants on site and generally operating more efficiently, electric equipment delivers additional environmental impact over time. As the grid becomes more efficient, emissions of electric equipment are therefore also reduced. Green homes also often employ renewable energy. These and other factors, separately or combined, are components of green building. They also add up to make a home more desirable, and therefore more valuable for current and future occupants.


What are the steps to achieve a certified green home?

If someone wants to build a green certified home, the steps vary based on the type of construction project. For new construction, a contractor and owner can choose a program that aligns with the project conditions and goals and follow it, depending on the contractor's knowledge of green building and certifications. Existing homes, however, generally require more planning and work, seeing as the green building path varies according to the obstacles presented by the existing structure. First, the contractor or a consultant should conduct a home assessment to analyze which areas require improvement and work from there; Green Home Coach’s “Can My Home Be Green?” tool can help with this analysis. However, if the project is a whole house renovation, the contractor can apply the new construction checklist if they gut the house, leaving only the structure to remain.


Why isn’t everyone taking these steps?

The homeowner, contractor, or ideally both must have the will to insist on green building practices and certifications for the home because those people who don’t fully understand green building’s value may not be determined enough to fight for these improvements. One reason for slower than optimal market growth is an emphasis on the short-term costs of building. Long term, owners receive financial, health, and further benefits from a green home. We must learn to better quantify and explain these benefits over a building’s lifetime, and even the likely duration of ownership or occupancy, so that more people can make better educated and long-term decisions.


In addition to providing generally helpful information, local resources may help for learning what proximate green building practices and products professionals are most experienced with. One might want to pick the green pathways or programs that seem outwardly to match best with the personal and project goals, but it is wise to also consider what programs and practices that professionals in the area have more experience with. Additionally, professionals and code officials tend to be more enthusiastic about concepts that they already have experience with. People seeking to understand what their green building market consists of should consider contacting or involving themselves with people and organizations nearby who have similar goals:

  • Connect with local green building organizations
    • Great for events and education
    • Many have public member lists
  • Check out nearby green building retailers
    • People at these establishments are very knowledgeable and can often make product recommendations
    • They also often know active local green building professionals
  • Join local environmental organizations
    • Many have green building focused or related activities
    • These groups will often have green professional members, or may be able to refer to green vendors
  • Search for green buildings nearby
    • Energy Star database
    • Green Building Registry
    • Green real estate sites, such as Realty Sage


What are green building certifications and why use them?

A green building certification is, at its simplest, a mark or label that affirms a building meets the environmental and performance requirements established by a particular program. Earlier programs mainly focused on energy efficiency, but in recent years, green building certifications have greatly expanded their environmental and social impact definition. Health is now well established as an essential part of all green building programs, even if the exact requirements and measures vary. Recent trends also focus on lowering embodied carbon, which accounts for carbon emissions over the entire lifecycle of a building, and on numerous social justice and equity considerations, particularly in commercial buildings but also industry wide.


There are several certification programs and tools available to improve buildings for both the environment and occupants, providing both project-level and industry-wide benefits, which then also vary by program and project. This infrastructure allows a wide and flexible list of offerings that can be customized according to stakeholder goals and any local codes or other requirements. These programs are designed to optimize aspects of a building's design, construction, and operation. As such, they share some key commonalities, and overlapping goals and principles. There are differences as well, though; some certification attest that a building has met a wider set of requirements, while others verify a building has met more specific goals. Some are more rigorous and involve third party verification or inspection, including operational measurements, even at multiple stages of building or operations, where others are comparable to checklists with less intensive verification. Programs might also offer different paths or strategies of how to reach the stated requirements.


