MHMag - By Paul Mitchell on Tuesday, June 2, 2009 - 0 Comments
Will Green Turn Gold?
In an attempt to build a case for yet another green rating system, the National Association of Home Builders under their relatively new “Green Building Program” has laid down a goal of increasing US house energy efficiency by at least 15 percent when compared to non-rated houses.
Late to the game, NAHB’s Green Building Program will have to play catch-up to other more established “green” rating organizations. Chief among them is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most well known US “green” rating system entering its second decade of issued green guidelines for commercial buildings, and more recently a LEED for Homes program (see The LEED House).
But with a lot of inherent advantages the relatively new NAHB program may become an “overnight success”, and in the longer term we may end up buying more Bronze, Silver, and Gold houses rated by the NAHB Green Home Building Guidelines.
Saddling Up To The Green Rating Bar
All green rating programs share the same basic imperatives. A pre-determined accepted practice or material for each stage of the building process is proffered to participating subjects. To the extent they wish to follow the rating imperative, the building project receives a corresponding level of reward in the form of certification. This “stamp of approval” can then be displayed or even advertised to neighbors or potential buyers of the rated house.
Essentially the goals of each green rating system are two-fold. First, provide a method for builders to get in on the next “big thing” in house construction by offering a well-known and respected certification that can spur demand for houses while keeping a “leg up” on builders who are slow to recognize the next “big thing.” The second objective is to encourage green buying in the consumer sector through education and peer pressure. If everything goes right, buyers and sellers (builders) will meet in the middle as we transition from big expensive inefficient houses to smaller smart energy efficient houses over the next generation.
How The NAHB Rolls
The mechanics of the NAHB’s Green Program, as it turns out, are very similar to LEED, right down to categorizing and awarding points for line item actions believed to contribute to a more “green” house.
In the NAHB Green Building Program line items have been separated into 7 categories, with Energy Efficiency stressed as the most important objective. The remaining 6 categories in NAHB’s Green Building Program include, Lot Design, Resource Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, Operation and Homeowner Maintenance, and Global Impact.
Starting with the NAHB’s online Green Scoring Tool, a builder “claims” points as determined by the house plan. According to the NAHB flow chart the house then gets a pre-inspection before drywall is in place (assuming the house uses drywall). After final inspection by a verifier, the NAHB awards the level of certification justified by the pre-established points for each line-item under the 7 categories.
The similarities between the NAHB and LEED may not be entirely by accident. As the NAHB says in their own documentation citing the genesis of the current program, “The NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines were developed through… an extensive review of… several public sector and non-profit programs.” If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, LEED should be thrilled, but in this case it may prove to be a source of discontent should green building become uber-competitive some day in the future.
The Devil At Work
The old adage “the devil is in the details” springs to mind when analyzing the NAHB process for scoring “green” houses. The key it seems to any rating system hinges on the independence of the verifier who reports findings back to the rating organization. How each line item is verified is critical to the overall reliability of the the final certification level awarded. If the verifier role can’t be trusted, any awarded certification calls into question the legitimacy of the entire process. For example, by simply reviewing the NAHB guidelines we find out that the method of verifying many line items is apparently accomplished largely from reviewing “House Plans” or a “Set of Site Plans.” The obvious question becomes, just because “green” choices are included in the builder’s plans, how can the consumer (or even the verifier after the fact) trust that the plans were followed?
Because the verifier is so critical to the process, it’s natural also to wonder who performs site verifications under the NAHB program? Part of the answer again can be found in the NAHB’s own publications. According to their own material we find that “Builders… may verify homes from other builders.” On the heels of the recent devious Wall Street back room secrecy that led us down the path to financial ruin, this kind of insider verifying doesn’t particularly boost the future buyers’ level of confidence in the legitimacy of how points get awarded – not when it seems too easy for insiders (builders) to make deals that ultimately bypass the original intent of the certification.
