10 Tips for Green Certification

August 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

The main driver can be anything from prestige and branding to a genuine desire to protect the environment, but one thing is certain – as building certifications gain wider understanding and acceptance, they gain greater importance in the marketplace. Find the right certification for your building and start the process with these 10 tips from industry professionals.

1) Understand Your Motives
Knowing your own reasons for pursuing green building certification sets the tone for the rest of the project.

“Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish,” advises Allison McKenzie, director of sustainability for design firm SHP Leading Design. “Are you trying to reduce utility costs, lower OM costs, or focus on attracting tenants?”

Building owners certify for many reasons, says Sharene Rekow, vice president of marketing and sales for the Green Building Initiative, which administers Green Globes in the U.S. Chief among them are “a political agenda such as tax incentives, city or state requirements, internal improvement, or marketing,” Rekow explains.

The last is a powerful driver because certification can help attract and retain tenants. At Marquette Plaza, which houses the Minneapolis offices of tenants like Xcel Energy and several federal agencies, dual certification – an ENERGY STAR rating of 99 and Minneapolis’s only LEED Platinum multitenant office building – is a valuable recruiting and retention tool. The structure boasts all-new lighting and fans, low-flow fixtures, and revamped recycling and purchasing policies, recognized by the LEED Platinum logo at the front entrance.

“It’s a way to create a competitive advantage over other downtown office buildings,” says Kim Havey, a principal with Sustology, the consultancy that helped Marquette Plaza obtain certification. “Some tenants are directed to find buildings that are sustainable and energy-efficient. They don’t need to look for another place – they’re in a LEED Platinum building.”

If your goal is simply to meet your location’s mandated efficiency level, however, a formal certification may not be necessary. For example, Carson City, NV, requires new commercial, mixed-use, and residential buildings to meet basic green criteria and submit a LEED checklist during design review, though certification is not required.

Meeting the bar set by a certification program without applying for the designation will result in a more efficient building. However, without third-party validation, it can be difficult to substantiate performance claims and gain credibility, says Amanda Sturgeon, certification director for the International Living Future Institute, which administers the Living Building Challenge program.

“It’s very easy to say you followed the guidelines, but without having the building certified, it doesn’t really assure people that it was actually achieved,” Sturgeon explains. “Many teams want to show others that this is a path to follow, and without being certified, it’s hard to make that case.”

2) Choose a Certification Program
Many of the certification bodies publish their requirements online, allowing you to review what’s expected of your building before anyone lifts a finger on renovation.

Discuss key differences and how to meet your objectives with your in-house team and others who can advise you, including colleagues who have achieved certification for their buildings and your project engineer and architect. Consider questions like:

Certification scope: Do you want to focus on achieving the best in one area (such as energy), fine-tune the whole building, or expand your green goals over the whole property?

Newcomers vs. established systems: Some of the original certifications like LEED are more instantly recognizable, but that doesn’t mean a younger certification is the wrong choice. Lesser-known programs may offer additional opportunities for consumer education, but some may be too stringent for your situation, so compare the requirements closely.

Complexity, cost, and benefits: Your engineers or consultants can explain what’s required for you to hit mandatory targets and earn credits, then help refine your budget and project plans, says Stan Samuel, director of sustainable construction for the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities (SERF), a certification body founded by industry professionals seeking an alternative to LEED. “You have to have a complete analysis of the building to identify the costs, benefits, ROI, and period of payback,” Samuel explains. “Once you get a complete idea, go ahead with the renovation.” The certification may require application fees, and some also mandate third-party inspection at your expense.

3) Check the Building’s Current Condition
Obtain concrete data about your building’s performance, policies, and other benchmarks. When the building is operational, you can compare its performance with previous data to bolster your application. At Marquette Plaza, Sustology conducted energy, waste, and water audits, assessed the structure’s maintenance and cleaning policies, and obtained information on tenant behaviors, such as how many people commute to the site. This information laid the foundation for the ensuing building improvements.