At the project level, decisionmakers select the most appropriate standard to meet their project goals, whether these are general goals that align with a whole building program, or specific goals such as increasing energy efficiency and decreasing emissions, becoming net zero or positive, improving air quality or comfort, or using fewer, more natural, or less impactful materials. All these decisions then add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, as beyond individual projects, certification programs also have positive impacts on the wider green building industry, some of which might be more apparent than others:

  • Certification programs provide a baseline for projects, helping standardize green building principles and practices so that all builders don’t have to create individual high-performance designs for each project.
  • Program guidelines also help to affirm or prove the results and impact of a green building project.
    • A key benefit of certifications in this sense is that they serve as marketing collateral, helping to explain or verify the value of a sustainable building. This is a strong argument for building professionals, in that certifications can play a key role in optimizing their return on investment. A wider benefit is achieved at the same time, with improved environmental impact.
    • Additionally, for clients, certification provides assurance of project results from a third-party as affirmation of the contractor’s report. Likewise, future occupants or buyers can rely on this same affirmation and not on the word of the seller. 
  • Furthermore, certification programs act as a training tool for builders, as they can confidently learn from and even contribute to improving existing certification systems. They can do this both as they follow others down the learning curve and as they lead those who follow.
  • Measuring is also part of proving value, and certification programs also provide guidance on how to evaluate building performance. Again, it would be burdensome and confusing if every builder needed to create their own measurements. Some programs more actively measure, while others are still evolving. Measurement and monitoring might be a factor to research in selecting a green building program, depending on project goals.
  • Certifications educate and provide support for those looking to do the right thing and build green, often pushing builders to consider more options because certifications are more holistic. These programs and participating professionals form communities which are positive and reinforcing, increasing impact and awareness and encouraging builders to be more aspirational.
  • Outside of the green building professional circle, certification program guidelines can also work as a tool to educate and inspire lawmakers on how to create better building codes and related policies. This environmental impact is important, as critical climate goals cannot be met without addressing building emissions. Carl notes that the hope for the future is that energy and building codes will evolve to the point where certifications are not even necessary, as all buildings will be more sustainable and healthier. However, until we reach that point, certification organizations can serve a critical policy role, in addition to other benefits.


What are some challenges, or certification weaknesses?

Green building certification programs clearly have both small and large-scale impacts, but it’s worth examining program challenges as well. Even if we might wish for wider adoption, we also need to keep pushing and asking ourselves what the barriers are, so that we can find solutions and overcome those challenges.


While additional information sources and programs are certainly a plus in some senses, green building can be daunting for someone new to this topic, whether it is for a singular project or for an emerging professional career. The volume of options can make what should be a sustainability opportunity instead seem complex and intimidating, and the various paths to green buildings can seem overwhelming. Clear, approachable, and thorough educational efforts for both professionals and nonprofessionals might have a significant impact on uptake speed and percentage. Everyone might not need to become an expert, but a more common understanding of basic principles could help transform the built environment much quicker.


It’s also important to keep in mind that any system is only as good as those who are implementing it. There are often complaints that some building professionals try to gain points or only meet the minimum, but it isn’t entirely fair to judge a whole community by those who try to find loopholes. A fair comment about meeting the minimums might be that certifications are a guideline, and not necessarily a guarantee of what one might call maximum effort. Although these programs are constantly improving, it’s worth noting that people who view the checklist as the endpoint, content with a passing grade and meeting the bare minimum for certification, aren’t fully realizing the objective and moving themselves or the industry forward.


A certification is also generally an affirmation or a measurement at a point in time, especially for those which do not continuously monitor and measure. They are not a forever guarantee that a building was or will be optimally designed, built, or managed. Certified buildings can still have defects or can be operated sub-optimally. Even the best plans or best equipment, if designed, installed, or operated inefficiently, can’t perform to the highest level. On one hand, it’s unfair to expect a certification to fix or address every problem. On the other hand, it’s indeed a limitation if once a plaque is hung or recognition is given for an achievement, the effort to continuously improve or even maintain a standard loses its momentum. Stakeholders need to continue to become educated and improve their building, not just accept the certification as a building’s final or optimal state. People also must understand proper building operation to achieve maximum performance; these improvements can only do so much if the people operating them don’t understand how they work.


