Sustainable Building Rating Systems for Homes

June 7, 2014

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of homes certified as having sustainable design features. Certification and the increased standards add value to the home, creates a healthier indoor environment, and can create a positive cash flow through energy savings and incentives (1). And of course, it’s the environmentally responsible thing to do.

With the recent construction of Passive and Net Zero homes in the Pacific Northwest I became curious how feasible it is to achieve these higher benchmarks. I created a side by side comparison of sustainable building certification programs for new home construction. As a LEED AP I was most familiar with LEED for Homes. I was curious how some of the other systems compared in terms of certification cost, increased construction cost, credibility, and user friendliness.  What I discovered is that the various systems are more similar than I expected. It is a continuum from least to most stringent and they tend to build upon and reference each other. For example LEED requires Energy Star compliance and DOE builds upon Energy Star and encourages users to strive for the next highest level which is Passive House.

Some programs such as Built Green and the National Green Building Standard are developed by and for home builders. I suspected that this would impact their credibility as it has for other rating systems that are produced by non-neutral parties. For example, the Green Globes ratings (which I didn’t include because they don’t offer a version for homes) has been accused of being influenced by industry investors such as plastic, wood, vinyl (2). What I found is that Built Green and NGBS are developed in conjunction with government agencies in a transparent, data driven based process. Therefore, I am reasonably confident that the industry origins and influence of these rating systems is mitigated.

The following charts summarize LEED, Built Green, Energy Star, DOE Challenge, National Green Building Standard, Living Building Challenge, and Passive House based on cost, process, and credibility. Most of this is compiled from the organizations websites while the verification fees were provided by Seattle raters such as Tadashi Shiga. This information should be helpful if you are in the process of finding an architect and building your home and are trying to choose a level of energy efficiency that works with your budget and priorities. It’s worth noting that the Energy Star and DOE Challenge Homes have a net cash flow after considering upfront cost minus energy savings. (3) This guide should also be helpful if you’re a developer looking to distinguish your spec homes with the highest practical level of efficiency. Please feel free to comment if you find additional information or have experiences to share.

Sustainable House Rating Systems Cost Sustainable House Rating Systems Process Sustainable House Rating Systems Johnston Architects


1. According to a March, 2009, analysis of real estate data, homes with third-party verified green certifications in the Puget Sound sold for an average of 9.6% more than comparable homes and fetched a $20 premium per square foot. The steps you take to certify your project may also qualify for incentives that far outweigh the costs of certification, including utility rebates, federal tax credits, and marketing incentives from the Northwest ENERGY STAR Homes program.

The Cost of Green Revisited. “Studies have shown over a 20 year life period, some green buildings have yielded $53 to $71 per square foot back on investment.”

Green homes account for approximately 20 percent of the U.S. residential market—a percentage expected to increase by a few points each year, according to the Dodge report—and one-third of U.S. residential builders expect to be “fully dedicated” to green building by 2016.

2. “Instead of LEED, they’ve got something called Green Globes. Instead of the “Forest Stewardship Council” certification (which LEED recognizes for wood products), they’ve created the Sustainable Forestry Initiative program. Suffice it to say, these certifications have laxer standards.” The Atlantic