A couple of weeks back, a local builder asked me and my partner at OneWorld Sustainable to look into all of the prevailing green building programs and to give them an overview of each program. While I had already investigated and learned these various guidelines to further my own personal knowledge, it was a natural extension into the tangible nuts and bolts of the green building prospect in a real world setting.
Being a part of a burgeoning “movement” is at once both exciting and challenging. As a person with an affinity for organization, efficiency, and some structure, navigating the waters on pilot* programs such as LEED for Homes and the new NAHB National Green Building Program is littered with unanswered questions that requires a DIY spirit.
One of the biggest challenges facing all LEED for Homes projects is, how much will this cost, and how does it really work?
In my area (the Southeast), the USGBC has chosen Southface as their LEED for Homes Provider, one of 12 in the country. Southface has then chosen a handful of practitioners, referred to as Provider Representatives. These Provider Representatives will oversee the project and be the liaison between the client and Southface, who then forwards all of the project documentation on to the USGBC. Any LEED for Homes project MUST go through this chain of command, and each detail passes through these many hands. And as far as becoming a Provider, that is not an option at this time, which leaves you working within the system that is in place in your area, including the sometimes lack of various third party verifiers/raters needed in order to handle the interest. Tired yet?
More challenging is trying to figure out exactly who does what, and how much each program will cost. As OneWorld will likely act as the green rater on most LEED projects, providing the blower door tests, etc., we as a community of practitioners working on LEED projects are all still figuring out what to charge for our services. Due to the uncertainty of time commitments, among other things, it is somewhat difficult to explore the unknown and then place a price tag on it at the same time.
Most perplexing is the real time needed to do the actual work. If implementing these guidelines means that 40 hours of additional third-party verification and paperwork per house is needed throughout the course of the project, how much would you have to pay yourself or an employee for those 40 hours? Most professionals at this level charge at least $125/hr, and at that (lower) rate, one is already spending $5000 just for the actual paperwork and testing needed to appease the guidelines. While I personally believe this cost to be worth it, the market has not yet met the value of these services, and it is not yet conceivable that most builders can carry that additional cost on the front end to hopefully make it up on the back end yet. Add to that the fact that most of the Providers are part of a larger firm, garnering much more than $125/hr for their well-deserved expertise, and it is hard to justify being involved in the process at all, if only to be an advocate of “green” building rather than to make a profit in the process. Which most smaller organizations can not afford to even entertain, as there are real costs associated with the work. (time, gas, mileage, expertise, etc.)
While experiencing these growing pains is par for the course with any new system, product, field, etc., it seems that those eager to “roll out” the framework need to be as instrumental in helping to apply the nails to keep it together. My hope is that the USGBC and Providers are dedicated to helping this framework to become solidified by way of providing guidance and answers to many ambiguous areas of the guidelines themselves, and the structure of the actual implementation of the projects. And I think that they are, which is beneficial as we all learn this program by trial and error.
Still, while the LEED for Homes program is taking its commercial expertise and applying it to the residential sector, the pure economics don’t quite jive as well as it does within the billion dollar, architect laden haven of the commercial program.
Don’t get me wrong; we need the thinking and elevated understanding that the USGBC has brought to the table over the years, and their work has definitely helped to pave the way for the “greening” of America’s built environment. Conversely, expecting that a builder doing mostly production work (whether it be small or large scale) pay 3-5K PER HOUSE to get the LEED stamp of approval is completely off base and unrealistic. While this model may work with high-end custom home builders, the responsibility of helping all builders “go green” more safely rests on the shoulders of the NAHB program.
We’ll see what happens, but my money is on the NAHB program taking root and leading the “green” residential programs nationwide. I would love to see a best practices forum, where real insight can be gained from the detailed aspects on any given completed project. Like cancer researchers discovered decades ago, sharing ones experiences and knowledge can only benefit the whole, much needed in our present global climate. Pun intended.
[UPDATE] Technically, LEED for Homes is out of pilot, but there is still a ton to figure out. Also, the USGBC is in the midst of creating the LEED for Homes Volume Pilot, for builders with a development with over 50 single family houses. The intention here is to help offset the cost of a house plan that is likely to be built over and over again.