Green Building Rating Organizations

August 30, 2011

Consumers building or renovating commercial and private residences are increasingly “going green.” Owners of green buildings benefit from lower energy costs, customer goodwill and may also receive federal, state, or local tax incentives. These potential benefits have prompted increased requests from building owners for verification that their building is “green.” In response, green building organizations developed certification systems that reward green building practices. The rating systems provide sellers, buyers, lenders and even governments an objective standard to measure the environmental impacts of new and existing buildings.

Although green building certification is largely voluntary, some states and municipalities have passed legislation that requires public, and sometimes private, entities to incorporate LEED or other green building standards into their new or existing buildings. States that require mandatory implementation of green building standards include: Washington, Maryland, Nevada and Colorado. In Washington, for example, all major public agency facilities with a floor area greater than five thousand square feet are required to meet or exceed a LEED-Silver rating. Nevada adopted a similar law that requires state-funded buildings achieve either a LEED-certified rating or an equivalent standard.

As green building certification is on the rise and may soon be required by law, below is a brief description of some of the available rating systems.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system is the most well-known and most frequently used green building standard in the United States. Different LEED rating systems are available for specific project types. LEED-NC applies to both new construction and renovation projects while LEED-EB applies to existing buildings. There are additional LEED rating systems for commercial interiors, schools, neighborhood development and retail.

The LEED system incorporates a third party certification process which has made it an attractive mechanism for state and local governments to measure the environmental performance of buildings. In addition to certifying buildings, LEED also accredits individuals who have the training and experience to direct the green building process. Building owners are encouraged to hire one of these individuals, called a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), independent from their architect, engineer, or contractor, to ensure the building obtains LEED certification.

Although it is the most frequently used certification process, there are several criticisms of LEED. LEED certification is usually the most expensive and complicated green building certification to obtain. Many find the LEED certification process to be too time-consuming. Finally, some argue that LEED ratings do not prioritize energy efficiency as a building can achieve some level of LEED certification even though it may use more energy than another building of the same type that is not certified.

National Green Building Certification
The National Green Building Standard (NGBS) was the first residential green building rating system. The standard covers single family homes, apartments and condominiums, land development, remodeling and renovation. It is the first such standard to conform to international residential fire and safety codes.

Commentators praise the unbiased creation of the NGBS rating system. A committee of large and small builders, green advocates, the United States Green Building Council, government representatives including the EPA and manufacturer representatives created the rating system. The system has also been reviewed in multiple public hearings and has gone through two rounds of public comment. No other green building rating system was developed by such a broad coalition of interests. The NGBS standard is also user friendly and more cost-effective than LEED. However, it is used mainly for residential buildings and is not as well-known as LEED.

Green Globes
Green Globes is an environmental assessment and rating system for both residential and commercial structures. The rating system consists of an online questionnaire-based assessment with optional third party verification. Green Globes is generally acknowledged as having a less complex and less costly certification system than LEED. However, the rating system is criticized for having less rigorous standards.

The Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities (SERF) rating system launched this past fall. The system touts the shortest timeline for certification thus far. The timeline for certification is only four to six weeks, whereas LEED certification may take up to a year. However, the certification program is not well-known and has certified only thirty-two buildings in the United States. It remains to be seen how much this green building program will be utilized.

GreenPoint Rated
There are also state-based certification systems. In California, for example, Build It Green, a non-profit organization whose goal is to promote energy and resource-efficient residential buildings in the state, created a certification system called GreenPoint Rated. The system certifies both new and existing single family and multi-family homes. Like LEED, the system uses a third party verification method. The final rating allows prospective purchasers to compare the environmental performances of different homes.

Bottom Line
Due in part to changing legislation, as well as cost-benefits for building owners, green-certified buildings are expected to represent forty to forty-eight percent of the commercial building market by 2015. An owner, architect or contractor must keep in mind that green building rating organizations are not interchangeable. The costs and benefits of each rating system must be carefully weighed.

Special thanks to Axley Summer Law Clerk Brandie Morgenroth for her assistance with this article.

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