Initiatives by two of the premier green certification schemes are pushing the green building movement into a new, more complicated phase–a phase that could bring new opportunities for LBM dealers.

The changes under way at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star program for homes and in place at the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED for commercial buildings reject the notion that one can turn a structure green simply by installing whiz-bang products or by piling on the insulation. Energy Star's proposed third-generation guidelines for qualified homes, to take effect in 2011, demand builders subscribe to energy-efficient framing methods and show that the insulation and HVAC systems they've installed were put in properly.

Meanwhile, shifting emphasis from promised to actual benefits, LEED-certified commercial buildings as of July 1 have to submit energy data to achieve and maintain certification. (USGBC has no plans to do the same for LEED's residential program.)

These changes spring from a growing awareness that America's builders too often put up structures that waste resources and/or fail to take full advantage of the green products used. EPA officials fill their PowerPoint presentations with slides showing homes where framers hammer in twice as many studs as needed, insulation installers fail to fill all the crevices in a wall, and HVAC crews put in ducts that double back on themselves, crimping the air flow.

"Despite increases in the 'nameplate' or 'nominal' performance indices of insulation levels and HVAC equipment, poor quality installation and commissioning often occurs, which does not allow the full potential of those nameplate values to be achieved," states an EPA document justifying the need for a third-generation Energy Star code.

USGBC is acting for similar reasons. A 2008 study it commissioned found that, of 121 commercial buildings LEED-certified under its new construction program, 40% didn't meet their energy target. What's worse, 20% used more energy than local code requirements.

"If LEED-certified buildings are to live up to their expectations, performance cannot be based on design intent," wrote Mark Stetz, an energy engineer and consultant on verifying building performance. "(E)nergy, cost, water, and carbon reductions need to be demonstrated in practice if LEED is to maintain credibility."

Energy Star's attack on construction problems features detailed inspection checklists and more third-party verification. Contractors seeking the Energy Star seal must frame the houses using one of four designated approaches: optimum value engineered framing, insulated sheathing, structural insulated panels, or insulated concrete forms. Inspectors will be required to check whether insulation has been installed behind showers and tubs, in attic slopes and walls, above garages, and behind staircases. In addition, window and door openings must be fully flashed.

"Even though quality control of installation and commissioning is often embodied in writing in residential energy codes, real-world observations indicate that it is often not being enforced or adequately inspected for," EPA says as justification for the new checklists.

While supporting Energy Star in general, NAHB and other groups dislike EPA's idea. NAHB argued the new checklists are onerous, require skills many energy raters lack, and make homes more expensive. Citing EPA and other groups' findings, NAHB estimated compliance would increase construction costs by nearly $5,000. "Bear in mind that 246,000 U.S. households are priced out of the market when the cost of a median-priced new home is increased by just $1,000," NAHB wrote.

Should EPA prevail, it appears dealers will be well-positioned to help builders. A ProSales survey this spring found that roughly 44% of the dealers responding already provide information about green construction. Dealers regularly are asked to explain green certification requirements and help builders sort through the choices they must make to win Energy Star, LEED, or other points. Energy Star's stepped-up emphasis on building better should only help increase the demand on dealers' expertise.

–Craig Webb

Illustration: Harry Whitver
REWARDING GOOD BEHAVIOR: Builders waste wood and hurt a home's energy efficiency by using too many studs when they frame, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Overframing makes it harder to insulate properly, and the wood studs don't stop heat and cold as well as insulation does. But if the EPA gets its way, builders seeking the Energy Star rating for homes in 2011 will have to put up homes more sensibly, such as framing them according to Optimum Value Engineering principles.