My “Up in the Air” Thoughts on My Home’s Recent LEED® Silver Certification

By Trish Holder

I’m so conflicted right now.  I’m like George Clooney in the movie UP IN THE AIR, after they tell him, midflight, that he has flown his ten millionth mile, making him part of a very, very exclusive club.

I, too, am part of a very exclusive club.  Last week I got official word that the Greenspiration Home (my home) has earned LEED® Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  This makes my home the first single-family home in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina to become LEED certified and one of just a handful of homes in the entire state.

For over 3 years this has been my goal.  And it’s a HUGE accomplishment. But like Clooney’s character in the movie, I find myself in a state of total ambivalence.

What is LEED, anyway?
This may earn me a bit of heat from LEED advocates, but as Randy Jackson of American Idol fame would say, “Hey – I’m just trying to keep it real.”

I better start by explaining what LEED is, because unless you are in the construction industry, you probably don’t know what I am talking about.  (That, of course, is part of the problem.)

The LEED® green building program is a voluntary, consensus-based global rating system for buildings, homes and communities that are designed, constructed, maintained and operated for improved environmental and human health performance. LEED addresses all building types emphasizing state-of-the-art strategies in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection, locations & linkages, awareness & education, indoor environmental quality, innovation & education and regional priorities. (And yes, I copied that directly from the USGBC site).  Here’s a mere snapshot of what some of that means in terms of LEED for homes:

LEED Priority: Example:
Sustainable Site Development Did you take prescribe measures to protect topsoil, native trees and plantings, etc.?
Water Savings Did you use low flow fixtures?
Energy Efficiency Did you use an upgraded insulation, high efficiency HVAC, solar panels, etc?
Materials and Resource Selection Did you use wood products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)?
Locations & Linkages Did you build in an area within walking distance to parks, schools, grocery stores, public transportation, etc.?
Awareness & Education Did you create a website for your project?
Indoor Environmental Quality Did you avoid products that contain Volatile Organic Compounds?
Regional Priorities Did you use products that were made and extracted from resources all from within 500 miles?

Oh – and you can’t just say you did all this – you have to prove it via documentation.  And there is a hierarchy of entities to make sure you prove it and prove it well.  There are worksheets, spreadsheets, scorecards, signed documents, scanned documents, verifications, etc.  So, if you were wondering why it took me over 3 years to get this house certified, given work, kids, and everything else, well, now you know.

Where I’m Coming From
My own perspective on LEED has evolved over the last decade.  As a writer for the commercial HVAC industry, I’ve been writing about LEED projects since buildings first started becoming certified.  LEED is commonplace now in governmental, institutional, and even commercial facilities.  I’m still writing about them.  I have also witnessed the fact that this rating system has heightened awareness of sustainable/energy efficient building practices like nothing the US has ever seen.  It has truly transformed an industry in a remarkably short period of time.

In the residential industry, not so much.  In that world square footage and granite countertops still rule.  Many builders like it that way, most real estate agents like it that way, and homeowners are none-the-wiser.  After all, who are they getting their information from?

Awareness of LEED has been eclipsed by newer, arguably less-stringent home rating systems that followed in it’s footsteps.  But even these rating systems enjoy little overall awareness or appreciation from consumers or the real estate market in general.  There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’m speaking generally.

So if you decide to build a home and get it LEED certified, don’t expect anyone to throw a parade in your honor.  If you tell your friends, they’ll no doubt smile and say things like, “How wonderful!” yet not have a clue what you are speaking about. And at the end of the process, as you are recycling a enough LEED related paperwork to confetti Time Square, you may start to wonder….. “Was it worth it?”

Me?  (Pause.)  Personally, yes, it was worth it.  Rarely do we go through anything that challenges us this much and not come out with a feeling of pride and accomplishment.  I’ve got that.  But beyond a certain personal satisfaction, I’m just not sure.  I sort of feel like a marathon runner at the end of a one-woman race – with few people waiting at the finish line to congratulate me or offer me a beer.  I simply limp back to my car and drive myself home.

