Making Sense of Green Home Certification Standards

Photo: hotblack/“Green building” is a subset of modern home design that seeks to maximize efficiency, conserve resources, and increase performance and safety, with the overarching goal of minimizing environmental impact through sustainable construction. And luckily, green building is on the rise.

But how are homes classified as “green,” and how can consumers be certain that their new home meets the highest set of standards? Green certification offers the metric by which to evaluate the “greenness” of a building. Organizations operate on the national, state, and regional scale, but not all green certification is equal.

There are countless smaller, local certification programs from both government and private institutions. Some of these set a higher standard than the national programs, and some of them are not nearly as stringent. Often they focus on a specific area of interest, like the prominent ENERGY STAR program which certifies home appliances for energy efficiency, but does not offer comprehensive green building certification.

When it comes to wide-reaching, all-inclusive certification -- the kind of holistic program that looks at energy use, appliances and lighting, water conservation, indoor air quality, land use and landscaping, building material choices, and more -- there are really only two major players on the national level. And they have a lot in common.

LEED for Homes

LEED for Homes is the most widely used green building certification. The program is run by its parent group, the U.S. Green Building Council, which is a collection of member organizations, chapters, and volunteers who work collectively to move the building industry in an environmentally-friendly direction. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The LEED for Homes rating system is designed to promote the planning and implementation of high-quality green homes. LEED-certified houses minimize energy and water consumption, improve indoor air quality, use more eco-friendly building materials, maximize heating and cooling efficiency, and incorporate topography and surrounding land for efficient design. LEED certification is difficult to achieve, due to the scope and rigor of these specifications.

There are four levels of LEED for Homes certification: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. The higher levels indicate higher results on the LEED scoring system. Scores are assessed by official LEED Green Raters, who act as a third-party verification system.


The National Green Building Program, nicknamed NAHBGreen, is a newer green certification program. NAHBGreen is a branch of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), a large housing and building industry trade organization.

The overall NAHBGreen program embraces more than just green certification, by providing educational resources for both builders and buyers and advocating for green building initiatives at the federal level. Additionally, they offer the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS), which is a top-level green rating system for residential construction.

The NGBS scoring is used as a tool for builders during the design and construction of new single-family and multi-family homes, as well as for remodeling and renovation. NGBS scoring focuses on energy efficiency, resource conservation, indoor environmental quality, and building site design. This scoring is then used by official NAHB Green Verifiers to facilitate referrals for green certification through the independent third-party NAHB Research Center.

Both the LEED for Homes program and the NAHBGreen program offer comprehensive evaluation of a building’s environmental impact. They work towards education and outreach, encourage the use of sustainable materials and techniques, and are competing to set the gold standard in green building certification. LEED for Homes is generally considered to be the benchmark for green construction, while the newer NAHBGreen is still largely associated with the NAHB trade organization which focuses more on policy and promotion of housing issues.

For us, as future home buyers and professional builders, it will be interesting to follow these two organizations as they continue to grow -- and subsequently shape the green building marketplace. Before you build, renovate, or buy, no matter where you are, discuss your options carefully with a real estate agent and a contractor; from Cincinnati remodeling firms to Hawaiian green architecture consultants, there's a big green industry out there.

Sayward Rebhal writes for

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