The specific goals and requirements of each green building certification depends on the governing body. As each program has its strengths and weaknesses, people looking to build or renovate a sustainable project must research what will work best for them and should hire a professional to help make the best-informed long-term decision possible.



Certification: Deciding Why or Why Not to Certify a Green Home

Why certify a green home?

One reason to certify a green building is that some municipalities require a specific minimum certification, but for most projects the final decision on whether to certify will depend on project goals. For some projects, owners and builders choose to follow a certification program to achieve the results and impact without registering and paying to receive official recognition.


As mentioned previously, marketability is a significant driver for certification. A project’s certification can enhance the building’s value and salability in the real estate market because of the lower energy burden, health impacts, and other tangible and even intangible benefits. As highlighted in an earlier piece, “Investing in Green Energy Improvements,” many people are willing to pay more to buy or rent a green building because of the lower energy bills and better overall health and efficiency of the building. Furthermore, certifications help owners understand the history of the home. If a building has previously been certified, new owners looking to renovate can understand what is already in place from previous construction and assure that the builders constructed the home with green building principles in mind.


Another advantage of official verification is the certification’s impact on the owner’s position as a public environmental statement. Certified buildings improve the builder’s standing with verified projects illustrating the values and capability of the firm in the green building market, encouraging others seeking a sustainable structure to take advantage of the builder’s skills and experience. Moreover, while some builders have the credentials to be green builders, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they build green homes, so the third-party verification acts as evidence of a contractor’s green building experience.


Why might someone choose not to certify?

There are some barriers to verification. The main reason people follow these program guidelines without obtaining official certification is cost. While program costs vary, on-site certification can be financially burdensome and time-consuming, especially if decision-makers do not predict a financial return on investment from the certification itself, as some investments return differently and at different speeds. Even though the upfront cost is a visible figure and possible deterrent, most people can understand energy savings over a reasonable period. Health benefits, however, can be harder to quantify. People will have a harder time recognizing the value of and paying for benefits they can’t quite quantify or even properly understand. For example, someone with a health challenge or severe allergies might easily understand the value of a healthy home, whereas someone who feels relatively healthy might not as easily process the value of these healthy building practices.


If there is no measurable financial return for a green building or features and the goal is simply sustainability, following a green building program’s guideline outside of the certification process still has the environmental and efficiency impacts of a certified building. Following the green building certification guidelines and creating a high-performance building that will reduce emissions still obviously produces the same functional benefits. Green building lessens environmental impact and better prepares owners for building codes changing to meet climate goals. If certification is not a goal in the process of a green building project, meeting the certification requirements provides the sustainability and energy efficiency of a design that improves the wellbeing of the occupants.


How does someone choose which green building certification to follow?

The choice of certification program depends on the individual project; one must consider which programs are applicable and available for the structure. For example, in commercial projects, there are fewer choices and while there are more for residential, a less popular choice means fewer people in each area likely have the knowledge and skillset to build or verify it. Availability is a problem in this market, so certification may not be an option, but a contractor could still build in accordance with the guideline.


There is also the consideration of prescriptive vs. performance paths in terms of how to meet certification requirements. In the more stringent prescriptive approach, the team follows the program checklist, closely if not exactly with few or no choices. Prescriptive paths also do not require performance modeling, because the rules are set by what was done and not a specific operational result.  The requirements are either met or not.  The performance approach concerns the house operating to certain requirements, so it requires the team to present how the structure will meet or exceed the specified minimum standards; in this case, modeling will be required as confirmation of this achievement. Choosing a path depends on the project; if there are obstacles to meeting one or more specific requirements, a contractor might tend to follow the performance path, while the prescriptive approach might be better for those who want to follow a checklist or an established and stringent system. Passive House offers a choice between paths, where a contractor can follow the checklist or show projected overall energy performance through modeling. PH offers some flexibility but is stringent, but as reflected in Part II, NGBS and EarthCraft, GreenStar and Pearl offer some flexibility that might really help those who are new, have smaller projects, or are retrofitting.