Like is said, folks, I’m just keeping it real.

This is a big topic.  Too big for one blog, as I have much to share about what I learned from this process.  Stay tuned as I try to give a relevant, realistic, and honest homeowner’s perspective on LEED.

20 Responses »

  1. LEED for homes probably will not be prominent or a selling point in the industry for years to come. The cost of making sure a home is LEED Certified is prohibitive to the market and will only result in fewer people being able to buy homes. The underprivileged, struggling poor and the young couple in the starter home will not be able to afford a LEED home and I’m afraid that is the preponderance of people who buy homes. Therefore builders and real estate agents will continue to build homes to meet the needs and size of the pocket book of the market.

    Most in American could not afford to keep a home at LEED standards. The requirements are stringent for re-certification and few will keep the records or the home in the same working order as built. I know that there have been many times in my own life that if an especially expensive hot water heater or a air conditioning unit or a refrigerator stood between my families comfort and need of my home staying LEED Certified their is not doubt what I would do. Like most Americans $50 dollars has meant a lot to me many times in my life.

    LEED Certification is only important to a few followers of the faith right now.

    Of course someday, through the efforts of great entrepreneurs the standards created by LEED Certification costing will come down and if we make enough people prosperous by making it easy for them to find or create a good paying job then there will be more money for LEED homes and it may even become a selling point.

    David Webster

    • I beg to differ with your statement, David, that “the young couple in the starter home will not be able to afford a LEED home.” I am the designer and LEED AP (Homes) for a SMALL Habitat for Humanity affiliate and we build LEED platinum homes affordably and have beed doing so for the past 2 years. Our first 3 efforts (done at one time) achieved Gold level certification, when the last 2 were Platinum, and we are on target for two more Platinum certifications. These homes are beautiful (check our our website at http://www.habitatalc for some pictures) and I would be proud to live in one (actually, I ENVY our homeowners!). You may say that because Habitat receives donations that that is the reason that they are affordable, but we spend about $5,000 more on the LEED homes, $3000 in certification costs (Green Rater). Most of the materials cost is low, with the majority of the “cost” in paying attention to detail (like being sure that the caulking is done and installation of other items is done correctly). Other no-cost options that contribute to the rating are NOT building a fireplace, NOT building a garage attached to the house, choosing the correct landscaping options — these actually SAVE us money. The upgraded windows only cost a couple of hundred dollars more. Anyway, I could go on, but the bottom line to the homeowner (who does pay a mortgage, of course) is that the monthly mortgage + utilities is less than if we built a “conventional” home that wasn’t built to the LEED standards. These homes are PERFECT for first time homebuyers. The problem is buyer education and, as Trish says, less attention to granite countertops and squarefootage. If consumers would only look at the big picture we would all be better off.

  2. Trish,
    Having only taken the training for LEED Green Associate, and not even the exam (yet), I learned more myself. To say you are ahead of the curve is putting it mildly. Given all that is going on not only with the environment, but in many other arenas, I find myself wondering why so many people can seemingly disregard it all and concentrate on watching “reality” shows, having the latest shoe styles, and keeping up on sports. We all have to have our R&R and an indulgence here or there, however…all that WILL disappear perhaps sooner than we think. Our extreme dependence on fossil fuels was doomed from the start, but even as we descend Hubbert’s Peak, most do so with blinders on.

    To keeping it real,
    Margie

  3. It starts with one person who has the vision. LEED may not yet be embraced with the residential community however I believe the vision is gaining strength. As utility rates rise and fresh water becomes valuable, home owners will understand the vision.

  4. Our LEED homes (Habitat for Humanity) cost an average of $19/month/person in utilities as opposed to our previously built, non-LEED homes which cost an average of $56/month/person.

    The homeowners of our LEED homes spend about $200 LESS a month for their mortgage and utilities than the owners of the non-LEED homes.

    Congratulations, Trish!

