The Process of Getting a Green Building Certification

By now, you’ve seen my arguments in defense of green building certification programs (links to articles below), and you’ve even seen some of the problems that can arise in homes that don’t certify. Now that you’re convinced of the importance of green certification, it’s time to take a little time to help you understand the process of certification. How do you even do this thing?

It’s true:  the various green building programs out there can be confusing, and the steps to participate in one even more so. This confusion remains the most common reason that people make the mistake of not certifying their home. Don’t make that mistake! Let’s take some time now to talk about how it works.  Even though there are various programs out there that each contain their own nuances (more on those in the next blog), the process for using them still follows the same general pattern.

A Word about Program Design: Points vs. Checklists

Green building programs are generally structured in one of two ways (though some can be a mix of both):

  • Checklist-based programs use one, or often a handful, of checklists, in which every item on the list that is applicable to your project must be checked off in order for you to earn the certification. You won’t qualify if you miss even one. Your builder and the necessary sub-contractors follow the checklist, and the Rater (more on Raters below) inspects each item. If all the checkboxes are followed, the certification is issued. Energy Star for Homes, IndoorAirPlus, and the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home are examples of checklist- based systems.
  • Points-based programs are a little more complicated. These programs tend to be more all-encompassing than checklist-based programs, covering green building topics from energy efficiency and air quality to durability, material sustainability, renewable energy use, and even landscaping and water use reduction—a very wide array of green building practices may be recognized. However, instead of every single practice being required, a project receives points in varying amounts for the different practices chosen by the project team. A certain minimum number of points must be obtained, and often these programs do still have a few items that are absolute requirements as a baseline, but after that it is the up to the build team to decide which points will be chosen and which will not. As long as enough different practices are selected so that the total number of points required for certification are achieved, the house earns the certification. Often, a greater number of points results in a deeper level of certification; this is where distinctions like Silver, Bronze, Gold, and Platinum come in to play. Examples of points systems include LEED for Homes,  Green Built Homes, the National Green Building Standard, and Earthcraft Homes.

Checklist-based programs are often more limited in scope (for example, focusing on just one aspect of green building, such as energy efficiency with Energy Star and indoor air quality with IndoorAirPlus), are less flexible, but are also a bit simpler to plan for at front. Points-based programs, by contrast, are often much more complicated, but also offer greater flexibility for the project team to pursue the green building practices that are most important to the building owner and their personal vision of what constitutes a green building.

Step 1: Pick a Builder Who’s On Board

Regardless of the program you choose, many of the requirements will fall upon your builder, and some upon the sub-contractors they might use. Thus, if your builder is not on board, the certification is not likely to succeed. It is fairly common for the program to require that the general contractor for the project is registered with the program as a partner—Energy Star for Homes requires builders to sign up and watch a 1 hour webinar, while LEED for Homes offers a point if a LEED AP is part of the project team. But even if your program doesn’t require registration, the builder does need to understand what they’re getting into. Critically, it’s important to get the builder on board before the home starts to be built, so they can make sure their scope of work, and the scope of work of all of their relevant sub-contractors, includes following the green practices required by the certification. During the design process is best.

In some cases, such as LEED or Green Built Homes, you will need to register your project ahead of time with the program and pay a registration fee. This fee goes to supporting the ongoing operating expenses of the organization that has created the program (usually a non-profit), so think of it like a donation to the cause of green building.

Step 2: Hire a 3rd Party Rater

Someone has to be the referee who confirms the certification—generally programs do not allow homeowners or builders to manage their own checklists and submit for certification according to the “honor system.” That person needs to have been conferred authority by the green program to do so, and have training and knowledge in the green building practices required. Often there are required inspections at key stages of construction, and specific home performance testing, requiring specific tools.

That person is your certification Rater, often called an Energy Rater, or Program Rater.  Usually the Rater must be a third party—not somebody directly involved in the construction of the home. This person is someone you will have to hire, who will ask to be paid for his or her services. He or she should live close enough to your jobsite to be able to travel there to do the key inspections, and should be certified through the specific program you’re trying to achieve.

This person is also your ally:  he or she can walk you through the process, will do multiple on-site inspections, and should be willing and able to help you even in the design phase. He or she is happy to remind you or your builder of the process any time you forget what you should be doing, make you aware of areas where you may be in danger of missing a requirement, and help you understand what you must do to get things corrected before it is too late. If there are rebates in your area for green certification or energy efficiency, the Rater is often your go-to expert on this as well, and can often handle paperwork required to get those rebates as part of their services.

Where do you find your Rater? Usually, the website for the certification program is a good place to start.  Often these folks are independent contractors who have their own green building consulting company, or they may specialize in items related to energy efficiency or design engineering.  Energy Star for Homes lists companies that provide Energy Star Rating services by state.  LEED has a list of certified Green Raters through their website.

Step 2.A: Understand the Basics of the HERS Index

There exists a handy tool called the HERS Index, and a group of specifically trained people called HERS Raters, that have a strong relationship to green building certification. For this reason, some people confuse the HERS Index with a green building certification, or else are, in general, just confused by all the acronyms.

