What It Is
Green building certifications are based on scoring methods that rate how “green” buildings are. These certifications incentivize the development of high-performance, efficient buildings at any stage, from renovation to construction. Certification is based on standards and voluntary guidelines that each specific certification defines and requires. Most certifications offer different categories to become certified in (e.g., homes, commercial buildings) and rankings based on how many credits your building earns in different design categories. Although there are many different certification opportunities, LEED and Energy Star certifications are the two most well-known in the United States.
Why It Matters
Green building certifications offer compelling proof that you are successfully reaching your environmental goals, and that your building is performing at its best. Beyond having a green building, having a certification has economic, social, and environmental benefits.
- Certifications allow you to take advantage of an increasing number of federal, state, and local government incentives and tax breaks. Check the EPA’s website on green building to find tax incentives that pertain to your location.
- Certifications assist in creating, expanding, and shaping markets for green products and services.
- Improve your public relations and marketing by advertising your achievement(s) through a plaque, decal, brochure, website, or other resources.
- Certifications improve your building’s value and typically make it easier to rent and sell. For example, having a green building and certification can increase lease rates up to 20% and building sale prices on average by 10% per square foot in comparison to non-energy efficient buildings.
- As a certified building, your building is most likely saving from reduced operating costs. For example, it might require less energy, less waste disposal, less water, less gas, and have increased durability.
- In striving to meet certification requirements, your building will:
- provide healthier work and living environments for all occupants, which often means higher productivity and improved health for your staff;
- become more aesthetically pleasing;
- minimize its strain on local infrastructure;
- educate others on your challenges and successes in becoming certified.
- Certifications draw public interest and public support for your achievements, which often create opportunities to interact with new demographics, such as with providing guided tours of your building.
- Certifications show your support and dedication to green building and environmental sustainability, and potentially motivate other businesses and organizations to follow suit.
- By meeting or surpassing certification standards, your building:
- supports biodiversity and ecosystems,
- reduces waste,
- conserves natural resources,
- improves regional air and water quality.
- Certifications show proof of your contributions in mitigating the environmental degradation that buildings account for. For instance, buildings in the United States account for:
- 39% of total energy use
- 12% of total water consumption
- 68% of total electricity consumption
- 38% of carbon dioxide emissions
Green building certifications are worth considering if a building is already a green building, will be retrofitted with green building strategies, or is not yet constructed and will be built as a green building. Having a cost-effective green building and earning your desired certification(s), it is best when the building is in the earliest stages of construction and has the help of a construction team with green building professionals.
- Step One: Set clear goals
- Step Two: Set a strict budget
- Step Three: Examine your green building investments
- Step Four: Hire accredited professionals
Step One: Set clear goals
In general, for any type of eligible building, first set a clear goal that you wish to reach, including what sustainability measures are important to you (natural light, regulated heating and cooling, energy efficiency, etc.), making sure to include any desired certifications. If you occupy an existing building that is already eligible for a green building certification, skip to step four.
Step Two: Set a strict budget
Setting a budget and adhering to it closely will ensure that you not only stay organized, but that your building specifications will be clear to contractors and that your needs will be met. Note that different certifications and certification rankings (if applicable) can vary in price significantly. Also keep in mind that incorporating sustainability into the building design, whether that is energy efficient appliances, reflective coatings on windows, or building insulation, may have a high initial investment, so be sure to incorporate those costs into budget, as well.
Step Three: Examine your green building investments
Examine your green building investments in terms of how they will affect building expenses, such as with renewable energy technologies. Since green buildings are often perceived as expensive and long-term investments, it may be difficult to look beyond capital costs. However, try to consider the costs and benefits over the life of the building as well.
Step Four: Hire accredited professionals
Make sure you hire accredited contractors and design professionals and licensed engineers for the green building and certification processes. Usually, architects and engineers need to have licenses and certifications in order to design and construct green buildings.
Below is more detailed information on the two prominent certifications in the United States, LEED and Energy Star. Following this, there will be brief notes covering other green building certifications.
What it is
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building certification system recognized internationally. It is run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USBGC), a nonprofit coalition of building industry leaders.
Certification is primarily for…
Triple bottom line and overall environmental sustainability.
Buildings that qualify
Buildings throughout the building lifecycle are eligible, from design and construction to significant retrofit. All building types are eligible, including new commercial construction, major renovation projects, commercial interiors projects, core and shell projects, existing buildings, homes, and neighborhood development.
How it works
100 point scale, with 10 possible bonus points, with the following rankings: Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum
The building earns points for meeting standards in seven categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation by design (bonus), regional priority (bonus).
How to get certified
1. Educate yourself on the LEED rating systems and set goals for your building.
2. Visit the Green Building Certification Institute to become acquainted with the LEED project registration process.
4. Use integrated design with the collaboration of key team members, which may include architects, engineers, facility managers, and designers.
This process may take longer than you may initially expect, such as 3 months, so patience, research, and strategic planning are crucial.
The whole process can run anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000. Registration and certification fees cost roughly 3 to 5 cents per square foot depending on size of project and USGBC member discount. Other costs can include
- Outside consultants
- Modeling for compliance
- Cost of construction.