  5. I am happy for you Trish. As for you Mr. Webster, I hope your not in the Real Estate Industry or the Home Construction Industry. As someone once said, “if your not part of the solution your part of the problem”.

  6. I wonder how many other pioneers in the past also had doubts and second thoughts……….?
    Maybe that’s just a part of the human condition.

    You have certainly inspired me,

    Alicia

  7. Thank goodnes the responses have been on the positive side and not laddened with tunnel vision. Change is not easy for anyone, but no change no growth. We have innovation on our side with LEED and knowledge is power. Do we think that the Industrial Revolution was not filled with naysayers.?

    “An insurmantible barrier only exists because of your lack of purpose or perspective” and “The only guarantee for failure is to stop trying” I’m personally in it for the long haul and grateful for others who are keeping it real, really!
    Joyce

  8. We have been “EnergyStar” builders for 13 years, much of what we already do is considered “green” even before there was a “LEED” or a “green” trend. EnergyStar is simply our niche, we looked into the LEED program and cannot justify the cost as being a good ROI.
    Low energy costs are REAL, green can be “greenwashed” and sometimes not verifiable. We consider ourselves “cutting” edge, not just building with SIPS, but with STEEL SIPs, for right now LEED does not make sense

  9. LEED is a program that looks at many overall factors of a home that contribute to it being “green” and sustainably designed and built. One of the problems I have heard of occurring is that it is not specifically a “performance based” certification, so some LEED structures have not necessarily performed well from an energy use perspective, and the costs for certification can be high. It all depends on the size, and the design of the structure to a great extent.

    If one is truly interested in getting the maximum energy efficiency from a structure, with a shorter term ROI even nearing “net zero” energy use, it is my and many other industry expert’s opinion that one should consider “Passive House Certification”.I’ve been a designer/builder for over 25 years, and this is the BEST efficiency at the lowest cost I have yet to come across. (5% over conventional construction, again depending on size and design, for 75 to 80% energy savings). It goes FAR beyond LEED in actual energy savings. One can sustainably source materials, use low or zero VOC, FSC certified materials etc. along with this system as desired. A recent president of the USGBC has in fact gone over to the PH camp and is now preferring PH because of it’s real world results.

    If combined with LEED, (and there are mechanisms in the works for LEED to accept PH as a major point score), one could have the pinnacle of energy efficiency AND sustainability. BUT if you have to choose where best to put your limited funds, Passive House is where my money would, and does, go!

  10. As a green home certifying agent, I see an amazing shift in building. Call it green, call it whatever you want, it’s simply using best building practices via building science to create better homes with respect for the environment. We have our own green certification program here in Florida that is written for our unique severe weather building methods. Just over 4600 homes have been certified using this program. It is chosen far more frequently than the national options. I don’t care what program people use or whether they achieve a green level of Bronze or Platinum. I see it all as progress and get such a kick out of watching the builders improve their methods. I’ve never had one builder go back to their old approach to building once they’ve completed their first green home. The point is, in the long run it’s not about chasing green points, it’s about building better homes. I see that happening everyday and love it!

    Congratulations, Trish. I know LEED is a bear but you’re hard work contributed to a wonderful movement of positive change. Fortunately, many other green programs are not as challenging or intimitating as LEED. The variety is a good thing. The easier programs draw many home builders into the world of green that would otherwise turn away from it, if their only choice was LEED. Once they get their feet wet, I watch many of them move into LEED certification. It’s all good!

  11. Hi Trish,

    You’d be suprised at how many people understand what it is. I’m glad you went through the process and congrats to you!!!! Your efforts are truly appreciated and do not go unnoticed. I look forward to all your blog posts.

  12. Trish,

    Thank you for your candor. And I admire your pioneering spirit. As a LEED AP myself, I share your fervor for sustainability. And I also empathize with your emotional reaction to what you have just brought to a conclusion.