Even if your team pursues a program targeting one facet of sustainability, like ENERGY STAR’s focus on reducing energy use, examining equipment performance and the building’s response to changing conditions may uncover other opportunities. It can also provide guidance on next steps, says Joe Markling, chair-elect of BOMA International, which offers the BOMA 360 designation.

“Don’t be afraid to pull the criteria from online and do it as a self-assessment first,” Markling explains. “It’s a great way to see where you are and get you to a level where you would qualify if you made certain changes.”

4) Get Creative with Sustainable Solutions
Budgetary concerns and certification requirements heavily shape the areas your team will tackle, but making specific game plans requires you to further delve into the details. Assess the cost vs. benefit of pricy and highly visible green technologies, but don’t forget to include more affordable ones like dimmable lighting or tightening the envelope.

Also remember that a limited budget doesn’t actually preclude you from getting creative. At 330 North Wabash in Chicago, the future home of the American Medical Association, used office paper is reprocessed into toilet paper, says SERF president and co-founder Joe Maguire. Your team might decide that services like this offer good value for the cost – in this case, the same dollars help recycle used paper, build green credibility, and keep toilet paper stocked.

If you’ve set an especially high certification goal, however, your end result might dictate the process instead of the other way around. The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY, embarked on an unconventional path when they decided to pursue both LEED Platinum and the Living Building Challenge on a combination classroom-wastewater treatment plant: the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.

The pursuit of dual certification led to the incorporation of a staggering amount of regionally salvaged building materials, adds CEO Robert “Skip” Backus. Take inventory of materials, technologies, and tools you own or can obtain easily and inexpensively – you, too, may end up gaining points from surprising sources.

“We had the opportunity to salvage the Obama inaugural platform, so we used a lot of its plywood,” Backus says. “We took down a building here on campus and used its materials. We have doors from an apartment building that was torn down in Philadelphia, and the siding is from an old mushroom farm. Each component has its own story and it really changes what the building is.”

5) Don’t Overlook OM
A high-performance building needs a high-performance facilities team. Review your operations and maintenance practices to find inefficiencies, outdated information, and less-than-green practices. A standard operating procedures manual and formal preventive maintenance practices are required for BOMA 360 certification, but regardless of certification choice, guidelines for everything from maintenance schedules to bid-letting protocol helps your team keep your sustainable building performing at its best. Updating these policies may reveal other ways to improve efficiency.

“About 30% of the energy used by a commercial building is typically wasted,” explains Maura Beard, director of strategic communications for ENERGY STAR in commercial and industrial buildings. “Make sure the lights are turned off when you leave the room, your HVAC system is properly maintained, and you change the filter. Capture as much of the waste as you can and then look at more aggressive improvements.”

Purchasing and cleaning policies should also go under the microscope on a regular basis – you may be able to find vendors closer to your area (thus reducing carbon emissions from transporting your orders) or switch to greener cleaning products. Rick DeKam, founder, principal, and director of asset management for Midwest Realty Group, found opportunities for waste reduction simply by restructuring recycling programs at two buildings aiming for SERF certification.

“We used to have a cardboard recycling dumpster, and I don’t think we even filled it that much because it was cardboard only and people didn’t want to break apart their bags of garbage to sort them,” DeKam says. “SERF pushed us to have a recycling program inside the building, draw more attention to it, and let people know exactly what we’re doing and why. Now we make it easy.”

6) Get Buy-In
Your certification may require assistance from every tenant in a multitenant building. Present each tenant with compelling reasons to revise their own purchasing and waste policies. Offering a green building may persuade some to renew their leases, but others will need evidence of more concrete benefits, such as a projected reduction in energy costs.

At Marquette Plaza, this took the form of discussions, training sessions, and emails that explained FSC certification, the difference between pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled paper, and other ways to green their purchasing policies. Meanwhile, DeKam streamlined recycling by giving each tenant separate, clearly labeled containers for different materials, along with signage showing the recycling process.