Concluding Thoughts

Certifications are an influential and impactful sector within the green building market, affirming a building’s performance, health, and comfort levels, and inspiring others to work to achieve the same or better results. Verifications help the market gain traction and popularity with competitive real estate value and provide standards of what green building realistically looks like to those with less experience in the market. Additionally, some programs are more approachable than others, with entry level certifications that allow for improvements over time, so that the house can grow to be progressively greener.


These more approachable programs can act as a gateway to green building, with builders applying the more stringent requirements as their building science comprehension improves. There’s also no reason a project team must solely meet the minimum without surpassing it. Indeed, each project can continue to improve as the contractor’s and owner’s knowledge grows, as will the building professional’s portfolio.

 Certification program guidelines can teach builders how to create a more sustainable structure by highlighting what aspects are essential in a green building. Certifications standardize the market, progressing the accessibility of green building improvements.


However, certification programs aren’t perfect; they can only help so much, depending on building professionals. The guidelines can teach builders what to do but not how to do it, so to improve adoption, there must be more education and training. In Part II of this piece, green building professionals share their experiences within the green building residential sector, and their various perspectives help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of this market. The green residential market has progress to make to reach a time when all homes are green and healthy; we must look to the future and work to improve buildings and reduce their environmental impact, while also supporting the trade force that can help meet these critical goals.


Major Whole Building Green Building Certification Organizations:


Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED): 100,000+ Certified Projects

LEED aims to address the big picture, factoring in a combination of critical elements to create the overall structure. 35% of the credits in LEED are related to climate change, 20% of the credits directly impact human health, 15% of the credits impact water resources, 10% of the credits affect biodiversity, 10% of the credits relate to the green economy, 5% of the credits impact community, and 5% of the credits impact natural resources. In LEED v4.1, most LEED credits are related to operational and embodied carbon. All LEED systems, except LEED Homes, rely on professionals to document the project through drawings, specifications, energy model reports, and online templates. LEED Homes certification directs an owner to hire a Green Rater to verify the project.


Levels of certification have prescriptive points out of 110:

  • Certified: 40 - 49 points
  • Silver: 50 - 59 points
  • Gold: 60 - 79 points
  • Platinum: 80+ points


Those builders or owners looking for a Green Rater to LEED certify the home can use USGBC’s database to find a certifier in the area. LEED is a well-known certification which helps standardize and demystify the green building market, while improving a building’s marketability and sustainability. However, LEED for Homes has not been as successful as LEED for commercial building, the management of the certification process can be challenging and the review process can be arduous and long.


Energy Star: Over 2.4 million Certified Homes and Apartments

Energy Star is a US government-endorsed energy efficiency standard, independently certified by the EPA for specific products and an online tool for buildings. Building teams hoping for an Energy Star score can use their Portfolio Manager to track their energy and water use and the overall building waste. Then, the tool applies a score from 1 to 100 on the project's efficiency. Builders can also use Energy Star products to achieve a different certification standard, such as Passive House using energy-efficient products to reduce energy use. Energy Star also provides a database with contractors and companies that have experience with the program as a first step to explore how a home can become more energy efficient.


Green Globes

Green Globes is an online certification resource, considered a more affordable alternative to LEED. After an online preliminary evaluation, Green Globes provides an expert, deemed a third-party assessor, dedicated to the project, and the program mandates an on-site examination. Green Globes uses the ANSI-approved consensus development process, no pre-requisites, lifecycle assessment, and multiple attribute evaluations, and accepts SFI, ATFS, and CSA forest certifications in addition to FSC. Also, there are four paths for energy performance for new buildings, whereas LEED has two.


Projects may be awarded one to four Green Globes based on the percentage of the 1,000 possible points:

  • one GG: 35 - 54%
  • two GG: 55 - 69%
  • three GG: 70 - 84%
  • four GG: 85 - 100%


Green Globes is an accessible green building program that can help those looking to begin the transition a more sustainable structure.