    Similar to what you have done that I could compare to your journey is when I decided to get my LEED accreditation and then study for and pass the exam. I was out of work from my career of building homes and I saw this as an avenue to placing myself in a better position in the job market. Having no spare cash, I borrowed the study guide from the local library, who borrowed it on an interlibrary loan from one of the 2 or 3 libraries in the state that had the book and would lend it. Once I had the book, I studied it myself and went to a $30 introduction seminar.

    I am going to shorten this to the barest of information now. I like having the LEED AP at the end of my name, but it is really unremarkable. Not one phone call has been generated from all of my job applications. So, we know that in my special case, my LEED accreditation has proven itself rather unproductive in aiding my job search. Most of the jobs that indicate a requirement for LEED accreditation also require other areas of credentials such as an engineering degree or an architectural degree. Without those degrees, there is just no work for a LEED AP with a high school degree who just happened to have built 1,000 homes the old NON-LEED way. There are no jobs for any old home builders any longer. And there won’t be for several years to come.

    In early 2009, which is when I received my accreditation, there were about 60,000 people who had been accredited throughout the country. I am not sure what that number is now. And, in 2009 there were fewer LEED projects than there were people who had their credentials. Most of those were comercial projects.

    Just last year, I wanted to volunteer to help on a Habitat home so that I might get some experience participating in a design Charrette. Well, for the privilege of volunteering, I would have to pay a fee of a few hundred dollars. That seems to be the norm nowadays in my area. We do not get paid for our knowledge and credentials, we must now pay others to have the chance to use our credentials. Furthermore, those who are now getting their credentials in the LEED for Homes specialty must pay to maintain their credentials. Just imagine what the new LEED Accredited Professionals feel about that! Many professionals in many fields will pay much less per year to maintain their credentials in their primary profession than they will to maintain their LEED AP. So if they are not working in the fields of LEED projects regularly, there will be no incentive to maintain this credential along with their other credentials. I do not expect too many viable LEED for Homes projects that are not subsidized in some way by donations or volunteerism like the Habitat for Humanity homes are.

    I am sorry that I am unable to add anything positive about the LEED Certification program or the USGBC.

  13. Trish,

    Congratulations on your LEED Certification. Your persistance should be commended and it is important to know first hand what it takes to accomplish something like LEED.
    As a designer I try to incorporate as many sustainable design aspects as I can as well as those that are desired or needed by my clients. I am not LEED accredited (another silly aspect of LEED is that designers are accredited which is a moniker that confuses some clients), however I have worked on LEED Certified projects for other design firms so I have first hand design knowledge…LEED appears to work well with commercial projects but until there is some carrot for homeowners (i.e. a tax abatement/write off) there is little use for the program because owners can get the benefits of lower energy costs and better comfort with proscriptive programs. I try to match my designs to what my clients needs and wants are (wait aren’t all designers/architects trying to do the same?? Its what we were taught in design school…. ). The best way to keep progressing in “green” design is to produce projects that clients desire. Then the need will grow and mature as we all learn how a house can perform with the correct design applied.

  14. Trish,

    Kudos for the LEED certification! I believe you are perhaps a decade in front of widespread acceptance.

    In 2002 my home was designed and built stronger/safer; Energy Star-rated; and in compliance with proposed State green building guidelines; along with considerable attention to indoor air quality improvements.

    In the past decade, I’ve seen stiffer building and energy codes plus growing interest in healthy homes push many of these aspects to mainstream housing. But in our experience, these measures cannot compromise design–either in aesthetics or livability. Without good design, the rest means nothing in terms of the home’s marketability.

  15. Yes, congratulations,Trish!
    It’s a major accomplishment, and you are leading :-)) the way in your neck of the woods (there still are some, right?!)…And every effort, every action for environmental well being, counts towards opening the way for further improvements and wider involvement.

    About LEED itself:
    We all can be immensely grateful for the USGBC and LEED as forerunners, for putting the importance of how and what we build ‘on the map’.
    The LEED standard, however, and the drawbacks mentioned by others, have much room for improvement from a health perspective….And LEED is evolving.
    It this is not, though, the end all and be all as a standard or a certification.

