What is LEED for Homes? A Step-by-Step Guide for Certification

Posted on 30. Jan, 2012 by in Articles

Navigating your way through a LEED Certification for your new home can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with green building techniques and systems. But no more. In this homeowner’s guide, we’ll provide answers to your most burning questions regarding LEED for Homes Certification, including:

  1. What is LEED for Homes?
  2. Can I achieve LEED Certification for my existing home?
  3. How much does it cost to achieve LEED Certification?
  4. Why should I aim for LEED Certification? What are the benefits?
  5. What are the basics of the LEED Certification process?
  6. What is the difference between LEED levels? How many points can I achieve?
  7. What does ENERGY STAR have to do with LEED for Homes?
  8. Who do I need on my green design team?
  9. What are the various steps in the LEED for Homes process?
  10. Are there minimum standards I have to achieve to obtain a LEED Certification?
  11. What kinds of green designs can I use to get points in the LEED rating system?
  12. What other tools can I access to make my LEED for Homes journey easier?

What is LEED for Homes?

LEED for Homes is a system developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) for the purpose of rating and recognizing homes built to a more sustainable standard than conventional homes built to code. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which was originally developed for the purpose of transforming the mainstream building industry by promoting and encouraging best practices for environmental design and construction.

In many ways, the LEED system is meant to be like a nutrition label on a box of cereal. By standardizing how to measure the performance of buildings, you can compare one building to another against a list of set criteria. This allows homeowners, tenants, and building managers to assess the relative impact a building has on the environment, as well as how it will perform in terms of energy and water consumption, and occupant satisfaction. At present, the LEED family of ratings includes the following:

  • New Construction
  • Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance
  • Commercial Interiors
  • Core & Shell
  • Schools
  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Homes
  • Neighbourhood Development

LEED for Homes is one of the newest rating systems in the LEED suite of programs – it was released for the first time in January of 2008. This particular rating system can be applied to both single family homes as well as multi-family housing developments (though we’ll only discuss single family homes in this guide).

Can I achieve LEED Certification for my existing home?

Currently, the LEED for Homes program is only for newly constructed residential homes. However, the USGBC has partnered with The American Society of Interior Designers’ Foundation to launch REGREEN, a national program for remodelling and retrofitting existing homes. These guidelines are free and include best practices as well as many other resources.

How much does it cost to get my home LEED Certified?

There are many aspects along the LEED for Homes Certification process that have potential financial implications. Consider your own learning requirements as you become familiar with LEED, design and construction costs related to building green, as well as costs associated with the necessary verifications and certifications of your project.

Let’s start by dispelling the biggest myth of green house plan design and construction, which is the belief that a green home will always cost more to build. In order to address this myth, three things need to be considered:

  • Many green design features will be comparable in price to traditional design features
  • There are some green features that will cost less than conventional features
  • Some green features will have a higher initial cost, but will result in long-term savings that outweigh the upfront costs

Taking all of these factors into consideration, the USGBC estimates that 39% of Certified LEED Homes are considered affordable, meaning they are no more expensive than the average affordable home to build, and cheaper to operate. How?

By choosing cost-effective green features and through state and federally-funded programs such as Low-Income Housing Credits, many LEED Certified Homes can either be purchased or rented by families who would fall into the category of low-income. Additionally, because these homes cost less to run by saving energy and water, and because they’re healthier to live in due to better indoor air quality (which reduces medical bills), these homes save homeowners and tenants money long-term as well.

When it comes to keeping a LEED home affordable, one of the keys is to use an integrative design approach by stressing the importance of incorporating LEED concepts from the very beginning. Trying to add in LEED features late in the design process usually results in a higher-priced home, making it crucial to incorporate LEED ideas from the very beginning.

So while the features and materials you use in your green home may or may not increase your bottom line, what often contributes the most to the cost of getting a home LEED Certified is the learning curve you’ll experience. You will more than likely require professional consultations during the design review as well as for various phases of paperwork throughout the process. Expect to be billed by your architect or engineer for these consultations and administrative details.

To lesson your learning curve, you may want to purchase the LEED for Homes Reference Guide, which currently runs $100 for a hard copy. There are also lots of free resources on the USGBC Green Home Guide to reduce the number of consultations you may require with your contractor and architect.

