But how do I KNOW it's green?
Every product claims to be “green” these days. You can eat chips out of “biodegradable” bags, swaddle your infant in “pure and natural” diapers or buy doll accessories made from scrap and recycled materials. “Greenwashing” – disingenuously claiming a product is environmentally-friendly when it’s really business as usual – has become so widespread, and the popular meaning of “sustainability” so vague, that consumers are understandably skeptical.
And if you’re skeptical about snack food containers, imagine how hard you’ll be to convince about the green bona fides of a house you’re considering. There are so many shades of green, and the marketers of green technologies and materials are so creative in their claims, that the prospective homeowner can get befuddled.
How do you quantify, measure and compare competing priorities? Finally, when it comes time to sell an environmentally-attuned home in which you’ve invested a considerable sum, how does the buyer know that you’re not “greenwashing” them? There is a very real risk that, while the demand for sustainably-minded residences will continue to increase, unverified claims of greenness will not yield the market premium that you envisioned.
What you need is a verifiable, third-party “scorecard” that establishes a clear methodology for rating how “green” a building is. There are now a number of such rating systems. The one that I think will carry the most weight in the future is called LEED.
The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, was developed by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council). Their goal is to transform the marketplace, so their approach is incremental, rather than fundamental. They have developed comprehensive checklists, divided into logical categories of sustainable construction. There are points in each category, and clear reference standards for performance. As the playing field changes, and the affordability of the tools at your disposal increases, you can expect them to keep moving the goalposts.
"A certifiably “green” home will give you more than just energy savings, a healthy indoor environment and the knowledge you’ve put your money where your mouth is."
"These are commendable goals, but why not pursue them without getting verified or certified, and roll your savings into more efficiency measures?"
The system is not perfect. But LEED’s effort to create benchmarks for performance is laudable and their progress in incorporating a broader definition of sustainability sets the LEED rating system apart. For example, whereas your “Zero Net Energy” house need strive only to produce as much energy as it consumes in a year, the LEED home must consider not only energy consumption but its impact in six additional categories:
- Location. Gain points for selecting a home site that doesn’t break up farmland and forest, needs less infrastructure, and promotes transportation options beyond the car.
- Site. Earn points by protecting and encouraging native plant and animal species and limiting site disturbance during construction.
- Water. Score points by reducing water usage through conservation, efficient fixtures or rainwater harvesting.
- Energy. Yes, you’ll be rewarded for reducing energy consumption or generating your own.
- Materials. Reclaimed materials and those with recycled content, the use of rapidly renewable resources, and minimizing construction waste are all strategies to earn points in this category.
- Environment. The home’s healthfulness is also part of its sustainability. LEED awards points for measures that minimize indoor air pollutants and maximize occupant comfort.
- Education. This category promotes awareness among residents about the differences in a “green” home and how to operate and maintain them.
These are commendable goals, but why not pursue them without getting verified or certified, and roll your savings into more efficiency measures? After all, to get LEED-certified you’ll need to pay the LEED-accredited architect to steer the decision-making process, to calculate the “points” and to fill out the templates. You’ll need to pay the “Green Rater” who helps with energy modeling and post-construction verification. Finally, you’ll need to pay the USGBC to register the project, and to review all that data and certify the home. All this can cost $5000 or more.
So here’s the good news. New York wants to encourage LEED’s goals but – like a future buyer – they’re not going to take your word for it. The state recently launched a “Green Building Initiative” which will provide approximately $5000 to offset costs for a home that receives LEED-Silver Certification (60 or more points on a 100-point scale). So much for extra “soft costs.” As for hard costs, all your renewable energy systems and many energy efficiency measures qualify for rebates, incentives and tax credits that can cut the expense almost in half. Additionally, investments like photovoltaics are untaxed assets. They undoubtedly add resale value to your home because they will save the new owner cash each month, but they cannot legally be counted in assessing your property value for tax purposes.
A certifiably “green” home will give you more than just energy savings, a healthy indoor environment and the knowledge you’ve put your money where your mouth is. When it comes time to sell, a LEED-certified home that cuts through the green noise may put more of that money back in your pocket.