Our Green Guide to Prefab series has explored a number of considerations that need to be made when planning for a prefab home, from siting to personal style to financing and loans. But how do you translate that all of that newfound information into a succinct design that maximizes sustainability? Green certification is one way to bring order to the often overwhelming process of constructing a home, and it provides a sustainability score sheet and solid guidelines that will help you systemize your decision-making process in a way that will make sense to you. By using a certification program to help plan your home, you can skip all the hair pulling and have peace of mind knowing that you’ve taken every step possible to create an energy-efficient, healthy, and sustainable space for living. Read ahead to learn more about the biggest certification programs out there, what you need to do to get started with one, and how getting your home certified will add to the long-term dollar value of your new prefab.
The “Big Three” Certification Programs
There are several certification programs that you may or may not already be aware of, and they each vary significantly when it comes to how they are used. While the purpose of this post is not to evaluate them, I will provide you with a brief overview so you can begin to familiarize yourself with some of the more recognized options out there.
The Energy Star program is used to rate appliances, heating and cooling systems, and other articles found in the home that consume energy. This was the first major program to certify superior energy conservation performance. It has served to heighten America’s awareness of performance differences, and pressed manufacturers to produce more energy-efferent products. Logically, the Energy Star program for homes is based almost exclusively on the home’s energy performance, and an Energy Star home consumes 30% less energy than a conventional home used as a baseline for comparison.
The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program was originally created to rate commercial buildings, and has since been refined to rate houses on a comprehensive list of green criteria, including:
- Innovation and design process
- Location and linkage
- Sustainable site
- Water efficiency
- Energy and atmosphere
- Material and resources
- Indoor environmental quality
- Awareness and education
In each category, a myriad of features are rated numerically and a home’s total score will determine if it qualifies for one of four levels of certification; Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. To give you an idea of the assigned values, being “Certified” requires 45 points, while “Platinum” certification requires 90 out of 136 possible points.
Like its commercial sibling, LEED for Homes is oriented toward community developers and some of the categories reflect that bent. Note that a home can be certified by scoring high in one area (e.g. energy efficiency) and faring poorly in another (e.g. indoor air quality), which, in my opinion, allows for a certain misleading ambiguity for consumers.
Learning from the pioneer programs, and empowered by growing consumer realization that environmental responsibility is not a fad and that it is broad in scope, The International Code Council, in collaboration with the NAHB Research Center, developed a green building standard that takes a more holistic approach. The ICC Certification Program evaluates the same criteria as the LEED program, but unlike LEED, it requires that the project score successfully in all categories, clarifying that a “bamboo gas guzzler” is not green. The ICC Certification Program partners consumers with designers and developers in building and maintaining green homes.
Before selecting a particular certification program for your new home, research any rebate or tax credit programs that are available in your area to see if any particular certification program is specified for eligibility. If the choice is yours I’d suggest the ICC program on the basis of its holistic approach. It should provide strong reassurance that you’ve covered all your bases, even if you decide to sell your home years from now.
The Certification Process
The process of achieving green certification is similar for each program, and it begins with the completion of a design report. The design report is a listing of all the specifications that affect the building’s performance, and in essence it serves as a checklist of all the qualifying features and finishes you intend to include in the house. The design report is interactive, keeping running score with each decision you make. The report makes it easy to see what impact the different products and systems will have on a home’s overall rating.
There is no requirement as to who fills out the designer’s report. In some cases the builder and homeowner will work on the design report together, but ultimately the builder is responsible for making sure the details of the report are carried out correctly. Your involvement helps ensure a working knowledge of the process, and how your product selections and design decisions will affect the final score.
The choices you make on the design report should be well considered, since the actual certification requires verifying that all of the items listed in the design report (and their point scores) were in fact utilized and installed properly in the completed house. An accredited verifier will inspect the home at various stages during construction, calculating the as-built score based on those inspections — this is the sole basis of your certification and its level.
Some consumers engage consultants to advise them in certain areas and review their design report. This is particularly relevant if those responsible for designing and/or building your home are not well-versed in green certification. The expense of a green consultant varies from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on how much of the expert’s time you require.
Green consultants can actually save you a great deal of time and money. Look for consultants who are specialists in this relatively new field. My green consultant for this post was Dan Wise of the Grand Design Group in State College, PA (email@example.com). Dan has consulted on or verified houses from Rhode Island to Ohio, and ge became passionately involved in green building and certification on the local, state, and national levels when the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center developed its green building standard. He will be serving on the ICC Green Building Code Development Committee for the 2015 code.
When to Begin
The bottom line is that green certification cannot be an afterthought. The decision to build to qualify for certification should be made at the start of the design process. Since so many decisions made at the outset (e.g. siting, design, and specification decisions), failure to prepare can have a major impact on your home’s score. Once construction begins and the house is enclosed, certain verification inspections may not be possible and could render certification out of the question.
If your home is being built in a factory and shipped to the site as a module, it is likely that some of the verification inspections may be required in the factory. Ask modular producers that you are evaluating how they handle in-factory verification and how much cost if any, it will add to your home — consider their response in your selection process. The NAHB Research Center has green approved designation for modular homes that ensures the home has been constructed to qualify for points under the ICC Standard.
The Cost of Green Certification
Prior to the development of green certification programs, there wasn’t a method to determine the added cost of going green. Any discussion on cost at that time was little more than one person’s opinion. Now that there are certification programs, the added cost of building a green home can be easily determined.
While there is added cost to build a green home, particularly for the higher certification levels, it was determined that approximately 80% of the points required for the bronze level of the ICC Standard were “no-cost” points. For example, proper siting of the house to minimize disturbance to the building site is a “no-cost” practice that may well result in lower site preparation and construction costs. The remainder of the points required for the bronze level typically adds between 2 to 5% to the cost of the home.