The next costs associated with building a LEED for Homes project are the Provider and Green Rater fees. These include the professional services for receiving HERS and ENERGY STAR ratings, as well as any other certifications available or required in your housing market. It can be hard to estimate these costs, especially since Green Raters and Providers are permitted to set their own fee schedules. However, you can expect to pay anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 (and sometimes more) for these services depending on your location and your chosen professional. This may seem high, but keep in mind that this is not a lot of money on a large construction project.

There’s one more layer of costs related to a LEED for Homes project: the actual LEED rating process, which has two phases (Registration and Certification) and two types (member and non-member).

  • USGBC members: Registration is $150 and Certification is $225 = $375
  • Non-members: Registration is $225 and Certification is $300 = $525

As you can see, these costs are not prohibitive, especially when you consider the bigger price-points involved in building or renovating a home.

What are the benefits of LEED Certification for Homes?

Remember that though it may cost slightly more to fulfill the requirements to achieve a LEED Certification, more than likely you will have a much higher level of satisfaction with your green home than you would otherwise. In fact, the USGBC reports that 87% of green homeowners are more satisfied than with a previous non-green home, and 70% of home buyers are more inclined to buy a green home, especially during a slow economy.

So why are green homes so popular? What makes a LEED Certified home such a good investment?

  • Lower utility bills
  • Government tax incentives and rebates for energy and water savings
  • A healthier, more comfortable environment for occupants
  • Reductions in landfill waste
  • Increased building durability for lower maintenance costs
  • Decreased carbon footprint, which means a better green image
  • Increased property and resale value

What are the basics of obtaining LEED Certification?

So how does LEED for Homes actually work? The easiest way to understand the program is by the numbers:

  • 136 possible points
  • 18 prerequisites
  • 8 credit categories
  • 5 project phases

Let’s break them down one by one.

Achieving up to 136 credits for your LEED for Homes project

The LEED system uses a point scale to determine how green your home is. You are awarded credits for features and actions you take during the design and construction phases based on the relative environmental impact each feature or action will have.

The number of points awarded for your green home determines the LEED Certification level you obtain. Here’s how it breaks down:

LEED for Homes Certification Level

Points per LEED for Homes Level

Certified

45-59

Silver

60-74

Gold

75-89

Platinum

90-136

What does ENERGY STAR Qualification have to do with LEED for Homes?

The ENERGY STAR program for new homes is a system of guidelines developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency to encourage the construction of homes that are 15% more energy efficient than homes built to 2004 International Residential Code (IRC) standards. The standards set by this program are used as one of the benchmarks within the LEED for Homes program. The ENERGY STAR program also qualifies many products, many of which will improve your home’s energy efficiency and can be incorporated into your green design to earn even more LEED credits. Earning points for your LEED for Homes Certification will involve ENERGY STAR standards in two main categories, including:

  • Energy and Atmosphere: You’ll be encouraged to meet or exceed the basic ENERGY STAR for Homes standards as a prerequisite for this category. ENERGY STAR products will feature largely in this category as well, including insulation, windows, doors, space heating and cooling equipment, appliances, and more. There are also prerequisite credits in this category for incorporating ENERGY STAR qualified lighting.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality: In this category, you can earn credit for implementing the ENERGY STAR Indoor Air Package for better indoor air quality.

Who’s involved in a LEED for Homes project?

There are several team members involved in a LEED for Homes project. Of course, there’s you as the homeowner as well as your architect and contractor or homebuilder. But in addition to these crucial roles, there are others that need to be filled:

  • Providers: These local organizations work with the Green Raters to complete the verification process and ensure quality assurance for the Green Rater on your project. They are tasked with supporting builders in the construction of your home to ensure they achieve the highest performance and sustainably standards.
  • Green Raters: These are professionals who work as part of the LEED for Homes Provider team, and perform onsite inspections and performance testing of your project at various stages of the process. They are involved from the design phase until construction is completed.
  • Green home designers and consultants: It is highly recommended that you work with a design team familiar with green building concepts. Choose these professionals wisely after seeing samples of previous work and vetting them for the number of similar projects they’ve completed.

