LEED and Beyond

By Barbra Murray, Contributing Editor The green stamp of approval—practically everybody wants it in one form or another. In the multifamily sector, with builders catering to residents’ growing demand for green features and municipalities stepping up requirements, property rating systems have become increasingly important to the industry. While certain labels are

The green stamp of approval—practically everybody wants it in one form or another. In the multifamily sector, with builders catering to residents’ growing demand for green features and municipalities stepping up requirements, property rating systems have become increasingly important to the industry. While certain labels are more recognizable than others, certification options abound.

Official sustainable development certification by any name centers on a basic premise: do no harm—to the environment. From minimizing waste or repurposing wood in the construction process to installing energy-efficient appliances and lighting in the residential units, multifamily property certification can be achieved through a variety of means, all with the goal of diminishing emissions, decreasing energy consumption and conserving water. Criteria for green certification differ from rating system to rating system, of which there are plenty.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s
(USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program is undeniably the big kid on the block. The LEED rating system made its debut in 2000 and certifies an average 1.6 million square feet of new and existing commercial and residential properties per day. To date, 13,823 units in 760 multifamily buildings are certified under the LEED for Homes program.

LEED, from basic Certified to mid-level Silver to top-level Platinum, continues to pervade the sustainable development vernacular nationally and internationally, but it’s hardly the only game in town. Some alternatives are right under one’s nose, literally, if in the kitchen.

It’s a rare appliance retailer that does not sell products sporting the Energy Star label, but the rating system, founded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, applies to more than just an oven or refrigerator. Properties can earn an Energy Star which, in the case of bricks and mortar, symbolizes that a building’s energy performance is superior to at least 75 percent of similar buildings across the country. The energy-efficient properties, rated on a scale of 1 to 100—with 75 being the minimum requirement for certification, cost less to operate and emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions. As is true of LEED certification, Energy Star embraces all types of multifamily properties—everything from affordable housing to condominiums and beyond. It may not be in the form of an adhesive tag on the front door, but presently, you can look for the Energy Star label on 4.4 million square feet of senior-living facilities and 103 student housing properties encompassing an aggregate 8 million square feet. The numbers grow every day.

Prominent trade associations have also established well-respected rating systems. The National Green Building Standard (ICC 700) is the first and only consensus-based green building standard for residential properties, and the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) was instrumental in having it expanded to include apartments and the residential portions of mixed-use developments. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) collaborated with NMHC and the International Code Council five years ago to create the National Green Building Standard, which offers certification for both single-family and multifamily projects as well as remodeling endeavors. Bronze, silver, gold and emerald certification levels rank six mandatory categories, including lot and site development. Projects must also meet certain thresholds for resource, energy and water efficiency, as well as indoor environment quality and maintenance and operations standards. Additionally, the checklist extends beyond the physical, requiring sufficient building owner education. While LEED has age and a high degree of visibility on its side, the National Green Building Standard has its own bragging rights, as it holds the distinction of being the only residential green building rating system to obtain the American National Standards Institute’s endorsement.

Other names on the list of rating systems in the U.S. may not be as well-known, but they are no less important to the green building sphere. The Green Building Initiative touts its Green Globes system’s ease of use for novices to the certification process. The program further distinguishes itself through its submissions process, which is rendered comparatively more cost-effective and expeditious through the use of a questionnaire-style online assessment tool and automated reporting. The Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities also offers certification billed as economical, and the system is rapidly expanding its already significant presence in the Eastern half of the U.S.

More than a few rating programs operate on a localized level. Given that California is one of the most progressive states and one of the greenest—it holds the second place spot on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s latest State Energy Efficiency Scorecard—Oakland-based Build It Green’s launch of the residential GreenPoint Rated label six years ago for properties in the Golden State was quite fitting. As the non-profit organization notes, qualifying for any legitimate green patch has a multifaceted impact in the multifamily sector. “Green rating systems, like GreenPoint Rated, benefit developers, building owners, residents and the environment,” says Amy Dryden, senior project manager at Build It Green. “Eco-friendly units are more attractive to potential buyers and renters due to enhanced home comfort, healthier indoor air quality and savings on utilities. With rebates available [temporarily in certain counties] to offset the cost of acquiring a green label, it’s a win-win for owners to build or remodel their multifamily properties to meet green rating standards.”

On the green building certification front, the U.S. is hardly alone in the world. Established in the U.K. in 1990, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, most commonly known as BREEAM, was way ahead of the curve. The system, a benchmark for best practice in sustainable design, is now utilized in countries around the globe. Japan has the Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency (CASBEE) Certification System. Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority’s Green Mark Scheme, backed by the country’s National Environment Agency, rates a building’s performance and environmental impact. The DGNB Certification program, kicked off by the German Sustainable Building Certificate in 2008, is among the newer systems and, in 2010, it went global with the release of an international core system. The Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star program has certified in excess of 43 million square feet across the country, and properties totaling an additional 86 million square feet are Green Star-registered.

In the U.S., a mounting number of developers and owners continue to seek sustainability seals from a range of certifying bodies, and it appears inevitable that such labels will be de rigueur in the not-too-distant future. Activity in the nation’s capital serves as an indicator of progress. Quite frequently, the federal government is the last to get on the bandwagon, but in the sustainable development arena, it has been making unexpected strides.

As of December 2011, LEED initiatives were in place in 14 federal agencies and departments, according to USGBC. The U.S. Army, for example, has mandated that starting with fiscal year 2013, all newly constructed Army family housing must achieve a minimum LEED Silver or Energy Star certification, or “be designed to achieve energy consumption levels 45 percent below the baseline set by [the International Energy Conservation Code] 2009.” Those Army housing projects that don’t meet LEED or Energy Star requirements are bound to qualify for certification by any number of reputable agencies.