Costs will be significantly less if no construction or renovation is necessary. For more information, see this LEED Cost Study.
How long certification lasts
Certification lasts as long as you remain eligible and comply with the recertification process. Certification rank can be altered (e.g., gold to silver). For more information on recertification processes, see this USGBC post on recertification.
By earning certification with LEED, your building on average benefits from the following:
- Operating costs decrease 13.6% for new construction and 8.5% for existing building projects.
- Return on investment improves 9.9% for new construction and 19.2% for existing building projects.
- Occupancy increases 6.4% for new construction and 2.5% for existing building projects.
- With an upfront investment of 2% in green building design, you get a return of a 20% life cycle savings of total construction costs.
What it is
Energy Star is an international standard for energy efficient buildings and consumer products, such as appliances, computer products, and lighting. It was created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is also operated in conjunction with the US Department of Energy.
Certification is primarily for…
Energy efficiency and conservation.
Buildings that qualify
For existing buildings only. More than 50% of building’s gross floor area must be one of the spaces eligible. For a list of eligible spaces, consult Energy Star’s website.
How it works
100 point scale (50=average). If you have a score of 75 or above, this means your building is in the top 25% of similar energy efficient buildings in America, and in the range to earn an Energy Star certification. Points are earned based on source energy. This is the total amount of fuel required to operate the building, including transmission and delivery. It’s compared to buildings with a similar size, location, and number of occupants. There are no rankings after reaching or surpassing the 75 point threshold. For more information, see Energy Star’s energy performance scale.
How to get certified
1. Benchmark your building. Determine how you measure and if you can get 75 points or more.
2. Go through the application and documents online.
3. Check for common errors that often delay the application process.
4. Have a professional engineer or registered architect sign and stamp the documents and then submit the documents to Energy Star. You must enter 11 full consecutive calendar months for all active meters for all energy use. The licensed professional(s) verifies this.
No cost to apply. Only costs may be for a professional engineer and/or registered architect.
How long certification lasts
Though certification decals can be displayed indefinitely (with the year on it), buildings are encouraged to reapply each year to keep certification current.
If your building does not qualify, there are various low or no-cost solutions to reduce energy use by up to 30%. Energy Star provides guidelines for energy management on their website.
Energy Star labeled facilities represent nearly $1.5 billion annually in savings. They also typically use 35% less energy than similar average buildings and cost 50 cents per square foot to operate.
Additionally, there are other green building certifications with different design requirements and pricing options that you may wish to further investigate:
- Green Globes is a fairly easy process and more affordable for organizations with fewer resources. Green Globes is the best certification process for green building design, operation, and management.
- Greenguard was developed by Greenguard Environmental Institute and focuses on indoor air quality, children, and schools.
- National Green Building Standard was developed and is administered by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). This certification is best for green buildings, construction methods, and residential performance levels.
The Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, became the first LEED Platinum hotel in the United States in 2008. Beyond using 39% less energy and 33% less water, this hotel receives invaluable publicity and recognition as the “highest rated ‘Green’ hotel and restaurant in America.”
Sud Associates, P.A.
Sud Associates, P.A., an engineering consulting firm in Durham, North Carolina, invested in upgrading a building for energy efficiency and conservation. In addition to becoming an Energy Star certified building, they save $646 annually, prevent 7,790 pounds of pollution, and expect a payback period of 6.2 years.
Resources for More Information
If you already have a green building, wish to renovate an existing building, or plan to construct a new green building, green building certifications are worth considering. Since certifications vary in function, costs, and benefits, make sure you research and analyze which best meet your goals, expectations, and budget. Keep in mind that some can complement others and not necessarily overlap one another, such as with Energy Star and LEED.
Glossary of Related Terms
Green building: A structure or building process that is environmentally friendly and efficient with resources and energy throughout the life-cycle of the building.
Triple bottom line: An expansion of the traditional “bottom line” that encompasses ecological and social performance in addition to financial performance.
 “Why LEED?” US Green Building Council, http://www.usgbc.org/leed/why-leed, accessed 12 July 2013.
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 “Why Build Green?” Environmental Protection Agency, 19 December 2012, http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/whybuild.htm, accessed 12 July 2013.
 Eric Corey Freed, “LEED Green Building Certification,” Dummies, http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/leed-green-building-certification.html, accessed 12 July 2013.
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 “The Business Case for Green Building,” US Green Building Council, 27 July 2012, http://www.usgbc.org/articles/business-case-green-building, accessed 12 July 2013.
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 Jim Simcoe, “Green Real Estate Certifications Explained,” The Bigger Pockets Blog, 11 March 2011, http://www.biggerpockets.com/renewsblog/2011/03/11/green-building-certification/, accessed 12 July 2013.
 “Proximity is the first LEED Platinum Hotel,” Platinum Hotel, October 2008, http://www.proximityhotel.com/LEED_platinum.htm, accessed 12 July 2013.
 “Success Story: SUD Associates,” Energy Star, http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=sb_success.sb_successstories_sud, accessed 12 July 2013.