Living Building Challenge (LBC): 100+ Partially Certified Projects

The LBC standard is an ambitious Future Living Institute building program, but it is difficult to apply on smaller projects; it is typically applied for more commercial use, but bigger residential projects can use the certification program and build a healthy and sustainable building for people to occupy. An LBC building must perform net-zero energy use, use only water that arrives on-site naturally, and requires that the water be treated on-site and returned to the natural cycle for net-zero water use. The project must produce local, organic food and not use any materials from a Red List of unhealthy and unsustainable materials. There are no optional imperatives, making it a prescriptive approach. LBC requires meter confirmation from a year of operation that the project generates at least as much energy as it used and demands third-party performance certification.


LBC applies seven performance areas called Petals:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health & Happiness
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty


If we constructed all future buildings to meet the requirements of all LBC petals, growth in emissions from the construction sector would cease, and efforts to improve existing buildings could yield real reductions in global carbon emissions.


Passive House Institute (PHI): Over 35,000 Certified Homes / Passive House Institute US (PHIUS): Over 7,000 Certified Homes

The Passive House Institute's objective is the creation of efficient, comfortable buildings with low energy consumption. For a design to receive certification, one of the over 40 Passive House Building Certifiers must inspect it. The passive house standard utilizes solar energy, energy-efficient appliances, utilities, insulation with tight construction, insulated doorframes, windows within a specific U-value range, and ventilation. Passive House Institute uses the Passive House Planning Package for energy modeling and focuses on energy per square foot. To find a passive house tradesperson, designer, or certifier, PHI provides a database to help.


Passive House Institute US adopts the passive house standard while adjusting it to the explicit climate zones in North America to address the difference in humidity, temperature, etc. PHIUS uses WUFI Passive for energy modeling, where modeling thermal is free, but the paid version provides hygrothermal analysis of assemblies, supplying the dew point. PHIUS focuses more on energy consumption per person for scaling purposes. PHIUS also has a database of passive house professionals to help those people looking to build or retrofit a passive house.


The passive house certification focuses more on energy consumption and usage than materials and is geared more towards residential buildings but can also be applied on commercial buildings.


National Green Building Standard (NGBS): Over 350,000 Certified Homes

The ICC700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS) is endorsed by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and is approved for homes and apartments by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the only green building rating system which can claim this distinction. Projets are verified by an NGBS Green Verifier or NGBS Master Green Verifier and after the Verification Report, the verifier will submit the report to Home Innovation which will issue the certification. NGBS scoring has a total of over 1,100 points, but only requires 231 for a Bronze Certification, allowing flexibility in choosing practices best suited for the project, as well as a lower barrier to entry with significant room for growth and improvement. There are mandatory practices across all categories, but the vast number of points allows contractors to specialize in a category where it’s best for the project.


NGBS uses six categories to measure building performance:

  • Lot Design and Development
  • Resource Efficiency
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Building Operation and Maintenance


There are also five certification levels:

  • Certified
  • Bronze
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Emerald


NGBS is a popular residential resource which improves efficiency, air quality, operation, and other factors and is widely applicable, seeing as NGBS considers lot development as well.


Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM): Over 600,000 Certified Buildings

BREEAM is an international green building rating system which has served as a base for other standards such as LEED and Green Globes, seeing as BREEAM was one of the earliest programs. The standard is focused on sustainability and improving building environmental performance. There are nine categories weighed differently to highlight the specific area with the most environmental impact. BREEAM also provides online tools to help achieve the standard; the project chooses an assessor to verify the building’s performance and the assessor submits this report for certification.


The 9 categories provide the baseline for environmental concerns to be addressed:

  • Management
  • Health & Well-being
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Water
  • Materials
  • Waste
  • Land Use & Ecology
  • Pollution


For BREEAM ratings, there are five stars a building can achieve (BREEAM In-Use has 6 with a rating of Acceptable below Pass):

  • Pass: 1 Star
  • Good: 2 Stars
  • Very Good: 3 Stars
  • Excellent: 4 Stars
  • Outstanding: 5 Stars


The BREEAM certification, as one of the longest standing programs, is and has been influential in the green building market, helping to progress the movement of building sustainability.


