LEED and Minnesota GreenStar Systems
LEED (or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Minnesota GreenStar are two of the many green building certification programs that have cropped up across the country in the past few years. We will be focusing on LEED for Homes as the national benchmark for green home building and Minnesota GreenStar as its local alternative.
LEED is a “Green Building Rating System” administered by the United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization out of Washington, DC. The LEED brand is recognized across the country as the premier green building certification program. The first LEED program, New Construction, was rolled out in 1998. This rating system focused on new commercial buildings. In 2005, following the successes of LEED’s commercial programs, the USGBC rolled out a pilot version of LEED for Homes, a program for new home building. The pilot phase ended January 2008 with 180 homes – including Live Green, Live Smart’s Platinum remodel – making LEED for Homes already a success.
LEED for Homes is a point-based rating system; the more points, the higher your rating. There are 136 total possible points. 90 points earns a project LEED Platinum. Gold is 75 points, Silver 60 points, and Certified 45 points.
LEED for Homes points are broken up into eight major areas of design:
-Innovation and Design. This section awards points for advanced planning, including using a LEED-Accredited Professional as a contractor, working with an integrated project team, durability planning, passive solar design, and “innovative design” – home features that go above and beyond the LEED for Homes requirements. (For example, an exceptional landscape plan or cutting-edge use of new energy technologies.)
-Location and Linkages. Points for site selection (above floodplains and away from water, away from protected habitats), development status of land prior to building, location of home relative to commercial and public services (grocery store, school, bus stop, post office, etc.).
-Sustainable Sites. Points for construction site stewardship (erosion control, minimal soil compaction), landscaping, water management (rain gardens, rainwater collection, permeable paving), and nontoxic pest control. While many builders consider a home’s landscape to be a separate entity from the building envelope and interior, LEED and most major green building programs (including GreenStar) consider proper site management to be an integral part of building and living green. Nearly 1/5 of the points available in LEED for Homes can be gained in the Sustainable Sites section.
-Water Efficiency. Points for rainwater harvesting, responsible irrigation, greywater recycling, and high-efficiency faucets, fixtures, and toilets.
-Energy and Atmosphere. Point-wise, this is the largest section in the LEED for Homes program, with 38 possible points. This section covers many of the things that we typically think of when we think of good green construction: efficient insulation, good doors and windows, reduced air infiltration, advanced HVAC systems, efficient water heating, EnergyStar appliances and lights, and renewable energy. Maximum points can be obtained in this category in one of two ways. Proving that your home goes above and beyond EnergyStar for Homes requirements can give you 34 points in one fell swoop. LEED for Homes also provides a Prescriptive Approach to Energy and Atmosphere points – a special addendum that lets you gain points individually.
-Materials and Resources. This section covers advanced framing techniques, environmentally preferable products (such as FSC wood, bamboo, products free of added urea-formaldehyde), and waste management.
-Indoor Environmental Quality. This section covers air quality inside the home, addressing problems like combustion venting, VOC off-gasing, ventilation to the outside, local exhaust, moisture and radon control, and air filtering. Adhering to EnergyStar’s Indoor Air Package gives 13 quick points.
-Awareness and Education. This section addresses the education of the homeowner and/or building manager. A prerequisite in this section is writing a manual for the home. Additional points can be awarded for PR about the home.
GreenStar uses similar categories for their points, but also includes numerous categories that cover more traditional building practices. LEED assumes that the home is designed to have solid bones and durable structure from the beginning, and doesn’t award points for features like energy heel trusses, which LEED believes should be in the home in the first place. GreenStar covers durable construction practices that contractors may or may not be familiar with. This adds considerable paperwork to GreenStar but many will find their piece-by-piece approach helpful.
LEED for Homes’ most visible face is a single three-page document, the Project Checklist. This checklist serves as a guide and outline to the available LEED points, which are fleshed out in the well-written and well-indexed Rating System Manual. For some the checklist is welcomingly simple; these builders are already experienced with LEED and green home building. For others it is deceptively simple, the tip of a very large iceberg.