The higher levels of green construction are where more costly materials and systems come into play. A geothermal HVAC system can easily cost $40-50,000 but right now qualifies for a tax credit of 30%, so there are many variables that affect the cost of green construction.
The good news is that consumer awareness and demand for green products at competitive prices has resulted in generating greater competition within the building materials industry to produce better products for little if any additional cost. Also the use of more expensive but stronger engineered-wood products (eg. laminated framing members, floor and roof trusses) can result in the use of less material.
The cost of the as-built verification process may add $1,000 to $1,500, but competition among verifiers in certain markets has driven prices down. This cost (as well a portion of the premium material or systems costs) may well be offset by the savings from tax credits or rebates.
Last, the heightened recognition that green homes perform better, are healthier and more responsible, has in some markets resulted in higher resale prices than conventional homes of the same design. While there is no guarantee of this, many of us believe that over time green houses will become the market expectation, and as such will help ensure the highest resale values.
Why Bother With Certification?
You may be asking yourself: “If I know that I am designing and building with sensible green practices, isn’t that good enough? Why should I bother with the time and expense of the verification and actual certification?”
Just as a certificate of occupancy is the verification of code conforming construction, green certification acknowledges formally that you have indeed achieved a certain level of performance. As consumers, we take peace of mind in knowing that we have actually achieved that goal.
Like as-built review by local building inspectors may reveal that certain work needs to be redone, green verification inspections may indicate that certain work has to be upgraded for certification. Making certain that the home, as built, will maximize energy efficiency is another benefit of verification.
If you are to become the guardian of your home’s green operation, knowing how to do that has value. One criteria of both the ICC and LEED is education, the consumer receiving the information required to operate the home at peak efficiency in the form of well-organized operation manuals and other maintenance and repair data. If your furnace has ever quit on a cold winter night and you have dealt with the discomfort of not having the manual at your fingertips, you will appreciate this requirement.
Building green may offer certain financial benefits, such as rebates or higher resale value; actual certification by a recognized independent standard will substantiate your qualification for concessions or expectation of greater market value.
The Prefab Industry’s Response
The manufactured-housing industry has reacted swiftly to the opportunity to make green building easier and financially accessible. Perhaps this is due to the age-old need to demonstrate that the industry has risen above its image of inferior quality. Or perhaps it is because the material purchasing function is key production responsibility. Whatever the reason, the manufactured housing industry is a great source of green product.
Still there are limitations. Many modular producers play lip service to eco-siting and don’t truly marry their designs to the site and its natural characteristics. Kit producers do not control the selection of system and many interior finishes, and that responsibility is shared by the client and builder.
I suggest you use the list of certification criteria above when researching producers by asking producers specifically how they handle each qualification category, and their level of green certification experience. Will they provide or source the level of expertise and guidance you are seeking?
One Producer’s Approach to Certification
Being environmentally responsive is at the soul of every Lindal Cedar Home. Lindal clients build on strikingly beautiful and challenging natural sites, and they literally build in order to enjoy nature on a daily basis.
Being environmentally responsible is not a new phenomenon for Lindal. The efficient use of material, reduced waste, efficient packaging and delivery, and the use of engineered woods are, and have always been, central to their mission of providing high quality competitively priced homes.
Lindal’s “green from the ground up” approach begins with a site visit by a Lindal dealer, who makes certain that the client’s design is developed to minimize disturbance to the site. The flexibility of the post and beam building system enables every aspect of the structure to be adjusted to properly respond to opportunities presented by nature that contribute to a green living environment. The effective marriage of house and site score highly in the certification process.
One certification benefit of building a Lindal is the efficient use of material and reduced waste in the factory and on-site. Wood is a renewable resource, and when properly managed, will continue to be so for centuries to come.
Lindal was the first building system to be ‘Green Approved’ under the NAHB Research Center green approved products list. Lindal’s Green Approved mark is verification that the company’s Green Coast to Coast specification meets the requirements of that green practice, automatically scoring points under the ICC certification program.
Lindal’s design staff is well-versed in green building practices, and the company has underwritten the cost of dealers receiving NAHB training in order to fulfill the exam requirement of becoming Certified Green Professionals. The company is a meaningful resource for clients seeking green certification.
Lindal Cedar Homes is the world’s largest provider of quality custom cedar homes. Founded in 1945, there are more than 50,000 Lindal cedar homes—and satisfied homeowners—worldwide. Known around the world for their signature post and beam building system, quality building materials and detailed craftsmanship, their experienced Lindal Cedar Homes dealers will help you each step of the way.
Michael Harris is an MIT graduate with two degrees in architecture. Michael has made it his professional mission to innovate system-built design and the planning process to ensure fulfilling client experiences. Michael spent 31 years at Deck House Inc. working with clients, designing new products, innovating client-centric sales process and marketing, and was involved in the acquisition of a competing brand (Acorn Structures). He led the company as CEO and served on its Board of Directors for 15 years. In 2006, Michael joined Lindal Cedar Homes, working with executives, staff and dealers to build a new strategic plan, then implementing the plan as President and CEO. Today he works as an independent consultant and dealer (testing the efficacy of the plan by” walking the talk”).
While at Lindal, he led the company’s entry into the modern market; forged a collaboration with Dwell Media initiating Lindal’s participation in the Dwell Homes Collection; and created the Lindal Elements program, a new line of on-system designs and process he designed with the company’s creative staff. He brought the iconic industry player to become the first “Green Approved” building system by the NAHB Research Center and the only single family home included in TIME Magazine’s Green Design 100 in 2010.
In addition to selling and consulting, he serves on the Board of Advisors of Blu Homes, writes on the subject of manufactured housing, and enjoys life with his wife Carol, splitting their time between Seattle and their family’s home base in New York City.