What is LEED Certified? Complete Step-by-Step Guide to a LEED Certified Home - Furnace Compare

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What is LEED?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized third-party green building certification program that operates under the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit coalition of building industry leaders. It’s aimed at recognizing environmentally friendly decisions made in your design and construction process. 

LEED certifications can be awarded to all different types of design and construction projects, from single-family homes to high-rise commercial buildings. 

Residential homes are on the rise, growing by 19% in the past two years

“LEED-certified homes have grown 19 percent since 2017 and are at an all-time high with nearly 500,000 single family, multifamily and affordable housing LEED-certified units globally and more than 400,000 units located in the U.S.” — LEED in Motion: Residential

Let’s explore everything you need to know about LEED certifications for residential homes, including the benefits, costs and a step-by-step guide for getting your build LEED certified. 

What are the benefits to a LEED certified home?

Getting your home LEED certified demonstrates that you’re following a strict environmental and sustainable building process, which is not only beneficial for the environment, but can also offer tax rebates, zoning allowances, increased home value, lower insurance premiums and more. 

Melissa Rappaport Schifman, editor and sustainability thought leader, put her reasoning for embarking on a LEED certification for her home in simple terms. 

“I really thought a lot about the why. And I came up with three reasons to do this: to be healthier, to save money and to do a little bit better for our planet.” — Forbes 

Let’s dive deeper into how you can benefit from earning a LEED certification for your home. 

Incentives for green building

There are a number of incentives and policies that support energy efficient residential homes in the U.S., both offered at the federal and state level. There are two main incentive categories — structural incentives and financial incentives. Financial incentives come in the form of tax credits, fee reductions or waivers, grants and revolving loan funds. Structural incentives come in the form of additional density bonuses or expedited permitting processes. Other incentives can include some municipalities that offer certification planning and marketing assistance.

DSIRE is a helpful resource for finding programs that support your home, which you can refine by state, incentive type and more. 

Save money on utilities 

If you put effort into getting your home LEED certified, you’ll reap the benefits within the first month by saving on utilities. According to USGBC, on average, LEED-certified homes use 20-30% less energy than a home built to code, with some homes reporting up to 60% savings, which lowers utility costs.

Heating and cooling costs are expected to decrease given all LEED certified homes are fully sealed and insulated, which help maintain the temperature in your home. Additionally, water bills are expected to decrease due to low-flow shower heads, faucets and toilets. 

Better for your health

A number of credits involved in a LEED certification involve an occupants health and well being. 

“One of the most important investments a person will make is in their home, and the quality of these spaces can have a direct impact on an individual’s health and well-being.” — Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO, USGBC.

Starting with the building or renovation process, LEED certified homes are dedicated to using non-toxic chemicals and green construction materials. 

You can expect the air quality to be better given the homes are designed to minimize exposure to toxins and pollutants outdoors while ventilating fresh air indoors. Furthermore, dehumidification systems are installed to control indoor moisture levels to provide comfort, reduce the risk of mold and mildew, and increase the durability of the home. 

The health benefits extend outside of the home as well. LEED certified homes are built in proximity to public transportation to urge occupants to drive less and be more physically active. 

Improved ecological footprint

Did you know that the buildings and construction sector accounts for nearly 40% of total energy-related CO2 emissions and 36% of final energy use worldwide?

From the very beginning of the process, LEED certified projects reduce the climate impact of new builds as the entire design and construction process takes into consideration the energy, water consumption, materials used and location. 

You can earn points on your LEED certification for using non-toxic materials, harvested materials and recycled and reclaimed materials. 

Better resale value

In a study released by The University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), they found that LEED certified homes are worth an average of $25,000 more in resale value than conventional homes.

Why are LEED certified homes more valuable? Residential homes that are held to a high environmental standard ensure that buyers will reap the benefits mentioned above — a low utility bill, healthy standard of living, ecological footprint and more. 

How to earn a LEED certification for your home?

Whether you’re building or renovating your home, earning a LEED certification includes rigorous testing of every aspect of the home, inside and out. There are multiple certification levels you can achieve before you can become fully certified. 

We’ll break down the rating system, levels, and a step-by-step of the certification process. 

LEED certification rating system

To capture all of the different types of projects, there are five different rating systems used in the LEED certification broken down by building type including Building Design and Construction, Interior Design and Construction, Operations and Maintenance, Homes, Neighborhood Development and cities and communities. 

We’ll focus on LEED certification for homes specifically, which applies to single family homes, low-rise multi-family or mid-rise multi-family.

LEED certification levels

There are four certification levels for residential homes, which can be attained through earning points at the end of the process. Points are earned for every sustainable design element or renovation achieved in a residential home. The certification levels are as follows: 

It’s important to understand what it takes to earn each level of certification and have a goal at the beginning of the process. 

