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The Next Step in LEEDership – Alistair Jackson, LEED AP Homes, Reflects on Transforming the Market

AlistairJackson-web I recently attended the LEED for Homes Provider Retreat, held in Pine Mountain, GA as part of the USGBC’s Half Year meeting. The Provider Retreat is a bit like a big stakeholder charrette for all aspects of LEED for Homes. It is a chance to share ideas on what’s working, learn new ideas from other Providers with different business models, provide feedback to the LEED for Homes team on marketing and participate in strategic planning for the future of the rating system; in this case, Version 2012, which is now in its second Public Comment phase. I think it is fair to say that, as Providers, we are all deeply committed to the potential for LEED for Homes to transform the residential green building marketplace, just as LEED BD&C has in the commercial and institutional markets.

While in Georgia, I learned many things, but two really stick in my mind: First, I learned how grateful I am that, in the Pacific Northwest, we experience our high humidity in the winter rather than the summer – 40 degrees and 90% humidity you can dress for, 90 degrees and 90% humidity, you can’t. I take back every critical remark I ever made about air conditioning (at least in Georgia!).

Second, I learned that updating the tools of market transformation can become more challenging  as the market begins to transform. In this case, specifically, I’m talking about the challenge of where to set the prerequisite for minimum energy performance for LEED for Homes projects in a marketplace where the current code minimum is almost as diverse as the population of this great country. Several states, including our own state of Washington, have committed to an energy code escalation cycle that will ultimately raise the state energy code to something equivalent to net zero (over the next decade or two). I count 22 states that have adopted energy codes equal to, or more stringent than the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2009 (Data taken from USDoE). Other states really haven’t signed on to the idea that energy codes, or indeed building codes of ANY kind, are a good idea – 15 states have an energy code baseline equal to or lower than IECC 2003; nine of those have not adopted a state energy code at all (though there may be locally-adopted codes in cities and counties). Perhaps most disturbing is that several of those states are located in areas with significant heating or cooling seasons.

Bastyr 006 Why is this a problem for LEED for Homes? The key to utilizing a rating system to help catalyze market transformation is to set the minimum requirements for certification at such a level that it is an achievable stretch for a significant percentage of the market, but not the majority. Too high and not enough buildings will participate, lacking critical mass to move the market. Too low and certification will not be seen as a valuable market differentiator. While LEED for Homes is a holistic rating system that differentiates certified projects by their performance in most aspects of green building, energy performance makes up a good chunk of everyone’s consciousness when it comes to how we define a green home. An achievable stretch beyond code in Texas (outside those jurisdictions with higher local energy codes) doesn’t even reach the code baseline in Washington State. So where do we set the bar?

On top of this, we’re somewhere in the middle of a slump in the residential real estate market that many would argue is placing downward pressure on home prices. Many builders, large and small, are finding it hard to integrate the costs of energy performance upgrades into their projects and turn the resulting benefits into a sales advantage. Being asked to stretch much beyond code is, they argue, going to make them uncompetitive in a tight marketplace. The lack of momentum in support for the new Energy Star Version 3 (part of the currently proposed energy prerequisite for LEED for Homes 2012) is indicative of the market’s current unease.

What to do? Do we “damn the torpedoes” and raise the bar to maintain LEED for Homes’ critical role in transforming the residential marketplace in those states where code itself is not just keeping the laggards in line, but challenging good builders to do even better. Or do we set the bar at a level that’s a stretch for most of the country (at least measured geographically, if not by population) and accept that, at least on the energy issue, some state and local governments have taken over responsibility for leading the change?

IMG_1245 Or maybe there’s another option. Maybe it is time to stop measuring residential energy performance in terms of improvement over the code baseline. Does it make more sense to measure energy performance in absolute terms, along the lines of the Energy Utilization Intensity (EUI) measurement used in the Architecture 2030 Challenge – in Btus per sqft per year, for example? At risk of sparking the “social engineering” debate, is a three bedroom, 5400 sqft home that’s 30% more efficient than a similar home built to code really more energy efficient than a three bedroom, 1800 sqft home that’s built to code? The latter probably consumes less energy overall per year, after all. I’m less sure it will consume less energy per square foot per year. Perhaps the denominator should be per person or per bedroom, rather than per square foot.

How would this change the situation? Codes, like laws and rating systems, are imperfect tools, vulnerable to manipulation and gaming. From personal experience with the Washington code for example, we know that a savvy energy modeler can increase the performance of a building over code by INCREASING the glazing to wall area ratio! “How can this be possible?” I hear you cry. Well, if your window U-factor has a greater percentage improvement over the code requirement than your wall U-factor, you’ll get a greater improvement in your UA (overall building thermal transfer rate) compared to the code baseline by having more glass and less wall. Does that mean the building with more glass will consume less energy than the building with less glass, all other things being equal? Almost certainly not! But we don’t measure performance against what we could have designed and built, we measure it against the code baseline for the same design. 

IMG_2079 In reality of course, shifting to an absolute energy performance metric doesn’t eliminate the problems, it simply changes the nature of the challenges. Instead of wrestling with the diverse code environments, we would be wrestling with how to balance the realities of different climates. Is it fair to expect a house in a climate with 10,000 Heating Degree Days (HDD) to consume a similar amount of energy per square foot as a house in a climate with 4,000 HDD? Perhaps, perhaps not . . .

If nothing else, if you have ANY interest in residential green building, I urge you to take the time to look at and comment on the 2nd Public Comment version of the 2012 LEED for Homes Rating System. The comment period closes on September 14, 2011. The strength of LEED comes from its stakeholder-driven, consensus based approach to rating system development. That means that what you think can make a difference, but only if you express your opinion.


Alistair Jackson is a Principal at O’Brien & Company. He was involved in the development of the original LEED for Homes Pilot Rating System and is, among other things, the Quality Assurance Designee (QAD) for O’Brien & Company’s role as LEED for Homes Provider.  He is a strong advocate for market-led innovation and market transformation towards sustainability.  He is also a father of two – and impatient for change towards a better future.

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