Some Additional / Regional Programs:



EarthCraft is a Southface and Greater Atlanta Homeowners Association green building program, which both Matt Hoots and Carl Seville took part in creating, that is accessible, intuitive, and without the tougher requirements of LEED or Passive House. EarthCraft is less prohibitive, as it does not require the builder to gut an existing building to achieve the standard, making it more appealing for retrofits.


Retrofit approachability is a good reason to keep an eye on EarthCraft. We cannot overlook the impact of the currently standing buildings, as they will exist far into our climate timelines, so retrofits are a central part of the journey to a more sustainable future. EarthCraft is useful for retrofits because those creating the guidelines continue to assess and improve the standard to assure that the certification is always up to date, helping encourage further development of existing and new buildings. As we mature our understanding of how to produce green buildings, programs which recognize the need for continual updates and analysis, such as EarthCraft, are essential to creating better building strategies. 



GreenStar is a certification program created by the GreenHome Institute, a system which addresses health and climate risks, leaks, filtration, and general building health. There is an online manual to guide contractors through this process, with sections for the different aspects of the building. There are various badges a building can achieve if a specific goal is more important to the contractor, often created as a response to builders hoping for recognition and to spread their practices. These badges also present an opportunity for incremental improvements to create a better home with options such as Net Zero Energy, Net Zero Water, Healthier Home, Electrification, Zero Carbon, Reduced Electromagnetic Frequency, Resiliency, and Accessibility. GreenStar differs from a few of these programs because to reach each of its four levels, instead of chasing points, builders must address explicit subsets of green practices, which are integral to creating a better building. 


Brett Little, from Green Home Institute, teaches a course on GreenStar and some of the other certifications, a program which provides more specific comparisons for further analysis.



Pearl is a green building certification, typically used for retrofits, focused on home performance, but unlike many other green building certifications, it is much more incremental. Builders can work towards a better building over time, a tactic which accommodates homeowners’ feat of replacing equipment before it’s necessary. Retrofitting can be expensive, so the ability to slowly adapt a home can be much more appealing to homeowners who prefer to wait to install improvements until the prior system reaches the end of its lifecycle. The Pearl certification was developed by real estate industry professionals, and therefore may offer some different perspectives and approaches. Real estate agents are often the people talking about these homes to prospective buyers, so it’s critical to include them in the conversation, so they can better communicate what green buildings and certifications mean to a buyer.


Enterprise Green Communities

Enterprise Green Communities is a green building certification program with over 130,000 certified homes specifically designed for affordable housing, a sector that is sometimes underserved. Enterprise Green Communities focuses on making green building improvements, which improve occupant health and well-being, more accessible. The program provides access to grants, technical assistance, and researchers and actively engages policymakers in green affordable housing development. While replacing older, inefficient, and unhealthy buildings with green structures is well-intended, these improvements cause home prices in these areas to rise, sometimes leading to gentrification. Programs such as Enterprise Green Communities are essential because low-to-moderate income households cannot afford to pay the additional energy and water costs of inefficient equipment and the healthcare bills from unhealthy indoor air quality and environment. Discussions of green homes are crucial, but we must remember not to leave affordable housing out of the conversation, an example of how building policies should look.


However, this program is not without its drawbacks, as the certification process can be lengthy, requiring resubmissions over minor details. This resubmission process can also be problematic with possible long waiting periods for verification.


Individual Element Certifications and Tools:


What are HERS Ratings and HES Scores?

The Home Energy Rating System, or HERS Index is a product of The Residential Energy Services Network, or RESNET.  HERS ratings provide a basis for measuring and comparing a home's energy efficiency, which is of course a key factor in many green building certification programs.  Energy efficiency, as previously stated, lowers a building’s energy usage with energy-efficient products requiring less to operate at the same, if not a better, level.