Still, another question about the NAHB system that has so far gone unexamined is the actual process order in which points are awarded. As mentioned earlier, the first step in obtaining certification is builders “claiming” points for the seven main categories using the NAHB Green Scoring Tool. It is then up to the verifier to agree or not – but in either case at least psychologically speaking the “pressure” is on the verifier to agree with the points already claimed by the builder, instead of the verifier being the sole determinant of how many points should actually be assigned based only on their independent verification.
While LEED (who prefers the rating levels Silver, Gold, and Platinum) has morphed into the most recognizable green rating system in the US, it has not reached its current standing without receiving its own set of criticisms from outspoken architects and builders alike. Though not a direct criticism, perhaps the most telling was LEED founder and CEO Rick Fedrizzi wondering out loud why the AIA has so far refused to endorse his LEED rating system.
For their part the AIA, perhaps in response to Fedrizzi, issued a policy statement on three major rating systems, LEED, another rising green build system called Green Globes, and the less consumer friendly SBTool 07 administered by the International Initiative for a Sustainable Environment. While the AIA has yet to endorse or partner with LEED, the two have since announced “strategic alliances” where they will cooperate on smaller projects that support advocacy and research.
Noticeably missing though in the AIA policy statement was any mention of the NAHB’s Green Building Program – suggesting how much ground the NAHB needs to make up on more entrenched rating organizations.
In The Year 2030
Complicating the matter, the AIA still has not officially joined forces with either the USGBC or the NAHB, but has promoted its own initiative, “The 2030 Challenge” which asks the global architecture community (slanted towards commercial development) to create designs that get us incrementally to a “carbon neutral” world by that date.
While calling on the global community to act as one seems like a particularly ambitious goal, it also might amount to a “call to arms” without a detailed plan to win the war. Provocative types in reviewing the AIA’s own challenge may want to ask as Clara Peller did in the infamous 1984 Wendy’s commercial, “where’s the beef.”
Rating The Raters
As a larger system, green building in the US is still so new that all rating organizations will undoubtedly go through many revisions, and so any final evaluation should be reserved for the future. In fact LEED, the system most likely to emerge as the default, has already gone through numerous changes over the past 10 years. The most recent was to consolidate multiple LEED rating systems into a single effort (although not affecting LEED for Homes).
While it’s fair to expect rating systems to morph into more accurate and meaningful measures of what’s really best for sustainable living, there are questions we can ask now that may help to get there faster.
A few of them are:
1. Should we adopt a single standard that can unilaterally be promoted and understood equally by builders and the consumer alike?
2. Will competing green standards result in fractured systems that degrade the purpose of increasing green living environments?
3. Do any of the major US standards actually go far enough to change the outcome of long-term sustainability?
4. Should we abandon the point systems in favor of more holistic approaches advocated in Europe and by some US architects?
5. Should the federal government be involved with unifying the rating categories, and would government funded certifications encourage more and faster participation from the building industry?
6. Should verification only be performed by a completely independent and separately regulated third-party so there can be no compromise between builder participants, rating organizations, and the public. Perhaps a government sanctioned organization?
The danger though of completely re-thinking our systems designed to encourage new “green” building is that according to most scientists we are running out of time to change our living habits, and so going all the way back to step one will sacrifice any progress made to date.
That may ultimately be the trade-off we are faced with now. If time really is of the essence, doing something at this point may be better than doing nothing.
Cast Of Thousands
In the end we’re left with a few mostly uncooperative major green building systems that, depend on how you look at things, is either better than none, or a sure way to instill confusion, and as a result less participation from important players, not to mention house-buyers.
While the national “green” rating systems seem to also support the many local “green” building programs that have been hatched all over the country, it’s not hard to image a situation where disjointed “green” building systems confuse builders and consumers alike – as the saying goes, “too many cooks spoil the broth.”
In an economy as anemic as the current housing industry, one thing is for sure, the next generation of houses in the US will need to be more efficient, starting with the planning of where houses are built, and following all the way through the post-purchase maintenance of installed green technologies.
The “green” rating systems seem to recognize this much, and there is finally real government support for “green” building, so at the very least we may be at the beginning of a “green” awareness revolution. If that’s the case “green” building standards are sure to evolve as we learn more about the science and can then apply it to the accepted building systems of the day.