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Melissa Baldridge
June 18, 2014

Off the Shelf Green: Don't Reinvent the Wheel

(Post originally appeared on GreenSpot Real Estate's website; reprinted with permission Melissa Baldridge.)

Cities grafting green-building certifications like LEED into commercial building codes is nothing new, and a number of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Boston, and Scottsdale have had such requirements in place for 10 years or more.

What’s happening now is that cities are doing likewise with residential building, and one affluent enclave close to Denver is even rebating a portion of building permits for owners and builders achieving certification.

There are a number of benefits to using an off-the-shelf green-building certification. Rather than invent yet another green code, building departments can grab a proven certification and implement it quickly. The City of Longmont, Colo. (near Boulder), required the 2008 version of the National Green Building Standard for all new residential construction greater than 800 square feet. The current version of NGBS (2012) is arguably harder to achieve, and it’s unclear whether the city will continue to require the new-and-improved version next year or not. Still, anyone building new residential construction there not only gets a certificate of occupancy (CO) at completion but a nationally recognized green-building cert, which can add market value to properties in a sale or refinance.

For brave cities and counties that have forged their own green-building codes, using known certifications can provide an easier alternative to knock out a lot of their green requirements – things like construction waste diversion, insulation levels, and efficiency of appliances, mechanical systems, and lighting.

Boulder’s “Green Points” super-code is essentially straight out of the LEED for Homes playbook. (Did code officials literally sit down with the LEED book in creating their “Green Points” program? I estimate 85 percent or more of the points are identical.)

If a builder chooses to go the LEED route, they still have to mitigate construction waste (which also adds LEED points) and meet certain HERS rating requirements. HERS ratings are the “miles-per-gallon” number for homes that undergirds most green-home certs like LEED and NGBS. In 2013, 50 percent of ALL new construction nationwide had them. Driving HERS ratings DOWN also adds points in a LEED tally. At the end, Boulder homeowners get both a CO and LEED certification.

The City of Cherry Hills Village is an anomaly. A super-affluent suburb south of Denver, the six-and-a-half-square-mile city has approximately 2,000 single- and multi-family homes. Per City-Data.com, the mean house price there (2011) is $1 million-plus. And of the 14 single-family, new construction building permits issued in 2012, the average permit price was $1.5 million.

Perhaps wanting to promote a more environmentally friendly building model, the Cherry Hills Village city council passed an ordinance in January, offering rebates on building permits for NGBS certification for projects reaching the various levels of certification. Only a handful of other building departments in the country offer any kind of financial incentives for green-built homes.

One (unintended?) consequence of third-party certification is that building departments are effectively outsourcing energy code compliance – the time, expense and liability. Most of the building departments I work with, though, are inundated now that home building is on the uptick. This can only help shift the workload of these good people so inspections can clip along.

An additional note - the 2015 version of the residential energy code offers HERS ratings as an alternate compliance path. Again a fork in the road between merely getting a CO or a measurement (the HERS index) that can raise home value. Even if owners are planning on staying in their homes forever and ever, the enhanced valuation can help lift them out of private mortgage insurance (PMI, usually requiring 20 percent or more equity in a home) or set up a home equity line of credit.

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