Rather than being an explicit guide to building a singular kind of home, the LEED for Homes Rating System acts mainly as a backbone to your green home plan – a resource for ideas and an outline of what a green home can look like, not what a green home should always look like. It’s this generality that makes LEED so popular around the country – it allows individual LEED builders to work with a guide but not be guided.
The USGBC tries, with varying degrees of success, to address each project personally through a network of LEED professionals. The LEED for Homes program relies on a system of LEED for Homes Providers, organizations that have been accredited by the USGBC to provide guidance to homebuilders. There is also a parallel network of LEED for Homes Raters, organizations that provide vital third-party verification for each LEED for Homes project. There are also the LEED-APs, building professionals who have taken workshops on LEED and passed an exam, and are therefore accredited by the USGBC to build LEED buildings. It is recommended, but not required, to have a LEED-AP on your project team, or to become a LEED-AP yourself.
Independent-minded contractors may find it difficult to work with and within such a wide-ranging and complicated network, and some have found it difficult to get the various sides to talk to each other. However, our experience has shown that having this support structure is very helpful, especially for first-time LEED builders. Many contractors will find that the hardest contact to make is with the USGBC itself, which encourages individual builders to communicate with them through their Providers, rather than directly.
The goal of LEED has always been to provide a benchmark rating system that can be used across the country to build projects that are easily comparable and recognizable. However, this national appeal has also garnered the most criticism for LEED. Some builders have found that LEED for Homes doesn’t work perfectly for their region. For example strict water management, while important everywhere, is a greater necessity in the desert than it is in an area with abundant freshwater. However LEED assigns the same amount of points for water management in New Mexico as it does in Minnesota. Some disagree with the way LEED assigns points in general, giving trivial improvements equal point weight to major green initiatives like renewable power, allowing unscrupulous builders to claim LEED certification without being truly green. At this point LEED becomes nothing more than a brand and a PR tactic.
Others criticize LEED for being too expensive. Anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 can be spent just to join the USGBC and certify a project.
However, despite these criticisms LEED is the default green building program nationwide, and it works well for the vast majority of applicants. But that has not stopped other building programs, like Minnesota GreenStar, from trying to steal some of LEED’s thunder.
GreenStar is Minnesota’s answer to LEED for Homes, the result of a collaboration between the Builder’s Association of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota chapter of NARI and the Green Institute. Their home remodeling program acknowledges the problems with Minnesota’s aging housing stock, and that it may be greener to remodel than to build new. GreenStar has spent most of 2007 in a pilot phase, testing out its remodeling program with 24 homes, including Live Green Live Smart’s home, which is GreenStar Gold (the equivalent of LEED Platinum). The program was made public in February 2008. Both programs plan to enter the other’s area of expertise in 2008, with the USGBC launching a remodeling program and GreenStar launching a new homes program.
Like LEED for Homes, GreenStar is a point-based system. GreenStar’s open system allows for an incredible amount of project variation and innumerable ways to earn certification. Upwards of 700 points are open to you on the checklist, however, depending on the type of remodel, different point totals are needed to earn GreenStar certification. Renovations that do not add conditioned space need 162 points to certify; renovations that add conditioned space but do not change the building shell need 203 points minimum; renovations that add to the shell but do not add a foundation need 269 points; renovations that add a foundation need 315 points. GreenStar also has a weighted point system; whole-house green systems will earn significantly more points than, say, using reclaimed deck material. LEED for Homes, on the other hand, uses a point system where each feature is worth about the same, 1-3 points. However, if you do use reclaimed deck material, you can get that point too.
