So Many Energy-Efficiency Certification Programs, So Little Time

When certifying a remodeling project, it’s important to find the program that best suits your needs. Here's an overview of the options

September 02, 2015
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Green remodeling has been around for a while, with several options for confirming or certifying a project. The programs that do this include national programs, such as the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) and LEED for Homes, and local and regional programs, including EarthCraft House in the Southeast, GreenStar in the Midwest, and GreenPoint in California, among many others.

There are programs that primarily focus on energy efficiency, such as Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES), while others, such as HERS (Home Energy Rating System), provide a miles-per-gallon–type report to show a home’s level of efficiency. You can have before and after HERS ratings prepared to illustrate for clients the impact of their remodel on home energy efficiency.

When certifying a remodeling project, it’s important to find the program that best suits your needs. (Take a look at our roundup of national and local programs and let us know if we missed any you think should be included.)

First, make sure the program certifies the type of remodel you are doing. LEED for Homes only certifies complete gut renovations. NGBS certifies renovations of any scale, provided they retain the foundation and at least one major structural element. NGBS also certifies small projects such as kitchens, bathrooms, and basements. Most local and regional programs certify typical remodeling and addition projects.

You can search for local programs on the U.S. Green Building Council’s greenhomeguide.com website. You may consider working with an energy-efficiency program sponsored by a local utility, most of which offer rebates for homes that complete the certification process. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency has a searchable list of all programs offering rebates and tax incentives.

Each program has specific mandatory requirements, plus additional optional measures that you select from to meet certification. It’s important to review mandatory items to confirm that they are included in your scope of work. You’ll need to do a preliminary review of your project to make sure that it will meet all requirements before you start the job. Educating the construction team on your program’s requirements is key to making it a successful project.

Most programs require that a third-party verifier be used in the certification process to provide assurance for both the contractor and the homeowner that the work is being done properly. Each program defines this person slightly differently: NGBS uses verifiers; HPwES relies on HERS raters; the Building Performance Institute uses building analysts; LEED uses green raters; and local and regional programs turn to technical advisers, raters, or inspectors, each approved to provide certification by the individual programs.

The third party inspects the project and verifies that all work is done according to program requirements. For remodeling jobs, this typically means one inspection before renovation starts, often including blower-door and duct-leak testing; one inspection immediately before drywall is installed to check that insulation, air sealing, HVAC, and all other work is correct; and another inspection at completion to verify materials, appliances, HVAC, and plumbing, and to retest blower door and duct leakage. Successful completion of these inspections, along with providing necessary documentation and paying any required fees, completes the certification process.

Cost Implications

Most green remodeling programs require that fees be paid to the certifying organization, as well as directly to the third-party inspector. NGBS charges $200 per house for National Association of Home Builders members, and $500 for non-members. Local program costs run from $150 to $450. Inspector fees vary by region and program, typically ranging from $500 to $2,000 per home.

Increased construction costs vary, mostly based on upgrades to your standard procedures that may be required. Incorporating green principles from the start, meeting energy and building codes, following all manufacturer’s recommended instructions, careful material selection, and following high-quality construction practices will get a project most or all of the way to certification. Trying to make a project “green” after the plan is complete makes the process more challenging and can increase costs. Involving your third-party consultant at the beginning of the design will help you go green more easily and minimize cost increases.

Most programs require accurate HVAC load calculations, high-quality insulation and air sealing, properly installed weather barriers, and other common high-quality building practices.

Why Certify?

One of the best reasons to certify your remodeling projects is the value that the third-party inspector brings to the process. Contractors are busy and can’t be experts in all aspects of a project. Pre-drywall inspections identify issues with insulation, air sealing, moisture management, and HVAC work that can cause problems and cost money down the road. An independent professional helps you get the best out of your trade contractors and can resolve disputes on work quality.

Certifying your green remodeling projects is a great way to improve quality and sustainability in your work. After you’ve completed a few projects, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how buildings work. And because your buildings will perform better, your clients will be more satisfied, ultimately leading to more referrals, higher profits, and a better reputation. 

Making the Process Easy

Like voting in Chicago, it’s best to work on your certification requirements early and often. Here are some tips for making the process easier.

  • Use the program’s checklist when preparing plans.
  • Include all documentation requirements in trade contractor and vendor specifications, and make their final payments contingent on providing that documentation.
  • Identify requirements that you, as the contractor, must provide, such as owner’s manuals, waste recycling documentation, and employee training. Don’t wait until the end of the project to collect your documentation since it’s too easy to forget about it, move on to the next job, and never finish certification.
  • Communicate regularly with your rater and confirm that you haven’t missed anything.
  • Ask the rater for advice if you’re having problems meeting any program requirements. He wants your project certified as much as you do and will do whatever he can to make sure you’re successful.

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Carl Seville is a consultant, educator, and speaker on sustainability for the residential construction industry. His firm, SK Collaborative, consults on and provides green certification for single- and multi-family buildings. 

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