The five phases of the LEED for Homes project process

USGBC has set out a list of five steps to participate in the LEED for Homes program, as follows:

  1. Contact a LEED for Homes Provider and join the program
  2. Identify a project team and set the plan
  3. Build the home to the stated goals
  4. Certify the project as a LEED home
  5. Market and sell the LEED home

We’ll break these five steps down a little further to give you a more rounded understanding of the process. During the early planning phase, you will select a Provider, receive a preliminary rating of your design with help from a Green Rater, assemble your design and construction team, and register your project.

The second phase is the delivery process in which you’ll identify your project team, including all of those roles we outlined previously.  The third phase is where you’ll work with your design and construction team to achieve the design elements you were aiming for that will result in the award of LEED credits.

Next up is the construction and third-party verification phase. A Green Rater will conduct a pre-drywall verification including performance tests. Once the construction is complete, the Green Rater will return to finalize the verification. The purpose of this phase is to ensure that you’ve achieved the LEED measures in your original plan, and includes mandatory and optional tests, such as:

  • ENERGY STAR Home qualification
  • Envelope air leakage test
  • Duct leakage test
  • Refrigerant charge test
  • Outdoor air flow test (optional)
  • Exhaust air flow (optional)
  • Supply air flow  (optional)

The final official phase of your LEED for Homes project is certification. During this portion, the Green Rater submits to your Provider the final Submittal Package, including the Final Project Checklist, the Accountability Forms, and the Durability Management Plan.

  • The Final Project Checklist is the record of all the prerequisites and applicable credits achieved by a project. The MS Excel-based checklist has built-in calculators that help to track your project’s progress toward the LEED Certification.
  • The Accountability Forms are completed by people and/or organizations responsible for the various design elements that address one or more LEED for Homes credits.
  • The Durability Risk Evaluation Form and Durability Checklist are used to identify durability risks and record strategies used to mitigate those risks.

The Provider then has a certification call with USGBC in order to review the package and award final certification.

Of course, no LEED for Homes project would be complete without a celebration of all what you’ve accomplished. Here you can consider everything that you’ve learned and achieved, and think about ways to show off your green home and use it to your best advantage.

The 18 prerequisites for a LEED for Homes project

Hopefully you’ve got a good overall view of what’s involved in getting your home LEED Certified. One of the most important things you’ll need to keep in mind before you determine whether you want to work on LEED Certification are the required prerequisites. A prerequisite in the LEED for Homes Rating System is a measure that must be completed during the design or construction phase, and there are 18 in total. Here they are:

 

Prerequisites (mandatory measures)

Minimum point requirements

Maximum points available

Innovation & Design Process

  • Preliminary rating
  • Durability planning
  • Durability management

3

0

11

Sustainable Sites

  • Erosion controls (during construction)
  • No invasive plants

2

5

22

Energy & Atmosphere

  • Performance of ENERGY STAR for Homes
  • Refrigerant charge test

2

0

38

Materials & Resources

  • Framing order waste factor limit
  • FSC-Certified tropical woods
  • Construction waste management planning

3

2

16

Indoor Environmental Quality

  • Basic combustion venting measures
  • Basic outdoor air ventilation
  • Basic local exhaust
  • Room by room load calculations
  • Good filters
  • Radon-resistant construction in high radon risk areas
  • No HVAC in garage

7

6

21

Awareness & Education

  • Basic operations training

1

0

3

The prerequisites in the program usually represent what the LEED program calls “good” practices for green home design. The LEED for Homes program also outlines “better” practices, which are usually worth one point each, and “best” practices, which are even greener and will usually earn you two points each. That’s what we’ll cover next.

The eight credit categories of a LEED for Homes project

There are eight credit categories in the LEED for Homes rating system, with a total of 67 optional credits plus all of the required prerequisites. Within most of the categories, you are required to earn a minimum number of credits, so you can’t generally ignore any one category completely. But there is enough flexibility within the system to choose those green features that work best for you and your home.

 

Sustainable Sites / 22 Possible Points, 5 Required Points

Your green home plan starts with handling your piece of property in a sustainable fashion. This category covers how your home will impact local ecosystems and waterways, both during construction and throughout the life of the home.