Simplifying these concepts made a world of difference in compliance, adds Shawna Hansen, property administrator for Base Management, which manages Marquette Plaza. In fact, Base ended up with 90% participation in the green purchasing program.

“They had to dig out invoices for that performance period, which was a challenge,” Hansen says. “They’re not employees of our company, so how do you motivate them to do that extra work? We kept informing them that this would definitely be a benefit to them and their company once it was done. You have to be persistent and plead your case.”

7) Pay Attention to Lifecycle
Age and lifecycle considerations are just as important for the existing building as they are for products and remodeling plans. For instance, if your building has a black roof that’s still functioning well, you might find that the emissions you save with a tighter white roof are voided by the energy used to replace the old one, not to mention the resulting waste.

“The building embodies energy in carbon, which is often not understood,” says Rob Curry, program manager for Earth Advantage, a certification program for commercial buildings up to 70,000 square feet (which will expand to 100,000 feet after its official launch in August). “Extending the building’s life is one of the most sustainable strategies.”

Also look at the lifecycle of products and materials destined for your building. Look beyond the first cost of the material, advises Carrie Malatesta, senior interior designer for SHP Leading Design.

“A big piece of lifecycle cost is maintenance,” Malatesta explains. “Are you going to select a floor that may require no finish or sealer or something that needs to be stripped and maintained once a year?”

8) Get Your Sequence Straight
Sourcing is a major concern for many certifications, so do your homework on materials, suppliers, inventory, and lead time, Backus recommends. Weigh material attributes against their distance from your site. For example, will buying solar panels manufactured closest to you earn more points than the 20% more efficient panels made 500 miles away?

“Know every single thing you can about the building, what it’s going to cost, what you need to gather, and how you’re going to put it together,” Backus explains. “You can’t go to your local hardware store or lumberyard and do this anymore because the economy doesn’t allow that kind of inventory, so sequencing becomes an issue. You need to know what you’re doing from beginning to end on every project.”

9) Manage Costs
What you can achieve will come down to your budget, in terms of both project costs and the extent to which incentives defray those costs. Central Oregon Community College has received over $100,000 in sustainable building rebates from Earth Advantage and the Energy Trust of Oregon as it works to certify four of its six new buildings with Earth Advantage, says Gene R. Zinkgraf, director of construction.

Cost also fuels a major misconception about green certification, says USGBC media manager Ashley Katz – the perception that building certification comes at a high premium.

“Upfront costs for hiring sustainability professionals average only 1-2% of the overall building budget, and they’re recouped quickly once the building is operational,” Katz explains. “There are a growing number of professionals that are skilled in building green cost-efficiently.”

10) Strive for Continuous Improvement
Your certification might last the life of your building, but the building’s performance won’t, especially if you don’t keep up with your new, more efficient practices. It’s easy to forget about annual reviews, Markling says, but without them the building’s performance suffers.

“Things get overlooked when people get busy,” Markling explains. “If you haven’t updated your OM manual in a few years, or you’re a new manager and you only have old information and phone numbers, stop and take a look at it.”

Demand for sustainable structures will only grow, Rekow advises, so keep pushing your building toward greater efficiency. Certification or not, the improvements in performance and branding are worth it.

“The downturn in the economy made people wonder if green would go away,” Rekow says. “But green didn’t go away. It’s still a concern and it will continue.”



Origin: Established in 1993 in response to lack of a green building
definition and standard.
Philosophy: Set a common definition of “green” and provide a roadmap to establishing a baseline and measuring subsequent green facility improvements.
Process: Register to gain access to tools and resources necessary to provide certification, including LEED Online, an online project management tool.
Duration: Typical wait for initial certification is 30-90 days while USGBC reviews application.
Initial Certification: Flat registration fee, plus certification fee that varies depending on project size and rating system. Term varies.
Renewal: LEED-EB projects must recertify within 1-5 years. No renewal
needed for other LEED rating systems.
Criteria: High performance in site development, water, energy, materials, and IEQ. Meet prerequisites in each category, then gain more points by earning optional credits.
Building Types: All commercial buildings, though some (such as healthcare and education) have their own LEED rating systems.