Hiring a LEED certified professional 

Earning a LEED certification for your home isn’t a walk in the park, so it’s recommended that you hire a LEED certified consultant to help walk you through the process. Green Building Certification Inc. (GBCI) administers an exam to verify that experts meet the highest levels of quality and integrity. 

LEED Accredited Professionals (AP) are educated on the latest strategies for green building design, construction and operations for all building types making them imperative to a successful certification. 

When you’re ready to hire a LEED AP consultant, consider someone who specializes in your type of project and look into their latest reviews to learn more about their reputation in the industry. Now that you have a basis of what a LEED certification consists of, you can begin the process by following our step-by-step guide. 

Step-by-step guide to a LEED certification

The process of earning your home LEED certified can be lengthy and complex, but there are nine main steps to the process.  

  1. Meet minimum requirements. In order to pursue your home’s LEED certification, you must meet minimum characteristics, which include being in a permanent location on existing land, using reasonable LEED boundaries, and complying with project size requirements. Refer to USGBC to learn more about each prerequisite. 
  2. Identify a rating system. If you’re pursuing a LEED certification on your residential home, refer to the USGBC LEED v4 for home design and construction. Otherwise, select the most appropriate rating system outlined in our chart above.  
  3. Register your project. Using the LEED online portal, register your project. Here, you will complete the registration information related to your project, submit payment and sign the certification agreement.
  4. Assemble your project team. You will need to select a project team that will work with you throughout the entire process. At the top level, this includes the project owner, who has the authority to control the project, and an agent, who is granted authority by the owner to register the project. You can fill out the Confirmation of Agent’s Authority form to grant them authority on the project. Additionally, you’ll need to hire a builder, architect, engineer and any other necessary members of your design and construction plan to ensure all aspects of the project work together.   
  5. Assemble your verification team. LEED for homes require testing through a verification team. Your team will consist of a LEED for Homes Provider, LEED for Homes Green Rater and a Qualified Energy Rater. Refer to the USGBC LEED for Homes Verification Team Scope of Services page for a deeper outline of the required verification steps and team requirements. It’s important to work with your verification team before construction begins. 
  6. Verify your project. Your project will go through a number of milestones, so to make sure it’s on track, you’ll need to facilitate on-site verification visits throughout the entire design and construction process. This involves a preliminary rating, mid-construction verification visit, final construction verification visit and any necessary supplemental documentation. Your verification team will need to submit all documentation to the GBCI prior to moving onto the next step. 
  7. Pay the certification fees. Once all of the documentation is submitted, you will be prompted to pay the certification fees. 
  8. Begin the review process. There are multiple parts of the review process, including a preliminary review, final review and an optional appeal review. 
  9. Certify your project. The final step of the review process is to accept or appeal the GBCI’s final certification report. Confirm that you have achieved all of the credits you aimed for prior to accepting your certification. Depending on the number of points you achieve, you will be certified in one of the four levels mentioned above: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. 

How much does it cost to get your home LEED certified?

There are separate registration and certification fees involved in getting your home LEED certified. The registration fee is paid up front, as outlined above, and is calculated on a per project basis. The certification fee is based on the rating system and size of the project, which are due when you submit your application for review. Pricing varies greatly, but for example, a single-family LEED home averages between $2,500 – $4,000

How prevalent are LEED certified residential homes?

In 2019, USGBC released a report that provides a snapshot of the state of LEED certified homes across the U.S. and the world. 

In the U.S., California tops the list as the state with the most LEED-certified residential homes at just over 39,000 units. California residents adopted the eco-friendly attitude early on, and became the first state to enact a mandatory green building code that covered nearly all residential and nonresidential construction. Texas follows with almost 25,000 residential homes to date. See below for the top 10 states with LEED-certified homes. 

The U.S. has the most LEED-certified residential homes in the world, with over 1.1 million to date. However, Canada and United Arab Emirates still has something to boast about with over 100K residential units respectively.

The future of LEED certified homes

It’s hard to ignore the fact that sustainable living and home building is trending, however, many figures in the home building industry are slow to adopt these methods of design and construction. 

In fact, Steve Saunders, CEO of TexEnergy Solutions says, “there are going to be business opportunities for those who wish to ignore the trend and deny the need… However, the sustainability movement is firmly established and makes more business sense than the alternatives.”

In the end, high energy and consumption use is creating huge environmental problems, which will not slow down unless real change is made. Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Dr. Fatih Birol, addressed the issue saying, “If we don’t make buildings more efficient, their rising energy use will impact us all, whether it be through access to affordable energy services, poor air quality or higher energy bills.” It all comes down to education and shifting attitudes to move towards sustainable living. 

Interested in building a LEED-certified home? Use our visual to learn how to start the process. Consider also how the efficiency of your appliances and central air and heating can contribute to your environmental footprint. 

Furnaces, for example, are measured for energy efficiency by what’s known as the Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) and air conditioners by the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ration (SEER).

LEED Certification Infographic

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