Prerequisite 1
  • Site stewardship – Erosion controls during construction
Prerequisite 2
  • Landscaping – No invasive plants
Credit 1
  • Site Stewardship – Minimize disturbed area of site
Credit 2
  • Landscaping
    • Basic landscape design
    • Limit conventional turf
    • Drought tolerant plants
OR
    • Reduce overall irrigation demand by at least 20%
Credit 3
  • Reduce local heat island effects
Credit 4.1
  • Surface water management – Permeable lot
Credit 4.2
  • Surface water management – Permanent erosion controls
Credit 4.3
  • Surface water management – Management of run-off from roof
Credit 5
  • Nontoxic pest control – Pest control alternatives
Credit 6
  • Compact development
    • Moderate density
    • High density
    • Very high density

 

Water Efficiency / 15 Possible Points, 3 Required Points

Water efficiency covers all water used inside and outside of your home – from appliances to landscaping considerations. There are lots of opportunities to earn points in this category, many of which are very cost-effective and easy to implement.

Credit 1
  • Water reuse
    • Rainwater harvesting system
    • Graywater reuse system
  OR
    • Use of municipal recycled water system
Credit 2
  • Irrigation system
    • High efficiency irrigation system
    • Third-party inspection
  OR
    • Reduce overall irrigation demand by at least 45%
Credit 3
  • Indoor water use
    • High-efficiency fixtures and fittings
    • Very high efficiency fixtures and fittings

 

Energy & Atmosphere / 38 Possible Points

In this category, you’ll address how much energy your home consumes, and how it impacts the planet’s atmosphere. You can choose efficient appliances and lighting, renewable systems like solar or geothermal, energy monitoring, as well as super-efficient building shell design.

Prerequisite 1
  • Performance of ENERGY STAR for Homes
    • Pass ENERGY STAR Thermal Bypass Checklist
    • Install only ENERGY STAR programmable thermostats
    • Install only ENERGY STAR BOP level windows or better
    • Install ENERGY STAR rated skylights
    • Install HVAC equipment that meets or exceeds ENERGY STAR BOP levels
    • Have minimal duct leakage and building envelope air leakage
    • Have at least ENERGY STAR levels of insulation, including slab edge insulation for 75% of the slab perimeter
    • Install at least four ENERGY STAR labeled fixtures
Prerequisite 11
  • Refrigerant Management – Refrigerant charge test
Credit 1.2
  • Exceptional energy performance
Credit 7.1
  • Water heating – Efficient hot water distribution
Credit 7.2
  • Water heating – Pipe insulation
Credit 11
  • Refrigerant Management – Appropriate HVAC refrigerants

 

Location & Linkages / 10 Possible Points

Your home is more sustainable if it integrates well with the local community. This category will give you points for building near existing infrastructure, transit, and community resources, among other things, all of which will help to minimize your carbon footprint and keep you connected so that you can use resources and your time more efficiently.

PATH ONE
Credit 1
  • LEED for Neighborhood Development
PATH TWO
Credit 2
  • Site selection
Credit 3
  • Preferred locations
    • Edge development
  OR
    • Infill
Credit 3.3
  • Preferred locations – Previously developed
Credit 4
  • Existing infrastructure
Credit 5
  • Community resources / transit
    • Basic community resources / transit
  OR
    • Extensive community resources / transit
  OR
    • Outstanding community resources / transit
Credit 6
  • Access to open space

 

Materials & Resources / 16 Possible Points, 2 Required Points

In this category, you’ll need to pay attention to choosing sustainable materials, using them efficiently during construction, and reusing and recycling any construction waste. This category spans everything from wood you use for your foundation to the countertops you install in your kitchen and bathrooms.

Prerequisite 1
  • Framing order waste factor limit
Prerequisite 2
  • FSC-Certified tropical woods
Prerequisite 3
  • Construction waste management planning
Credit 1
  • Material-efficient framing
    • Detailed framing documents
    • Detailed cut list and lumber order
    • Framing efficiencies
  OR
    • Off-site fabrication
Credit 2
  • Environmentally preferable products
Credit 3
  • Waste management – construction waste reduction

 

Indoor Environmental Quality / 21 Possible Points, 6 Points Required

Your home’s indoor air quality not only impacts your health, but also has an impact on the air quality of the planet in general. This category guides you to choosing materials that will protect both so that we can all breathe easier.