ENERGY STAR for Buildings

Origin: Established in 1999 as a
voluntary market-based partnership to improve energy efficiency. Builds on ENERGY STAR product certification.
Philosophy: Encourage carbon emission reductions by honoring high-performing buildings. Provide a low-cost way to track performance, prioritize investments, learn from others, and verify savings.
Process: Enter building data into Portfolio Manager, which indicates whether you might qualify. If you do, complete the verification process and apply. Qualifying buildings score at least 75 and are verified by a professional engineer or registered architect.
Duration: Typical wait for initial certification is about three weeks.
Initial Certification: Awarded for each specific year. No cost to apply.
Renewal: Can be renewed annually. Buildings earning the ENERGY STAR can reapply one year after the last energy data submitted with the previous year’s application.
Criteria: Score is based on building type, size, operating hours, occupancy, and energy data for all active meters and fuels for 11 consecutive calendar months. At least 50% of gross floor area must be defined by one of EPA’s preset space types.
Building Types: Commercial and institutional buildings. EPA recognizes 15 types, including financial institutions, courthouses, data centers, medical facilities, hotels, K12 schools, office buildings, dormitories, stores, and senior care facilities.

Green Globes

Origin: Based on Canadian Green Globes program, which is adapted from the BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in western Europe. GBI bought the U.S. license for Green Globes in 2004.
Philosophy: Offer a robust, easy-to-use green certification system at a low cost.
Process: Purchase a license to use the online self-assessment tool, which estimates your rating. Send documentation to an assessor (whose fee is included in the registration costs), who advises you on changes. After project completion, the assessor spends a day on-site verifying that the project meets requirements.
Duration: Self-assessment and application for an existing building can be completed in two months, which would result in certification within three to four months.
Initial Certification: Certifying a 50,000- to 100,000-square-foot building of average complexity costs $9,000 for new construction or $6,500 for existing buildings.
Renewal: Existing building certifications must be renewed every year. New construction certifications are valid through the building’s life.
Criteria: Earn at least 35% of 1,000 possible points to earn the lowest certification, 1 Globe. The assessment areas (energy, water, resources, emissions, indoor environment, and environmental management) offer 80-350 points each.
Building Types: Commercial and institutional buildings. Certified projects include data centers, schools, office buildings, high-rise residential, hospitals, healthcare, parking garages, transit centers, and fire stations.

Living Building Challenge

Origin: Launched in 2006 to encourage rapid and significant change, define the most advanced sustainability standard, and close the gap between current limits and ideal solutions.
Philosophy: Transform the building industry by setting out a visionary path to restore the future.
Process: Upload documentation outlined in the 20 imperatives for your building type/application. The institute reviews your paperwork and sends an auditor to conduct a one-day on-site review.
Duration: The paperwork review takes about six weeks, plus one day for the on-site review.
Initial Certification: Lasts through the building’s lifetime. Registration fee of $250 for a renovation or $500 for a building, plus certification fees. Full certfication costs from $2,500 to $25,000; Petal Recognition for projects that don’t meet all criteria from $1,500 to $15,000.
Renewal: Not needed. Awarded once.
Criteria: Building must be operational for at least 12 months before evaluation. Full certification requires compliance with each of the 20 imperatives, including net zero energy and water use, not using chemicals on the Institute’s Red List, and integrating agricultural opportunities.
Building Types: Doesn’t distinguish between specific types of buildings within the building project and renovaton categories.

