At the press conference at the International Builders Show the press kept on challenging the NAHB spokesmen about the differences between LEED for homes (known as LEED-h) and the new NAHB National Green Building Program (NAHBgreen). The responses centered on the word “mandate” but the definition of that seemed to float between referring to governmental mandates that all construction be “green” and issues with the number of mandatory items required for a home to pass LEED-h minimum standards. The alleged cost of these programs was also a source of great confusion and rancor. During and after the conference I kept reflecting on how wrong headed all the tension between LEED-h and NAHBgreen is and how it distracts us and keeps us from getting our message out which is all about transforming the market and the way people build and buy homes and the decisions we all make about remodeling and maintaining the homes we have.

Let’s get one thing very straight here. LEED and NAHB are on the same side. We are both focused on helping the market shift to recognize energy efficient and resource efficient building systems that result in well maintained houses that are healthier to live in than the status quo and use fewer materials to build and less fuel and water to live in and last longer.

There are significant differences between the two programs. LEED-h is focused on serving the “Top 25% of the Most Environmentally Conscious Builders in America”. It is a green building program for high end, high performance homes and, as such, its requirements are very rigorous and the standard of proof in terms of third party verification is very stringent and therefore more expensive. The “NAHB National Green Building Program” is aimed at every builder in America not just the top 25% of the greenest builders in America. Its standards of proof are designed to make the program meaningful and verifiable but not onerous to participate in from the builder’s or the verifier’s perspective. A pre-construction plan review, two site visits and a paper trail showing receipts and photographs of systems implementation are all that are required. Third party oversight and “consulting” are minimized. The system is designed to make it easy and inexpensive for builders to step up to green building best practices. In that builders are going to be using the Green Certificate as a marketing tool when they sell their products, the documentation has to be stringent enough to stand up in court if the builder is accused of “green-washing” by cheating on the certification.

I have been having all my homes scored to both LEED-h and NAHBgreen as well as to the North Carolina version of the NAHBgreen system that our state has modified to fit our particular climate and humidity and water conservation challenges. But I’m an NAHBgreen builder because I want to be part of improving the way America builds homes and I believe that NAHBgreen has a better chance of creating a market shift than LEED-h does.

If we want to make a difference we need to be able to build green homes for school teachers and factory workers and cops and the real life beer drinking folks who make this country work. Not just for the movie stars and Prius driving, granola crunching, chardonnay sipping, crème de la crème.

Ed Begley and Brad Pitt need homes too and I’m thrilled to think that they are building structures that push the envelope for zero carbon footprint LEED-h platinum excellence. But I spent some time talking with LEED-h builder Steve Glenn in Los Angeles the other day about how much it costs him to build one of these super-green homes and he’s looking at $400 per square foot for construction (not including land costs.) His cost for LEED-h certification is $5,000 - just for the report card! Maybe people in LA can afford that but I would have a pretty hard time selling it in Carrboro, North Carolina. My cost for LEED-h certification is only $3,000 here in NC for the same report card that Steve pays $5,000 for in LA but the NAHBgreen report card is $150 here and across the country.

If we care about making green building affordable and accessible then we are going to need a program that has an affordable level of entry and is accessible to the average builder. NAHBgreen is that program. But that doesn’t make us the enemy of LEED-h. They provide a very challenging program with a stringent verification; NAHB provides a very welcoming program with a lot of peer support and encouragement for new builders taking the first steps towards Energy Star and Green certification. The market is big enough for both programs and it’s going to take both to move our country away from the crises of out-of-control consumption we are in.

Builders and developers worry about government mandates and their concern is justified. Our local Orange County NC County Commissioners have made it clear that they want every home and building built here to be Energy Star and Green Certified in two years. The local Home Builders Association has made it clear that we will not buy in unless our National Green Building Standard is one of the definitions of green that are accepted by the county. Imagine if they adopted the LEED-h standard instead, and only the top 25% of the most environmentally conscious builders in America were allowed to build here. A move such as that would have a devastating effect on affordable housing in our county.

When I talk to builders about LEED vrs NAHBgreen, I find it is useful to compare it to a religion. In all too many ways it is an apt analogy. The LEED-h providers are like the high priests and priestesses of green, up in the fancy stone church on the rich side of town. The NAHB crew are the folks in the revival tent down by the river. You don’t need to take a bath and put on nice clothes to come to our church. But we’re both preaching from the same gospel. “Listen up Builders and Architects of America, there’s a better way to build homes that doesn’t cost much more but saves energy and water, and lasts longer, and makes for much less warrantee expense, and it’s a better way to do business, and it’s easy to get involved.”

The enemy is not the high priest mumbling in Latin up on the hill. The enemy is those who are still building inefficient, drafty and leaky, minimum standard homes that waste energy and water and cost more to maintain and will have a shorter life span than homes built with existing green building systems. But the goal of our program is not to attack those builders either, just to bring them into our tent and show them how easy it is to join our congregation.


  1. Kevin Murphy- Anchorage Building Corp; said...
    Hallelujah, Michael.

    I know that a lot of "normal" builders are interested in the concept of green, but balk at the cost of upgrading their insulation or other aspects of improving their homes efficiency because of the bottom line.. There would be no chance of large scale adoption of green building practices if we mandated $3,000 per house inspections.

    I think that we converts realize that there is a true economic benefit to building according to the NAHB green standards, as well as the obvious benefits for the environment. The fee for the NAHB green building verification is never a contentious line item for our custom clients- they readily agree to pay for verification as they realize that a green certified home will increase in value much faster than a leaky sieve. I would hope that we could continue with that trend and not have to spend hours or days trying to justify thousands of dollars for verification.

    I'll meet you at the tent.

    Kevin Murphy
    Anchorage Building Corp.
    Steve Hale said...

    The HBA of Central NM and USGBC, NM Chapter have signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the two entities. The main goal is to show a unified front for green building to both the public and elected officials. We have substaincial State tax credits for both LEED h and Build Green NM (based on the NAHB Guidelines). We also offer member pricing to events regardless of organization membership or program.

    Maybe the getting along starts locally and grows nationally, we'll see.

    Steve Hale
    Chair Build Green NM
    Tim said...
    Good job, Michael. Just like the presidential campaign reporters who work hard to fabricate controversy between candidates, the "battle" between LEEDh and NAHB's program is overblown and sends the wrong message. We want to change the paradigm for home design and construction in this country, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that two programs might cover more ground than one. Thanks to affordable high-res digital cameras and associated equipment, there's no reason why diligent, well-informed builders can't self-document the green features they incorporate into their houses. Keep the dialog going!
    Nataki said...
    I am acutely aware that two powerful organizations with different target markets working in peaceful coexistence in a movement for positive change doesn’t sell news. Turmoil, petty conflict and controversy (real or fabricated) does sell news.

    The problem then is that we have reporters who haven’t bothered to investigate and educate themselves as to why the green building movement is newsworthy on its on merits.

    I will echo the praise of the previous posters before me. This post is powerful in that it doesn’t let the media get away with slowing the momentum of the movement by reframing the discourse. The discourse isn’t about who green is better. The discourse is about when, why and how do we all build a greener existence.

    Amen Michael for keeping our eye on the ball.

    AGI Construction Framing

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