Home Innovation Insights

What's more effective - incentivizing green home building or mandating it? The debate continues.

Michelle Foster
June 12, 2014

The Green Building Carrot vs. Stick Debate

The National Green Building Standard (NGBS) was developed five years ago as a voluntary, above-code rating system for residential buildings. Some builders opposed its development because they feared that local jurisdictions and building departments would adopt the NGBS as code, turning a voluntary program into a mandate. Those fears have been largely unfounded. While a number of government agencies and a few public utilities have incentivized NGBS compliance with rebates, tax credits, density bonuses, and other tangible incentives, very few jurisdictions have outright mandated the NGBS as code.

Home Innovation Research Labs, which serves as Secretariat for the NGBS development process, promotes the NGBS as an above-code green program, as opposed to a regulatory mandate, for several reasons. First, while the NGBS was written in code-language to help speed its adoption nationwide by the residential construction industry, the NGBS is a rating system with four certification levels as opposed to a traditional building code where it is more typical for all building practices to be mandatory. Having four certification levels allows builders to stretch for higher performance levels and lower environmental impacts based on what makes sense for the project and the local market. Second, because most NGBS practices are above prevailing building codes, it allows builders to experiment with new products, advanced techniques, and state-of-the-art technology to attain higher building performance levels before they become mandatory and the stakes for non-compliance get significantly higher. Third, as an above-code program, builders can gain marketing advantages as a benefit of building high-performance, green buildings.

There are a few jurisdictions that have mandated the NGBS, however. Fortunately, most builders in those areas have come to accept that it does not mean the end-of-the-world as they know it. Builders' acceptance of the NGBS as code seems predicated on the jurisdiction allowing a third-party certification, such as Home Innovation’s NGBS Green certification, as an alternative means of demonstrating compliance. Why is this the case? Independent third-party certification can be a faster, cheaper alternative to prove compliance for both the local building department and the builder.

Building code officials in many areas will confess they know little about advanced, high-performance building techniques. Their training and expertise lies primarily with construction issues relating to health, safety, and welfare. Further, many local building departments are short-staffed and have limited funds to train staff on green building practices. Even if their staff had the expertise, they likely don’t have the time to verify that all of the green practices are installed and installed correctly. NGBS Green Verifiers, on the other hand, are qualified, trained, tested and accredited specifically to inspect homes and apartment buildings for NGBS compliance.

One win-win option for local communities and residential builders is the District of Columbia’s recent adoption of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC). The District’s government, a longstanding green building advocate, allows builders three potential compliance paths for its new building code:

  1. Inspection and approval by District of Columbia Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) officials
  2. NGBS Green certification from Home Innovation Research Labs
  3. LEED certification from the USGBC

Why would builders and developers seek independent, third-party NGBS Green or LEED certification, which will increase the project’s costs for verification and certification fees? Simple. Like most governmental agencies, DCRA responds at the speed of government, not the speed of business. Contrast this with the NGBS Green certification turnaround of one-business day for the certification (provided that all of the verification submission requirements are accurate and complete). As an added bonus, developers gain the bragging rights of NGBS Green certification for their building. These “bragging rights” are not so inconsequential — more than one recent study found that buildings with a green certification have higher valuations than buildings without such a certification. Moreover, our participating certification partners report that multifamily buildings with NGBS Green certification are renting faster than buildings without a green certification.

At the same time, the extensive verification required for NGBS Green certification provides architects, builders, and building owners with the additional assurance that the building that was designed, was actually the building that was constructed. Anyone who's ever worked on a construction site knows that stuff happens that wasn’t designed, planned, or spec'ed. This is especially true in areas where expert construction labor is in high demand and short supply. NGBS Green Verifiers help provide additional quality assurance on the jobsite inspecting the building twice for all of the green building practices. If the NGBS Green Verifier finds a practice has not been completed or has not been completed correctly, the builder must remedy the situation in order to earn the respective NGBS points toward certification.

I’ll continue to promote NGBS Green certification as an above-code voluntary program, and I am always thrilled to see local jurisdictions find ways to incentivize green certification. However, when a community considers a green mandate, I hope their local officials will see the benefit of recognizing an independent, third-party certification as a way to promote sustainable development without compromising affordability and credibility.

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