Prerequisite 2
  • Basic combustion venting measures
Prerequisite 4
  • Basic outdoor air ventilation
Prerequisite 5
  • Basic local exhaust
Prerequisite 6
  • Room by room load calculations
Prerequisite 7
  • Air filtering – Good filters
Prerequisite 9
  • Radon-resistant construction in high radon risk areas
Prerequisite 10
  • No HVAC in garage
PATH ONE
Credit 1
  • ENERGY STAR with indoor air package
PATH TWO
Credit 2.2
  • Enhanced combustion venting measures
    • No unvented fireplaces
    • CO detector on each floor
    • All fireplaces must have glass doors
    • All sealed combustion furnaces and water heaters or equipment built into combustion closets
Credit 3
  • Moisture load control
Credit 5.3
  • Third-party performance testing
Credit 6.2
  • Return air flow / room by room controls
Credit 6.3
  • Third-party performance test / multiple zones
Credit 8.2
  • Indoor contaminant control during construction
Credit 8.3
  • Preoccupancy flush
Credit 9.2
  • Radon-resistant construction in moderate-risk areas
Credit 10
  • Garage
    • Minimize pollutants from garage
    • Exhaust fan in garage
  OR
    • Detached garage or no garage
 
EITHER PATH
Credit 4.2
  • Enhanced outdoor air ventilation
    • Continuous or intermittent ventilation system @ ASHRAE 62.2
Credit 5.2
  • Enhanced local exhaust
    • Vents in all baths and kitchen exhausted to exterior
    • ENERGY STAR rated bath fans
    • ASHRAE 62.2
Credit 5.3
  • Third-party performance testing
Credit 7
  • Air filtering
    • Better filters
    • Best filters
Credit 8.2
  • Indoor contaminant control

 

Awareness & Education / 3 Possible Points

The more you understand about green building, the better equipped you’ll be to take advantage of the eco-features of your home. Educating home buildings, real estate professionals, and others in your community will also help to spread the word about the benefits of green buildings.

Prerequisite 1
  • Homeowner or tenant – Basic operations training
Credit 1.2
  • Enhanced training
Credit 1.3
  • Public awareness
Credit 2
  • Building manager – Education of building manager

 

Innovation & Design Process / 11 Possible Points

This category covers those design features that will push your project beyond basic LEED credits by recognizing innovative technologies and strategies used to improve the performance of your home. You never know, your creative green home idea may just land your project in an eco-friendly homes of the year publication!

Prerequisite 1
  • Preliminary rating
Prerequisite 2
  • Durability planning and management
Credit 1.2
  • Integrated project team
    • Use nonpaper-faced backer board on walls and behind tubs and showers
    • Use water-resistant flooring and no carpet in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and spa areas
    • Use water-resistant flooring and no carpeting within 3 feet of all exterior doorways
    • Install drains and drain pans for clothes washer, condensing clothes dryers and tank water heaters in or above living spaces
    • Exhaust clothes dryers directly to the outdoors
Credit 1.3
  • Professional credentialed with respect to LEED for Homes
Credit 1.4
  • Design charrette
Credit 1.5
  • Building orientation for solar design
Credit 2.3
  • Third-party durability management verification
Credit 3
  • Innovative or regional design

 

Tools for achieving success with your LEED for Homes project

Need more information about the LEED for Homes program? Check out these resources:

  • LEED for Homes Rating System: This PDF provides an in depth description of the rating system including a detailed explanation of the credits, information on the home size adjustment, explanation of how the checklist works, and a glossary of various terms. It’s a very thorough introduction to the rating system.
  • LEED for Home Scoring Tool: This free online tool allows you to explore and compare various green building options to see how they will impact your design and your LEED goals. It can be used by anyone regardless of knowledge level, and gives a more accurate pre-construction picture of the potential certification level of a proposed project.
  • USGBC’s LEED Rating Systems: This is the main site for all things related to the LEED programs administered by the USGBC.
  • USGBC’s Green Home Guide: This site covers lots of questions about LEED for Homes, has a public forum for conversing with other homeowners, provides Ask a Pro and Find a Pro features, and features certified home projects in a case study fashion. It’s a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about how the system functions.
  • Green Rater Database: Find a Green Rater in your area to help you through your LEED Certification process using this USGBC database.
  • ENERGY STAR for Qualified New Homes: Read all about the ENERGY STAR qualification system for new homes and find out how to work toward exceeding these standards as part of your LEED for Homes Certification journey.

 

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