All Your Questions Answered About LEED For New Homes

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By Jen Hill / Published by Dwell
You may have heard the term LEED used to describe “green” or “sustainable” buildings. But what exactly is LEED and why would you choose to pursue it for your new home? We’re here to break down the mystery and clear up some questions you may have.

What is it?

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It provides third-party verification of green buildings. Simply, LEED sets benchmarks with which to evaluate buildings so that they can be designated as sustainable. 

Why is it important?

Simply, sustainably designed and constructed buildings can have a positive effect on both the environment outside the building, as well as on the environment and occupants inside the building. LEED examines structures in their entirety, from the beginning stages of design, through construction, and on into the life of the building. 

LEED is changing the way we think about how buildings and communities are planned, constructed, maintained, and operated. Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several areas that address sustainability issues. Based on the number of points achieved, a project then receives one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

Its History

Development of LEED began in 1993, but was first officially launched in 2000. Since its inception, LEED has grown from six volunteers on one committee to more than 200 volunteers on nearly 20 committees and nearly 200 professional staff. The pilot version, LEED New Construction (NC) v1.0, led to later versions—and to the current LEED v4.

Breaking it Down

Here, we’ll focus on LEED for new single-family homes, but keep in mind that the basic principles apply to all types of buildings. The specific designation we’ll be discussing is as follows: LEED BD+C (Building Design + Construction)—Homes and Multifamily Lowrise. This category includes single-family homes and multi-family residential buildings of one to three stories. 

All Your Questions Answered About LEED For New Homes - Photo 1 of 3 - A diagram of the a outlines its sustainable aspects, including LED lighting and an Advantex septic system that has no environmental impact.

A diagram of the a outlines its sustainable aspects, including LED lighting and an Advantex septic system that has no environmental impact.

Designations and Terms to Consider

It’s important to note the following: a building can be LEED-certified, while a person can be LEED-accredited. A LEED-accredited individual is someone who has studied the LEED guidelines and procedures and has passed an in-depth exam enabling them to use the LEED accreditation. Often times, someone will ask someone else, "Are you LEED-certified?" but this is a misnomer. GBCI offers various accreditation to people who demonstrate knowledge of the LEED rating system, including LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), LEED Green Associate, and since 2011, LEED Fellows—the highest designation for LEED professionals. 

Buildings can qualify for four levels of certification:

• Certified: 40–49 points

• Silver: 50-59 points

• Gold: 60-79 points

• Platinum: 80 points and above

The LEED performance credit system aims to allocate points based on the potential environmental impact and human benefits of each credit. 

Homes pursuing LEED certification obtain points in the following categories:

  • LOCATION AND TRANSPORTATION (LT)
  • SUSTAINABLE SITES (SS)
  • WATER EFFICIENCY (WE)
  • ENERGY AND ATMOSPHERE (EA)
  • MATERIALS AND RESOURCES (MR)
  • INDOOR ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY (EQ)
  • INNOVATION (IN)
  • REGIONAL PRIORITY (RP)

Additional credit (worth 2 points) may also be earned for INTEGRATIVE PROCESS, whereby the project team undergoes specific training related to the project’s LEED goals during the design and construction phases of the project. 

It would be tedious to delve deep into each of the above categories. The concepts are pretty straightforward—reduce the environmental impact of a building while increasing the human benefits of that same building. However, the specific requirements and procedures are quite complex.

All Your Questions Answered About LEED For New Homes - Photo 2 of 3 - Built on Kolon Engineering and Construction's grounds, the E+ Home is the neighborhood's green building star. From this angle, you can see the permeable pavers and sustainable landscaping, like water catchment pools and living walls, that make this place a paragon of green housing.

Built on Kolon Engineering and Construction's grounds, the E+ Home is the neighborhood's green building star. From this angle, you can see the permeable pavers and sustainable landscaping, like water catchment pools and living walls, that make this place a paragon of green housing.

The Process

Critics of LEED argue that the process is too complicated, too expensive, and too time-consuming for the project team. And in fact, some of these things may be true, but each project should be considered individually, since no two projects are alike. 

The Cost Involved

Studies have shown that the cost to pursue LEED is minimal when compared the the cost savings that will be earned over the lifecycle of the building. For instance, the additional cost to design and build a rain-water collection system may be insignificant when compared to the cost savings of having a self-sustaining, on-site irrigation system. 

All Your Questions Answered About LEED For New Homes - Photo 3 of 3 -

Our Environmental Responsibility

It’s widely accepted that sustainable building practices are hugely important and necessary, and that we as humans have a responsibility to consider the impacts of our built environment. Therefore, anyone involved in the design and construction of a new home—be it the homeowner, architect, general contractor, engineers, etc.—should think about how they can reduce the negative impacts and increase the positive impacts that the new home will provide. Whether that means pursing LEED certification or some other "green building" certification (visit your city’s official website to see what options are available in your area), or just choosing sustainable materials and methods, each individual has a responsibility to do his/her part to shape the built environment in healthy ways. 

Interested in diving even deeper?

For more information about LEED for Homes, refer to the LEED v4 Homes rating system PDF available online from the USGBC website by following this link: http://www.usgbc.org/sites/default/files/LEED%20v4%20ballot%20version%20(Homes)%20-%2013%2011%2013.pdf 

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