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October 27, 2008

Michele Kaufman's MK Lotus house at West Coast Green

We’re all familiar with the United States Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program but there’s also another national green home ratings systems and over 70 regional programs in the US.

Michele Kaufman's MK Lotus house at West Coast Green
Michele Kaufman's MK Lotus house at West Coast Green
Michele Kaufman's MK Lotus house at West Coast Green
Michele Kaufman's MK Lotus house at West Coast Green

But why wouldn’t an architect or builder pick the LEED for Homes rating system? “It’s not appropriate for your average or typical builder,” said Brian Gitt, executive director of Built It Green.  “LEED for Homes was designed to target the top 25 percent of the marketplace as a national award and a way for top builders to differentiate themselves.”


At the national level, there’s the USGBC’s LEED for Homes program and the National Association of Home Builders’s National Green Building Program. Although there are similarities between the systems—both are points-based and focus on location, energy and resource efficiency, indoor environment quality, and homeowner education—Gitt argues that they serve different roles in the marketplace. “They don’t butt heads that often. The goal of the National Association of Home Builders’ program is to help the average builder take their projects to the next level. It’s not designed to be the leadership standard like LEED for Home but meant as an introduction to green building standards.”


For builders who can achieve LEED for Homes certification, it’s often seen as a well-earned bragging right. “We selected LEED for Homes on purpose because it’s recognized as a national benchmark and is what you pick if you want to be the best,” said Mitch Gardner, project manager for California-based building firm The Olson Company. “It is absolutely a branding thing for us.” On his business card, the USGBC LEED for Homes logo is printed right next to The Olson Company emblem.

A benefit of national programs is that they set a national standard though it’s not exactly apples to apples because what may be sustainable in Arizona may not be the ideal green building for Atlanta. That’s where regional programs become useful—and right now there are over 70 local green rating systems in the US.


In California there are two regional programs: California Green Builder and GreenPoint Rated, a system established by the non-profit green building organization BuildIt Green and adopted by many California municipalities as standards for procuring building permits, including Palo Alto and Sebastopol, California. The main difference between the two programs is that California Green Builder is a pass-fail system where as GreenPoint Rated is points-based and shows incremental improvements over time. A benefit of local programs, says Gitt, who leads BuildIt Green as the executive director, is that they can be tailored to local conditions, respond more quickly to builder feedback, and are more likely to be held responsible to local stakeholders.

Cheryl O’Connor, vice president of sales and marketing at Summerhill Homes, a Palo Alto-based company that builds primarily urban infill in the San Francisco Bay Area, said her company chose the GreenPoint Rated system because of the recognition it’s earned in Northern California but also due to the learning curve required to build at a high sustainable level. (In addition to her role at Summerhill Homes, O’Connor also chairs the National Association of Home Builders of Northern California and sits on the board of BuildIt Green.) “When we picked a rating system we didn’t think we could achieve LEED for Homes certification,” O’Connor said. “We could probably do it now or in the near future but with our current communities we couldn’t do it.”

Despite the benefits of local rating systems, the problem with a plurality of programs is that it sets the stage for green washing and makes it difficult to compare homes certified under different guidelines. Gitt argues that in the end, the market will determine which programs will win out in consumers’ minds, but O’Connor said more direct action will need to be taken. “In the long term, we’ll need to set a national standard for green building because right now it’s very confusing.”

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