    As an Certified Green Building Professional, GreenAP and Eco Feng Shui Designer, Consultant and Educator, my focus is on a building’s effect on the health of the people doing the construction, the health and well being of the people living in it, and effect of the building on the land on which it stands and on the health of the environment as a whole.
    There are most definitely other certs and standards that are MUCH more saavy and appropriate in that context, such as The Living Building Certification.
    A Healthy Building Standard is in process also.

    May You & Your Family Have Much Joy & Well Being in this New Version of Your Home, Trish!

    All the Best,

    Alisa Rose
    Certified Green Building Professional, GreenAP (for interiors)
    Designer/Consultant/Educator

  16. I call BS on the utility savings. The Energy Star rating is one of the biggest hoaxes out there. They use less energy because they have smaller motors. They burn up faster and now end up in our land fills because like water bottles, aluminum, etc. they are too lazy to recycle.

    I hate to sound cynical but you better be careful how and where your dryer vent is installed. If you have an Energy Star rated dryer the blower motor may not have enough CFM to push the hot air out doors and could create a fire hazard.

    I was “Green” before there was green and long before there was LEED. In 1997 I built an ICF house with the most energy efficient windows and doors available. The roof and trusses and studs are metal. The deck, windows and trim are vinyl. If I would have known about reclaimed “gray water” I would have used that too. The interior trim is mostly manufactured – (saw dust, plastic and glue) and the floor is Pergo – plastic laminate.

    I recently went to a Southface networking event to push a “LEED” points product that I am trying to get approved in Georgia – www,siltshield.com and got no help, response or interest. People have their own agendas and just are talking wind bags. Sounds good and people will do it if it’s affordable as they are more interested in granite and oil rubbed bronze plumbing fixtures that the environment.

  17. Hi Trish:

    I agree with Bill, people in general not only understand the advantage of going green when renovating, but they increasingly demand it. Trish you deserve to be proud and do spread the word accordingly! As a designer specializing on green products and sustainable design principles, receive requests from clients who have an amazing base knowledge and I enjoy the constant challenge that requires continuous investment in my knowledge to make sure I stay ahead and can provide more/improved/new to them. As to the cost of the initial investment of going green is understood and justified when we consider health and the promised savings. And for all these reasons i consider it an extremely strong tool for re-sale value also.

  18. Trish, Don’t despair as the lack of recognition isn’t just for green, it really exists for most small businesses – media doesn’t recognize us as we don’t spend big advertising $$ so besides hyper local awards, like business of the year from your local chamber, your recognition is right here among your tribe.

    As my website is about educating homeowners, I’d love to do an interview on BlogTalkRadio … to help you spread the word. I’m flat out in June so let’s try to do something in July (I’ve put tickler on calendar to get in touch first week in July.

  19. Hi Trish, Another wonderful post by you. I agree with so much that has been said here. In the Seattle area LEED ratings are required in many public building by the City. Homes are usually rated on a star system known as the Snohomish King County Master Builders Association Built Green Program. It tends to be an easier way for builders and homeowners to go. It uses a lot of the same principles as LEED and requires 3rd party certification for the upper levels.

    Why third party certs? With all the green-washing going on these days, it helps to ensure the builder did what he said he did, and gives the buyer piece of mind. I’m lucky to live in an area where there is knowledge and increasing demand for these properties.

    With rising energy costs, awareness of indoor air quality issues, and for us “tree huggers” it’s a wise investment. I know several home buyers that want to buy new because of the energy savings down the road and into the future. The homes that can prove they are healthier to live in, save money for the occupants, and have respect for the environment around them are much more likely to hold their value than ones that are built to be “conventional”. There is a large movement in our area to retrofit the many “Craftsman” style houses with more efficient systems.

    I’m sure this LEED home was quite a hill to summit, but you are leading with your foresight. The rest will be behind you asking for a hand up with your hard-earned knowledge!

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