What I Did For LEED: An Example of the Insanity

By Trish Holder

(To the tune of What I Did For Love….)


Kiss the fees good-bye

The checklist and green rater

I am done–I’m CER-TEEE-FIED!

Though I may regret

What I did for LEED, What I did for LEED!

LEED CertificationIt’s this bittersweet song from A Chorus Line that comes to mind as I stare at my recently delivered certificates from the USGBC, signifying my LEED Silver Certification of my green home.  Certification is sweet; but I’m a little bitter.  Today, I want to explain why, and I think the best way to do that is share a true story about my geothermal heat pump.  We’ll call this story the “The Closet within a Closet LEED Fiasco.”

We were already building the Greenspiration Home when we realized there was really no good location to install the geothermal unit.  Unlike conventional heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps cannot be installed outdoors.  They must be protected from the elements, so they typically go in the basement, crawlspace, garage, or attic.  Clearly, a basement is the ideal solution, but we didn’t have a basement; we had a crawlspace, which unfortunately did not have enough vertical space for the 5 ft. unit.  We didn’t want to install it in the attic or eave storage for fear that the unit might create too much interior noise.

We had no choice but to install the geothermal unit in the corner of our slightly oversized 2-car garage.  But there was a problem.  LEED says that absolutely no HVAC equipment shall be installed in the garage, the reason being that somehow car exhaust could get pulled into the house.

Okay – I got that – and while we hadn’t exactly budgeted for a special closet inside our garage just for our geothermal unit, that is exactly what we built, per the advice of my Green Rater.

The Green Rater is the liaison between you and your USGBC Provider.  The USGBC Provider is who looks over all your paperwork for LEED, checklist, etc. and submits it to the USGBC for final approval.  So there are my contractors, my green rater, my provider, the USGBC, and I.  That is a fairly lengthy chain of people with lots of opportunity for miscommunication and misinterpretation of the LEED guidelines.  While my green rater was under the impression that this closet would suffice (and insisted the USGBC Provider told him it would) that proved not to be the case.  Technically, the geothermal unit has to be within the “envelope” of the house, meaning that it is located within fully insulated exterior walls.

Hmmm.  THAT was a problem.  Because the little closet we built consisted only of studs, sheetrock, and a door.

HVAC ClosetA Closet Around a Closet
By this time, we were already living in the house and just want all this to be over.  We’d come too far to give up, but this issue was a deal breaker.  If we didn’t get this worked out, we might as well kiss LEED good-bye, a shame since I’d already paid my registration fee, my Energy Star fee, and incurred any number of other costs all for the sake of certification.   As you can imagine, I’m seeing RED by now….

So, we built a closet around the closet.  Oh—and we had to have an expensive exterior door which opens into this exterior closet.  All of this probably cost an additional $1500.00 or so. It would have been more had my dear friend, Charlie, who also happens to be an excellent renovation contractor, charged me what he should have for the job.  God, I love Charlie….

On the bright side, the closet, which actually forms an enclosed area to the garage entry to the house, is not a bad thing.  It is actually a nice space to remove muddy shoes and drop stinky soccer gear before you enter the house.  Charlie even built in some accessible storage beneath the space, which is about 3 feet above the garage floor.

THINK Before You LEED!
This is the sort of thing that makes me tell homeowners to think long and hard about seeking LEED certification.  There isn’t a tremendous amount of LEED expertise in the current residential industry and the experience may end up feeling like the blind leading the blind.  I’m grateful for the experience, which serves me well as the publisher of this blog and even as a writer for the HVAC industry, but most homeowners are not in my professional situation.  Their house is simply a home.

I, on the other hand, might just spin my LEED story in a Broadway musical….


9 Responses »

  1. It is great that you are sharing the absurdities as well as the benefits of certifications such as LEEDS. Sometimes we get so tied up with specific policy that we leave common sense completely behind.

    Just an FYI for the readers who may be considering ground source heat pumps (geothermal) who may not have a place in the house to put the unit. There are ground source heat pumps that are designed to be installed out of doors. The piping all comes in through the bottom of the weatherproofed housing and all pumps are installed within the housing.

    • Robin,

      Thank you SO much for this comment! Being an advocate for green building, it is sometimes hard to ‘fess up about the inadequacies that exist in the green building industry. There is a lot of pressure to only talk about the good things. But I believe that is a mistake.

      I’ve been observing (not to mention experiencing) this industry for several years now and I firmly believe that talking about the problems is essential for the advancement. We must talk about what went wrong, and not be embarrassed about it if we really want to see green building to grow.

      Thank you also for bringing up the outdoor solutions for geothermal. I assume these products have the same tax benefits of other geothermal/ground source systems?


  2. Trish,

    This all sounds like an afterthought?

    The Green Rater should of guided you through the process without your interaction with anyone else! I believe it’s their job, am I correct? It also, should of been pre-designed into the plan, by architect, engineer, etc.

    Although, I apologize if I don’t understand your process, I am assuming you hired a LEED AP, or could of should of, in my case hired a CSBA-Certified Sustainable Building Advisor! We have had trainings on things like this, including multi-disciplinaries structure.

    As you can tell I’m not a fan of LEED! I like it only to the fact, it’s becoming world wide and a good start. But long term, I’m not sure its outcome. That said, Energy Star would of been a better long term certification system, which would of included long term energy, IAQ, and made sure it works scenrio’s!

    By the way, Robin has a good point about Geothermal being outdoors…Schools here in the NW have been constructing them this way for a time now, and it works fine.


  3. Trish,
    I applaud you for your candor. I am anxious to read all the future responses to this post.

    In the past, everyone sorta thought that the heating guy was responsible for heating the house and to a lesser extent the insulator was the guy who kept the precious heat inside the house. Now it is realized that so many factors play into the cost of “heating” the home. Along with all the other participating design professionals and contractors who played an integral role in achieving the LEED Certification for your home, they and you had to learn a lesson the expensive way.They learned from their experience. Future designs will go more smoothly. You might think the cost was yours, but I am sure that most of these people who have the initials AP after their name will feel that they too paid their dues on this job.

    your experienced is a symptom of what we are going through in general. So many architects, engineers, and tradesmen have become specialists and had operated in a vacuum, isolated from each other. Now they must all come into the same space and become aware of how their contribution affects others.

    • You’re right, John. Those folks with the LEED AP after their name have paid dearly. And I suspect (only cuz he told me) that mine was the last LEED project my green rater will get involved in. Neither he, nor the provider company get rich of of LEED for homes projects. That’s why I really hold no ill will against anyone within these organizations for my frustrations.

      The construction industry isn’t known for its communication skills. And that’s a BIG problem when it comes to going after a certification like LEED. This sort of program would go much smoother if only IT people, communications professionals, or editor/writers were involved. But then who would build the house or install the products??? All the people have to talk. They have to READ. And that’s a tough sell to some hard boiled construction folks.

      Homeowners and contractors have to know this going in. If they can’t handle it, they need to build TO the standard and forgo certification.

  4. Sounds like a pretty crazy process!

  5. I’m a real estate educator, currently working on a GREEN course specifically for appraisers. Found your story very interesting. May I use it?

  6. I build triple certified High Performance New Homes. These are certified to NAHB Green, ENERGY STAR, and Indoor airPlus. This should not have been such an issue had it been planned for in advance. Your Green rater and Energy Star rater should have spotted the issue immediately when reviewing the plans, in advance. Then you could have planned the closet and air sealed it off from the garage. This is essential for a healthy home. So unless geothermal was an after thought, your raters really let you down here.

Leave a Response