NAHBRC Green Certified

Origin: Partnered with the ICC in 2007 to provide an alternative to early versions of LEED targeting multifamily and residential developments. Based on ANSI’s National Green Building Standard.
Philosophy: Make green certification attainable by every multifamily (and residential) building by tying it to a voluntary standard that can improve the quality and performance of all buildings, even if they don’t pursue certification.
Process: Before work starts, a developer or architect scores project plans according to the National Green Building Standard to estimate what certification is attainable, then writes a designer’s report detailing planned green features. A verifier trained by NAHBRC inspects the project on-site before the walls go up and again after completion.
Duration: Within one business day after all paperwork has been reviewed.
Initial Certification: Certification fee of $200 plus $20 per unit. Verification fee is negotiated between the verifier and developer – the national average is $50-200.
Renewal: Not needed. Awarded once.
Criteria: Score based on six categories: lot design, preparation and development, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, and IEQ.
Building Types: Multifamily structures (also covers single-family housing and residential developments).

BOMA 360

Origin: Developed in 2009 to recognize best practices in OM.
Philosophy: Recognize excellence in OM, risk and safety issues, training, energy, sustainability, and tenant/community relations.
Process: Apply online anytime. Designations are awarded and
announced quarterly.
Duration: Typical wait is two to three weeks after the quarterly application deadline.
Initial Certification: Lasts three years. Cost is based on building size and BOMA membership; $750-1,500 for members and $950-1,900 for non-members.
Renewal: Renewal terms and cost are the same as for initial certification.
Criteria: Must have standard operating procedures manual and preventive maintenance program, benchmark with ENERGY STAR, and participate in EER or IREM data collection. Buildings are then rated in six categories.
Building Types: Any type of commercial building that meets prerequisites.

Earth Advantage

Origin: Served as commercial building program for PGE from 1997-2005, then became a nonprofit. Focus is on small buildings since 2008.
Philosophy: Create a streamlined certification process based on best green practices proven by building science. Targets operational savings and healthy environments.
Process: Contact Earth Advantage directly to ensure project meets their criteria. Formerly assigned a dedicated project manager to see project through design, implementation, and verification; after post-pilot launch in August, a Preferred Partner (e.g. an architecture, engineering, or green building consulting firm) will appoint an individual Project Trustee deliver certification services with oversight from Earth Advantage.
Duration:As of August, Project Trustees have two weeks to submit final paperwork and fees to Earth Advantage, which will either certify or give 30 days to bring application into compliance with certification requirements.
Initial Certification: Initial fee of $2,500 to formally enroll program if it meets criteria. Additional $2,500 due at final verification review.
Renewal: Not needed. Awarded once.
Criteria: Energy savings and carbon stream reductions; water use reductions; healthy indoor climates; minimal adverse impacts on land and site ecology; wise use of reused, recycled, and new low-toxic materials.
Building Types: New and major renovations up to 70,000 feet (expands to 100,000 feet after August launch).


Origin: Founded in 2010 by property owners and industry professionals to provide a faster, lower-cost alternative to LEED.
Philosophy: Motto: Practical Environmental
Stewardship. Believes that private property rights come with
responsibilities – namely, being a
good steward of the environment.
Process: Choose prescriptive or performance-based criteria and score the building on your application. Have data verified by a third-party architect or engineer.
Duration: Response within 10 days, either to certify or note additional requirements for certification (documentation, tips on gaining points, etc).
Initial Certification: Lasts one year. Certification fees for the initial year are $4,000, $8,000, or $12,000 depending on facility size.
Renewal: Lasts one year. Can be automatically renewed upon submission of a Statement of No Material Change. Fee ranges from $295 to $495 based on facility size.
Criteria: Evaluation is based on energy and water efficiency, environmental impact, waste and greenhouse gas emission reduction, occupant health and comfort, renewable energy use, and innovative sustainable practices. No prerequisite credits. Points are tradable between sections.
Building Types: Office buildings and suites, retail, healthcare, manufacturing and distribution, multifamily residential, and institutional buildings.


Janelle Penny (janelle.penny@buildings.com) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.


Comments are closed.