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How do we know when it's

by Richard Drace, LEED AP
and Frans Velthuijsen,
May 10, 2009

With so many claims to be green these days, how are we to know when they are legitimate, or just green washing ? It s difficult enough to even agree on what we mean by green . We consider carbon footprints, recycling, alternative energy, resource conservation, locally produced goods, or any number of other things, as well as the question: Is it sustainable?

Complicating our challenge is the problem that there are quite a few labels to persuade consumers that their products are green. In too many cases, unfortunately, the standards are not rigorous, the testing is not independent, and the trusting consumer can be deceived.

With so many claims and standards out there, which rating systems can we trust? Our advice is straightforward: Look for independent third party verification systems. As a third party they are neither the producer nor the consumer of the product or service. Additionally, they verify environmental qualities and compare them to objective criteria. The foothills chapter of the Sierra Green Building Association (SiGBA) is currently researching which green rating systems are independent third party.

The national US Green Building Council s (USGBC) Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design® (LEED®) program, and the California Build It Green® (BIG) GreenPoint Rated® certification program use a point rating system for buildings. The Green Point Rated® certification requires less administrative work, lower fees and is easier to qualify for than the LEED® certification. Both systems are integrated and a high GreenPoint Rated® score can roll over into the LEED® certification. At this time LEED® is still the Gold Standard for green building.

The LEED® approach addresses five environmental categories for new construction, each with a number of sub-categories: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality. For existing buildings, LEED® offers an Operations & Maintenance certification that evaluates best management practices for energy efficient and healthy use of the building by its occupants.  LEED® offers certification at various levels " certified, silver, gold, and platinum " depending on how many points a project can achieve. A LEED® Accredited Professional, certified by the US Green Building Council, usually directs the certification process.

GreenPoint Rated® also lists the number of points scored, the more points, the greener the building. The green point rating process is done by a Certified GreenPoint Rater® (CGPR). To become a CGPR® one must first become a Certified Green Building Professional® (CGBP). CGBPs can be financial, real estate, building, manufacturing or retail professionals etc, who have taken the training provided by BIG.

Neither system is perfect. Abused by going after the easy points and neglecting the ones that are most indicative of performance, certification can be little more than bragging rights. Applied with integrity, however, these systems go a long way toward ensuring legitimately green building and design.

Critics of point counting systems prefer different approaches. Performance testing of a completed building involves accurately measuring just how closely the functioning building actually lives up to its design expectations. Construction quality then becomes as important as the building s materials and design. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) looks at all impacts of whatever building feature is under consideration over its entire life. Material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, application, useful life, disposal, recycling, and reuse all must be considered before any product or process can be anointed truly sustainable from cradle-to-cradle .

Expect to see in the near future that all three approaches will become integrated in improved green rating systems. The newest LEED® version (2009) weighs performance and commissioning of buildings far more heavily, with an obligation that a certified building will have to be retested regularly to ensure it continues to perform as promised. The most exciting new development in Life Cycle Analysis involves efforts to create a database of materials and products that have been thoroughly analyzed. Soon, we ll be able to research the LCA merits of a product, just as we now can look up the recycled content.

Since new green alternatives become available almost daily, continued education in green building is an absolute necessity. The monthly SiGBA Speaker Series is one source. Although we as consumers may feel overwhelmed by the many options out there, we do need to be wary of green marketing claims, and we should still take heart that even the imperfect green choice is a step toward a healthier planet.

Richard Drace, a LEED® Accredited Professional, and Frans Velthuijsen, a Certified Green Building Professional® and Certified GreenPoint Rater®, are both active leaders in SiGBA's Foothill Chapter.  For more information, email Frans at or Richard at

Mail can be sent to: SiGBA P.O. Box 4245 Truckee, CA 96160

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