GreenStar’s approach to remodeling combines the best of both traditional and green homebuilding. This approach recognizes that good homebuilding that sticks to fundamentals can be green; it also recognizes that many of today’s builders do not follow building fundamentals, opting for quickly-built unsustainable homes over well-built and durable homes. Extra attention paid to site and landscape, building envelope, mechanicals, electricals and lighting, plumbing, finishing, and waste management yield a significantly greener home than most being built today.
GreenStar’s approach acknowledges that to be truly sustainable, however, extra steps are needed to improve the home’s energy efficiency, indoor air quality, durability, water conservation, and site management. Prerequisites in these categories ensure that builders are not simply greenwashing their homes by piling on points in “easier” categories, but are taking real steps to improving their home’s sustainability.
GreenStar’s checklist is quite a bit more daunting than LEED’s. Because it addresses the four different building types listed above all at once, GreenStar’s checklist is 34 pages long, addressing each facet of the home and homebuilding separately, even breaking each facet down into new vs. remodeled or “improved” categories. So if you improve the home’s existing windows, you take points in one section; if you put in all new windows, you take points in an entirely different section. Same with walls, doors, the basement, the attic, etc. This way builders adding conditioned space only can focus on different categories than those builders also adding foundation space.
GreenStar’s checklist allows for projects to be done in degrees. For example, if you use low-VOC paints on 50% of the project, you get one point; 90% of the project, you get two points. There are numerous areas across the whole checklist that feature percentage-based points like this. This rewards the extra effort put in by the builder.
This open format strikes both hope and fear in the hearts of applicants. It allows builders to pick and fine-tune the features they feel comfortable with, and tailor each project to its unique site and building type. But that first glance at the checklist often results in bulging eyes and sticker-shock expressions. It takes more time to navigate through than LEED, and it seems that by the time you get comfortable with it, it’s time to turn the thing in. If LEED’s checklist is the tip of a large iceberg, GreenStar’s is an open plain. Each is daunting in its own way; but no one ever said green building was easy!
Lengthy checklist aside, GreenStar directly answers many of the criticisms of LEED noted above.
GreenStar addresses a number of local issues that LEED glosses over. Protection from cold and ice, heightened awareness of lake, river, and wetland protection, building for rural environments, solar design for both summer and winter, radon mitigation – these are a few areas where GreenStar goes more in-depth than LEED into the specific problems Minnesotans face when building green.
GreenStar is much cheaper than LEED, and is free of the bureaucracy that some feel weighs down on LEED; if you want to call someone at GreenStar, even the director himself, you can do so. The people at GreenStar understand that their system appears complicated to many, and are more than willing to sit down with you and answer your questions, face to face. They also mandate a training session for each builder who wishes to use GreenStar, and this session goes a long way to alleviating the sticker-shock mentioned above.
GreenStar’s weighted point system and many prerequisites make sure the greenest homes get the most points. This keeps builders from “chasing points.”
The main criticism of GreenStar is the extensive documentation required to certify a project. LEED requires some signatures, accountability forms, and signoffs by the Rater and Provider. GreenStar requires documentation for nearly every point. Sometimes the documentation is as simple as a signoff from the general contractor or a photograph, sometimes it requires receipts, invoices, lab tests, or extensive third-party verification; each point is different. The more points you go for, the more documentation you must provide. While this ensures complete accountability all the way up and down the building chain, it can overburden a building team and divert precious hours away from the actual planning and building.
In the end, GreenStar and LEED certified homes have more similarities than differences. Both organizations agree on the fundamentals of green home design, but differ on the route taken during planning and construction. The varying degrees of certification - Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum for LEED, and Bronze, Silver, and Gold for GreenStar – match up pretty well with each other. Live Green Live Smart’s project home is both LEED Platinum and GreenStar Gold, showing that the two highest levels, at least, marry up well.
For the moment GreenStar has a natural advantage over LEED when it comes to remodel certification in MInnesota, and LEED has the advantage over GreenStar for new construction. It remains to be seen how these two programs will compete as they begin to overlap later this year.