The HERS Index stands for Home Energy Rating System, and is a scale designed to rate how energy efficient a home is, based on detailed data inputs from the home design and a computer energy model. The HERS Index is used by the lending and appraisal industry, as well as the home energy industry, to create a meaningful comparison between the energy efficiency of different homes. A certified HERS Rater is someone who has been trained and certified to collect the data on a home and issue that home an official HERS score. The lower a home’s HERS score, the more energy efficient it is.

A HERS score is just that, a score–not a certification itself.  (If the home is really inefficient, it could have a very bad HERS score!) However, many green building programs use the HERS Index. Checklist-based programs, such as Energy Star for Homes and the Zero Energy Ready Homes program, include a low enough HERS score as one of their requirements. Points-based programs, like LEED for Homes, give an increasing number of points for increasingly lower HERS scores.

Certified HERS Raters have to go through a series of training around building energy efficiency.  A common business model for them is have a green building consulting company and offer HERS Rating services as well as green building certification services. As long as they’re otherwise a third party, your green program Rater can also be your HERS Rater, and can typically offer HERS Rating and green certification services together all in one bundle.

Step 3: When Designing Your Home and Making Product Selections

How much you need to factor your green building program into the design process depends on the program you choose, but it is helpful to know this up front, and even factor your Rater into your design process, to avoid issues down the road. You’ll certainly want to read the program checklists and documents—and make sure your builder reads them too—and confer with your Rater on the items that you have questions about.

Many of your selections and specifications will matter toward your eligibility to certify your home. For example, your insulation R-values, HVAC system, appliances, light fixtures, water heater, and flow rates of your plumbing fixtures all factor directly in to your HERS score, with more energy efficient or lower water use items helping you achieve a better HERS score and higher points within your green program. If you’re doing IndoorAirPlus, care must be taken when selecting caulks and sealants, carpet, engineered and composite wood products, and paints and stains to make sure low-VOC requirements are adhered to. If you’re doing a comprehensive points program like LEED, there are potential points to be earned in nearly every product selection, for example: products that are locally manufactured, contain low VOCs, sustainably harvested wood, high recycled content, or low embodied carbon. Remember, your Rater and the program documents are there to help.

Step 4: During Construction

Most programs require inspections of the home at key stages of construction, where certain construction practices can be directly observed by the Rater–practices that might not be visible after the home is finished.

Insulation and HVAC often receive special attention, as these two items are often most central to energy efficiency, and have lots of facets to them that can be gotten wrong. Expect your Rater to make a trip to your site at least once after insulation goes in, but before drywall, in order to inspect framing, insulation, and potentially your HVAC system. Give everyone enough time in the construction schedule to correct any issues the Rater notices during the inspection. Depending on your certification, the Rater may want to inspect at other key points during construction as well.

Programs that offer points for other practices will require proof of those practices. For example, if you’re trying for points for using recycled materials, you’ll need to get proof from the manufacturer or supplier and provide your Rater with that documentation. In general, it’s wise to save all estimates, receipts, and specification documents, so you have a record of what you’re trying to do and can prove it if necessary.

Step 5: Just Before Moving In

In additional to visually inspecting the work of your contractors, nearly all green certification programs will require particular performance tests be done on your house:  a blower door test, and duct leakage tests. A blower door test will test how airtight your home is, while duct leakage tests will test the airtightness of any ductwork. Both are useful indicators of ongoing energy efficiency, as airtight homes require heating energy less frequently, and airtight ducts likewise leak away less of the air you’ve already spent energy heating up or cooling off. In many programs, the airflow of your bath fans, kitchen range hood, and fresh air ventilation system will be tested as well.

If there are combustion appliances, there may be further tests to make sure there are not air pressure issues that will bring harmful fumes back into the space. Any last minute questions on specifications will be inspected at this time as well.

Some programs require, or else give points, for doing a pre-occupant flush prior to moving in, where windows are left open and your fresh air ventilation system is set on high for a period of several days before move in to allow any final VOCs extra time to dissipate.

If you miss something, and it’s still within your power to fix, the final inspection will call this out, and typically you’ll get a chance to make the correction and submit proof to the Rater that was done.

Step 6: Post Move-In

When you complete your certification, you should get a copy of the HERS Certificate and the certificate with the individual program. Keep it with your notebook of important house documentation (or frame it, and put it on display!) as this is your proof that you’ve done all that hard work to add that value to your home.

Now Let’s Get Started!

This blog is part 3 in an ongoing series, answering common customer questions and helping untangle common customer confusions around green building programs. For more information, check out the other posts in this series:

Part 1: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: Flawed Reasons People Don’t Use Green Building Certifications

Part 2: Five Mistakes Green Building Certifications Can Catch

Part 4: What’s in a Green Built Home? A Guide for Homeowners

Copyright 2018 Leigha Dickens.  Also posted at blog.