Nuts and Bolts of Green Building

Fall is housing conference season, at least on the west coast. Having presented at the three main regional conferences - Non-Profit Housing of Northern California (NPH), Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH), and San Diego Housing Federation (SDHF) - off and on for the past five years, it is interesting to see how the tenor of green has changed. The first big change is that green is now seen as an essential part of the conferences. Five years ago this was not case. Back then, I felt grateful to be offered, after some persistence, one slot for a panel on green. Today it is de rigueur to have a green track. The second change is that there are many more people interested in and qualified to speak about green building. There is now a fairly deep pool of project managers, energy consultants, solar energy experts, and public agency staffers that are knowledgeable, and more importantly, experienced, in creating green projects. But perhaps the most interesting shift is in the degree of sophistication of the conference attendees. Learning about the merits of green is no longer enough; in the last few years, the people at the green sessions want to know how to do green. This emphasis on the nuts and bolts of implementation seemed strongest in the 2008 conference season. One clear focus was on green building rating systems and how to choose which one to use. In California most developers of tax credit projects have learned about the basics of green building, largely because the tax credit regulations have both requirements and point-yielding options for the inclusion of green features. But new in the 2008 regulations was the option to skip over the list and just commit to meeting one of three green rating systems: the US Green Building Council's LEED for Homes, Enterprise Community Partner's Green Communities Initiative, or Build it Green's Green Point Rated program. So it is no wonder that both the NPH and SDHF organizers asked for a session specifically about rating systems. Although it is not possible to reach a simple conclusion about which system is "best," describing the pros and cons of each rating system and relative benefits is not as difficult as it sounds. Like green building in general, the best approach to the rating systems varies depending on the specific project and its unique circumstances. LEED is excellent if a national brand is valuable, but the costs associated with field verification and certification are substantial. A regional program like Green Point Rated may be preferred by the local officials and is often somewhat easier to access technically and financially. Green Communities also offers a national brand, and for successful projects, can bring additional grant funding. But, whichever rating system one settles on, the fact that there is now choice, not just of rating systems but of building materials, service providers, financing tools, and more, is the biggest signal of progress in the world of green building. It is proof that there is finally a legitimate marketplace. And as that marketplace continues to grow, a wider variety of projects will pencil and get built all of which pushes the green building further into the mainstream. With any luck, in five more years, there will only be one type of housing conference - green. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Walker Wells, AICP LEED AP, is Director of the Green Urbanism Program at Global Green USA and the editor and co-author of Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing.