Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: (Flawed) Reasons People Don’t Use Green Building Certification Programs

If I had a dollar for every time a client chose not to certify their custom new home through a third-party green-building program, then I’d have more dollars than you might think.

Even among clients who express ambitious energy-efficiency goals or have great concern for material sustainability, indoor air quality, or waste reduction, I have found that when given the choice of whether or not to pursue a green-building certification, clients all too often choose not to do it.

Many of their reasons are understandable on the surface, and I empathize with everything a homeowner has to consider in the course of bringing their dream to life. But, the decision not to certify is still a short-sighted one, which I have seen homeowners come to regret later.

Let’s look at the common reasons people decide not to get a green certification (e.g. ENERGY STAR® for Homes, LEED, Green Built Homes), and why those reasons are flawed.

#1: I’m overwhelmed.

Green certifications require performance testing, such as the iconic blower door test of house air-tightness. Knowing a house is going to be tested — and must pass the test — makes everyone involved in building it likely to be more thorough with the details. STEVE LINTON PHOTO

Most green-building programs require you to enroll before you start to build. It’s even preferable to do it early in the planning stage. Therefore, the builder and designer both need to understand what they’re getting into, and may need to undergo training or certification to fulfill the program requirements.

The terms and acronyms involved in green-building programs can be confusing (RESNET, HERS, ACH50, ahh!) and the requirements can sometimes be technical. The process of realizing a custom home — designing the dream, finding a builder for the dream, getting estimates for construction of the dream, figuring out all the fun and sexy stuff like what windows best frame your view, how to lay out your kitchen, and specifying the HVAC system (OK, maybe that last one is just me) — can take enough of a homeowner’s brain power as it is.

I get it! But that is why all of these programs come with a built-in guide — the program rater. The rater is the person you hire who is trained in the program, comes to the jobsite to inspect construction, makes sure the requirements are being followed, and oversees paperwork. The rater also provides guidance, help, and training, and is often happy to do so, which is easier and more effective if he or she is hired early in the home design process.

#2: You mean I have to pay for certification?

Yes, you do. Sometimes multiple fees: one to the organization that puts the program on, and yes, one to that aforementioned rater.

I’m not arguing that green certification is free. What I am arguing is that this cost is worth it, and if you’re like most people building their dream home, you’ll likely be tempted to spend far more than these fees on other, less valuable things throughout the project. For most homes, green certification fees are not that expensive in the grand scheme of things — usually less than 1 percent of the total cost to build.

But having to pay for certification is a feature, not a bug. These programs need your support. They wouldn’t exist otherwise, and they do a good thing for the world by advancing green building standards. Think of it like a donation to the goal of green building.

And the raters? Well, they have to make a living too. They’ve undergone extensive training on how to make homes healthier and use less energy, and you’re paying to have access to that knowledge. It’s great knowledge to have! No different than you are already paying your builder, your electrician or your doctor, to have access to what they know when you need it. Rather than having to know everything yourself, invest in that knowledgeable team member to help you.

Plus, an argument can be made that using a rater can actually pay for itself by saving you money upfront through help in making cost-effective choices on energy efficient upgrades, as well as every single month forward via energy savings.

#3: There’s no rebate for me.

Sure, rebates are nice, and they can be effective motivators for change. Locations with rebates for green-building certification tend to have more certified homes than areas that don’t. But at the end of the day, not everything worth doing comes with a rebate attached to it.

Yet here in Western North Carolina, there are quite a few rebates for green building, some of which go to the builder (such as a generous rebate from Duke Energy for calculated kilowatt hours savings) and some of which go to the homeowner (such as 5 percent rate discount from Duke Energy for ENERGY STAR® Certified homes.)

Additionally, real estate studies in North Carolina have found that green-certified homes can sell faster, and at higher prices, than those not certified. Here’s the catch: banks, appraisers, and homebuyers require proof that a home is green, and the best proof is in a third-party certification, which uses agreed-upon technical standards and inspections to ensure those standards have been followed.

Unfortunately, just promising that a home has green stuff in it isn’t enough.

#4: My builder is going to build it green anyway; I don’t need certification to prove it.

I consider myself a green builder. In the past two years, I’ve helped my company build 100 percent of our homes to ENERGY STAR® standards, and many to Green Built Homes as well. And the best part is that getting those certifications has taught us so much more about green building than we would have figured out on our own.

It is the process of certification, on each and every home, that helps us build just a little bit better of a house than we might have otherwise, because every single job is inspected by that third-party rater. That’s another eye to catch mistakes, and teach us about new concepts, or old ones applied in new ways. And most green-building certifications require performance testing of key systems, giving one more opportunity to uncover something that might have otherwise come back to bite the homeowner later.

Most builders would love to be able to tell you they are perfect, and that your building experience will be absolutely perfect as well. But, most know it won’t be, because most builders employ humans. Humans overcome their foibles by having good systems, and third-party certification is an incredibly helpful such system.

I have absolutely seen that when humans have clearly defined standards to shoot for (a green-building program), a guide to help along the way (the program rater), and feedback on how they’re doing at it (inspections and tests during various points of construction) the end result is far superior one.

The Bottom Line

The fact of the matter is that green-building certification makes a difference: to the quality of the final project and to the community at large. It can be overwhelming, but resources abound to simplify the chaos.

Now I’m going to change the original scenario. If I had a dollar for every client who called me after their home was built to ask how to get their home certified, and I have to tell them that it is too late, that’s where I’d have a lot of dollars.

That’s why I want you, the homeowner, to put your dollars toward getting your green-building certification.

Leigha Dickens is in her eighth year as the green building and sustainability manager with Deltec Homes and Deltec Building Co. She is a RESNET HERS rater and UNC Asheville alumna of the physics and environmental studies departments.

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 34-35 of the 2018-2019 edition of the directory.