"Green" building is becoming mainstream. Faced with escalating energy costs, increased awareness of the depletion of our natural resources, and the ill-effects of poor indoor air quality, a movement is growing among building industry professionals and homeowners to approach residential construction with a primary view toward energy conservation, alternative energy generation, and the employment of sustainable, non-toxic materials. Within the last four months two major national organizations – the US Green Building Council and the National Association of Home Builders - have formally issued green building guidelines for residential construction that address not only energy efficiency but also a myriad of other green building concerns including water conservation, sustainable products and indoor air quality.

In order to provide guidance through the infant and developing green building industry in the mid-1990s, the U S Green Building Council (“USGBC”), a non-profit organization committed to expanding sustainable building practices, took on the task over a decade ago of creating industry guidelines for “green” building. Dubbed “LEED®”, which stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, the USGBC promulgated its first set of standards, for commercial building, in 1998. Since then it has expanded to various specific sectors of the construction industry, with its latest iterations being LEED® for Homes, promulgated, after a 2-year pilot program, on December 5, 2007, and Regreen, launched in March 2008 in collaboration with the American Society of Interior Designers’ Foundation, to address home improvement projects. This article provides a lay-person’s road-map through the LEED® for Homes guidelines and discusses their relevance to a brownstone or other urban rowhouse renovation.

In general, LEED® for Homes is a voluntary “green” building project certification program developed by the USGBC to promote the transformation of the home building industry towards more sustainable practices. The LEED® for Homes Guidelines are meant to be a set of best practices for building better homes. The Rating System identifies specific measures to be taken in order to design for improved resource efficiency using environmentally friendly material, equipment and systems, and to engage in construction practices that ensure these measures are installed properly with the end result that homes are more energy efficient and healthier living environments. The guidelines themselves rely heavily on standards and procedures already in place under theEnergy Star® for Homes program launched by the Department of Energy.

The LEED® for Homes Guidelines encompass an extremely detailed 120-page document, with varying relevance to brownstones and urban housing generally. This Article is a summary meant to be a lay person’s overview of the guidelines to enable homeowners to understand the important issues surrounding sustainable building practices and the decisions they will make in planning a renovation, and to determine how those guidelines might be applied to the renovation of a brownstone or other existing urban row-house. Click here to see The LEED® for Homes Guidelines on the US Green Building Council’s website. The USGBC website also contains a simplified project checklistthat aids in understanding the guidelines.

Testing and Verification.

One key aspect of the LEED® for Homes program is third-party verification and testing at various stages of the construction process, through LEED® for Homes “Providers”. Providers are specially designated professionals chosen by the US Green Building Council (“USGBC”) who oversee the LEED® certification process for particular projects. Providers manage teams of field professionals, called “Raters” who are the individuals who performs field inspections, including the HERS-related software analysis -- HERS stands for “Home Energy Rating System” promulgated by Energy Star® -- and performance testing, and these individuals often work closely with the design and construction professionals to help define and ultimately meet sustainability goals. At the time of this writing there are only 15 Providers in the country; New York City happens to be in a region with two of them. By the end of 2008 the USGBC hopes to add 20 more Providers across the country.

What does this mean for brownstone and row-house renovation: You need layers of professionals, and depending on the size of your project you should consider whether the added cost and time involved is worth the benefits you derive from LEED® certification – remember, you can follow the guidelines as much as possible without getting the certification.

What “homes” qualify for the LEED® for Homes program:

LEED® for Homes applies to multifamily and single family homes up to 6 stories. The guidelines fit best with new construction, and although they technically apply to rehabs the project must essentially be a gut renovation. Buildings must be:

6 stories and under
Must be gut rehab, down to the joists and studs
Multiuse buildings must be a minimum 80% residential, 20% commercial

The program applies a home size adjuster which either increases or decreases the number of points needed in each certification category depending on how an individual’s home compares to the national average home size based on square footage and number of bedrooms – 900 SF for 1 bedroom, 1400 SF for 2 bedrooms, 1900 SF for 3 bedrooms, 2600 SF for 4 bedrooms and 2850 SF for 5 bedrooms.

What does this mean for brownstone and row-house renovation: Brownstones and other vintage 19th and early 20th century urban housing are historic properties with beautiful architectural detailing and flooring, so demolishing floors and walls down to the joists and studs is an unworkable prerequisite unless there are other overriding reasons to do so, such as remedying structural inadequacies, fire damage, mold abatement etc.  Don't be concerned that you somehow can't achieve good energy saving results if you don't do a gut rehab, because that 's not the implication of the requirement.  The requirement exits because the LEED® for Homes Guidelines piggyback off the Energy Star for Homes program that relates to new-builds where the studs and joists will be visible at certain stages and thus testing criteria was designed to inspect those open spaces, and LEED® for Homes Guidelines have adopted that testing criteria by assimilating the Energy Star for Homes standards. 

Brownstones are also often occupied as single family homes or large owner-occupied units (2 to 4 story) over a garden floor rental, which may require an increase in the number of credits needed due to the application of the home size adjuster.

How to begin.

To embark on the LEED® certification journey, first a Provider must be contacted, and although the system assumes that a construction professional would engage the Provider, it is possible for homeowners who act as their own general contractors to do so. Second, a team with knowledge of the 8 resource categories in the LEED® rating system must be put together to design the project, layout the sustainability goals and plan how to meet them. Third, you must actually get the work done to specification, keeping in mind that you might be dealing with trade professionals who may be new to the materials and construction practices of green building. Last, certify the home, which involves inspections and testing. For things that can’t be tested, such as the drought-resistant nature of plants and VOC emissions, the process requires the submission of accountability forms and attestations from a professional (such as a landscaper) or manufacturer (for such things as warranties regarding VOC’s).