HERS ratings are based on an index of 0 to 150, with 0 representing net zero energy, 100 meaning the equivalent of average new construction levels (as of a 2006 benchmark) to 150 (or beyond) for the most inefficient energy usage.  HERS is a calculation derived from the ERI or Energy Rating Index created by ANSI.  

HERS scoring is typically used for new homes and can provide potential buyers with the information they need to compare a home’s performance and potential operational costs. RESNET provides a database with HERS raters ,and Energy Smart Builders, an option for people to begin the journey to green building and sustainability. Building Science Institute (BSI) also has a database for all ERI Verifiers, Verification Organizations, and a public access registry.

A HES  or Home Energy Score is a similar concept but is based on the index created by the US Department of Energy and is typically used for existing homes. The score measures the energy efficiency on a scale of 1, being the least efficient, to 10, being the most efficient, providing a baseline level for owners and builders to understand the home’s performance and where to improve. Assessing a building’s energy efficiency performance provides a direction of where to begin with retrofits as it is the easiest concept for people to understand, additionally helping both owners and prospective buyers. People looking to assess their home’s efficiency can use the Better Building map of assessors to find one in their area.


Net Zero Energy Building

The International Living Future Institute, under its Living Building Challenge Certification, provides the Net Zero Energy Building certification, essentially meaning a building produces as much energy as it uses. By utilizing renewable energy, energy efficient systems, and tight building, a Net Zero Energy Building reduces and provides for its energy usage, minimizing the impact of the building on the environment and eliminating its fossil fuel use.


EPA WaterSense

WaterSense focuses on water efficiency of a building, mandating that WaterSense labeled homes must use 30% less water than typical new construction. The EPA requires there to be no water leakage in the home and WaterSense labeled toilets, faucets, and showerheads. Other home certifications use a WaterSense Approved Certification Method to achieve water efficiency in their own guidelines. The EPA evaluates features such as plumbing products, water-use appliances, wastewater from hot water delivery, housing design and layout, landscape size, plants and their irrigation requirements, and irrigation design in the approval of these certification methods to help a program guide homeowners and builders to a better water-efficient design.


EPA Indoor airPLUS

Indoor airPLUS is also an EPA program used to assure and better the air quality inside of a building. Through requirements of healthier construction practices and specific product use, the EPA directs builders to a healthy home by minimizing airborne pollutant and contaminant exposure. These requirements include specifications of moisture control systems, systems for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, combustion-venting systems, radon resistant construction, and low-emitting building materials.


Commercial Health Programs, But Still Relevant

WELL Building: 20,000+ Buildings Certified

WELL Building is a standard geared towards healthier living, specifically with the light, air, and water quality. The building must be third-party approved with upfront documentation to receive a WELL Building certification. The WELL standard applies mechanical ventilation to improve the indoor air quality and chilled beam systems for thermal comfort with dry cooling without condensation for low humidity. The design also engages white noise machines, natural lighting, and an indirect, circadian lighting design, changing color temperature and intensity, for balanced lighting to support health. The measure also employs integrative design, plants, and nature to improve health, water filters, and materials with low-to-no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for air quality.


WELL Building includes four certification levels based on points out of 100 total:

  • Bronze: 40 points
  • Silver: 50 points
  • Gold: 60 points
  • Platinum: 80 points


Overall, while WELL building is typically used for commercial spaces, the focus on occupant wellbeing of these practices are important resources for builders to consider and employ in residential projects, as WELL is in pilot for a residential program.



Fitwel is a certification program which focuses specifically on health of a building and its occupants. The CDC and U.S. General Services Administration originally created the program to help better health and wellbeing through construction techniques in both new and existing buildings.


Fitwel has seven impact categories:

  • Impacts Surrounding Community Health
  • Reduces Morbidity and Absenteeism
  • Supports Social Equity for Vulnerable Populations
  • Instills Feelings of Well-Being
  • Enhances Access to Healthy Foods
  • Promotes Occupant Safety
  • Increases Physical Activity




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