Check the Label: A Guide to Green Designations for the Home

Consumers today must select from a growing list of green home certifications or builders claiming green homebuilder status.

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What is a green home? While “green” has yet to be given a universally accepted definition, a green home would be defined today as a certified “green” home built to certain specifications and/or a home built by a certified “green builder” that might include any number of green features. Even after choosing one of these two definitions, however, the consumer must select from a growing list of green home certifications or builders claiming green homebuilder status.

The Energy Star label is one of the best known in the residential world. An Energy Star-qualified home is built to energy-efficient standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The guidelines imposed on an Energy Star home address insulation, window performance, construction, and duct tightness, the home’s HVAC systems, and energy-efficient products. Lastly, an Energy Star home has been third-party tested. Although the Energy Star home does not incorporate all aspects of a green home (such as indoor air quality, water efficiency, etc.), its comprehensive approach to energy efficiency sets it apart.

The United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Homes (LEED-H) certification has enjoyed a role as one of the building industry’s defining models for green homes. A home built to LEED-H specifications can earn one of four designations: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. To receive the LEED-H label, a home is rated by unbiased third-party testers on eight green-related categories: design, location, being a sustainable site, water efficiency, energy, and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and awareness and education.

The National Green Building Standard from the National Association of Home Builders is an industry-accepted standard for green homes, allowing for “flexibility of green building practices while providing a common national benchmark for builders, remodelers and developers.” The standard is based on the NAHB’s Model Green Home Building Guidelines, a two-part builder’s guide to green building first published in 2005 as a resource for the building community and more importantly for local and state home building associations.

Like the LEED-H label, the Model Green Home Building Guidelines awards more than one certification level (bronze, silver, gold) and gives points in seven guiding principles: lot design, preparation and, development; resource efficiency; energy efficiency; water efficiency; indoor environment quality; operation, maintenance and homeowner education; and global impact.

There are numerous other green home certification programs across the country. Consumers should contact their state or local home building association for an endorsed or widely used program in their area. USGBC has recently launched The Green Home Guide, a website that lists green home programs by state, although the programs themselves are not endorsed or affiliated with the USGBC. Similarly, the NAHB’s National Green Builder Program website features a list of voluntary green builder programs by state. When investigating green home certification programs, be sure to find out if the home is independently tested or verified.

Green Builders
When searching for a qualified green builder, consumers should inquire into certifications, courses, and educational steps taken by a potential builder. The LEED Professional Accreditation program, launched in 2001, certifies students as LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs) upon completion of the program. Once administered by the USGBC, the LEED Professional Accreditation program is now managed by the Green Building Certification Institute. The LEED AP will be educated on the practices of green home building.

Energy Star’s website includes a search feature to help locate builders and developers who have partnered with Energy Star and who have built an Energy Star-qualified new home within the last 12 months. This list could serve as a good jumping-off point for the consumer looking for green-minded professionals in their area or state.

Green Systems and Products
It’s a widely accepted notion that a home can be considered “green” simply by incorporating green elements throughout the home, which can mean replacing a few old energy-hogging appliances with more energy-efficient ones or undergoing a complete overhaul of the home’s water devices. Any homeowner looking to green up a home in sections should seek out the few systems and products that have green designations.

Energy Star again sits atop the stack, with an extensive list of third-party-tested products that span a wide range of energy-related subcategories, including appliances, HVAC systems and components, insulation and windows, and miscellaneous home electronic devices. Replacing any electricity-dependent items in the home with Energy Star-rated versions will save on the home’s utility bill and can help reduce the home’s carbon footprint.

The EPA’s WaterSense  program is designed much like Energy Star but with a focus on testing and certifying water-saving products in the home. Thus far, the program has tackled toilets, faucets, showerheads, and irrigation services and technologies.

Saving electricity and water is an easy sell for these two programs. Often overlooked, however, is taking steps to improve indoor air quality (IAQ). The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute has given homeowners a leg up on the battle for better IAQ, with its GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality certification program. The program certifies low-emitting interior building materials, furniture, and finishing systems, testing each product for chemical emissions. GREENGUARD currently certifies over 200,000 products for 130 different manufacturers.

Although the practice of ecolabelling is not new, the growth in green products and certifications has brought the term more to the forefront. The Energy Star, WaterSense. and GREENGUARD certifications both fall into the ecolabel category, but there are other ecolabels as well as organizations and websites that catalogue “approved” ecolabels or green certification programs. carries an extensive list of green buildings, services, and building products without particular selection criteria. Building Green’s selection process for their “GreenSpec” list of products is somewhat more demanding, albeit limited to journalistic research, e-mail and forum discussion, and builder recommendation.

The Global Ecolabelling Network is an association of third-party labeling organizations from around the world. The United States is represented in the network by Green Seal, a group that establishes green standards for product categories and accepts applicants for certification within those categories.

The Canadian-based EcoLogo is North America’s oldest ecolabel with over 7,000 certified products representing 120 categories, including building and construction. “The criteria set for certifying a product evaluates the entire lifecycle of the product,” says Lise Beutel of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, managers of the EcoLogo program. “We can look at everything from the raw materials used to the final stages of the product’s usage.”