Seattle Living

Shelter: Green Houses

Do you know your LEED from your Living Building? Deciphering local green-home certification is the f

By Maria Dolan December 31, 1969


This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Green Houses
Most of us “green” our homes with the same scattershot methods we use to improve our diets (organic apple here, “natural” energy bar there). We buy an Energy Star dishwasher, blow in some extra insulation and build our deck with wood stamped with a logo that looked sustainable under the sallow CFLs of Home Depot. But even homes accessorized with à la carte green features weigh heavily on the environment. According to the Seattle-based nonprofit Bullitt Foundation (whose mission is to promote sustainable development), buildings currently generate 39 percent of carbon emissions, 65 percent of waste and 70 percent of electrical use in the United States.

So it’s good news that more local homeowners have gone beyond sustainability snacking and committed to a whole-house menu. Perhaps that’s because there is growing evidence that a home built or retrofitted to be energy- and resource-efficient will add green to the wallet. Airtight ductwork and solar panels are expensive, but so are energy costs. Homes meeting green certification standards can save 30 percent or better on energy performance over a single-family residence built to traditional code. Also, according to a study by Phinney Ridge–based GreenWorks Realty (, green-certified King County homes are selling at a faster rate and for higher prices than non-certified homes.

Which may be why green-home certification programs are booming. Patti Southard, project/program manager for Green Tools Solid Waste division in King County, says enthusiasm for the locally developed “Built Green” home certification (see next page) has surpassed expectations. “Our goal was to have 10,000 Built Green homes certified by 2010,” she says. “We had them by the end of 2007. This is a region of the country where we have a lot of early adopters.”

This is also a region where we hear a lot of green-home buzzwords without necessarily understanding the nuances of each. Does “Built Green” mean your house gets an Energy Star? Is a “Living Building” as good as “LEED certified”? And what about “zero energy” and “passive energy” homes? (FYI: Those last two are strategies builders may use to attain the different types of certification outlined on page 50.)
Green-home certification programs provide invaluable guidance through the process of creating a more sustainable home, but before consulting a builder or an architect, brush up on which ones mean what. All of these programs set specific goals for a builder working on a sustainable-home project in a variety of categories, such as energy and water consumption, indoor air quality and use of sustainable materials. A note to buyers: Since MLS listings claiming “green” status vary greatly, check for proof of one of the following certifications through the programs themselves.

Built Green
Run by: King County Master Builders Association in association with King and Snohomish counties
Details: Twenty-five percent of new construction in King County is now built to this standard. Certifies homes from one to five stars, based on points accrued after assessment in five areas, taking into consideration everything from a home’s landscape to the sustainability of its materials to toxicity of finishes and energy efficiency of systems. Projects earning one to three stars are self-certifying—the builder certifies that a checklist of green requirements has been completed. Four- and five-star projects require third-party verification.
Testimonial: King County’s Southard says, “Built Green is the more user-friendly program [compared to LEED for Homes].” She also considers Built Green superior in offering incentives to builders who use local materials. And she says its new remodel standard (which requires an energy audit and retrofit) is “the best remodel checklist in the country.”
Where to see it: Issaquah’s zHome development (, which offers monthly walk-through tours, and Martha Rose Construction’s Fish Singer Place (
More: For King County’s green building tips, visit and search for “greenbuilding.”

LEED for Homes (LEED-H)

Run by: United States Green Building Council (nonprofit)
Details: LEED (Leadership and Energy in Environmental Design), the renowned national system for rating commercial buildings, introduced LEED for Homes to our area in 2009. LEED-H recognizes performance in five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. Certifies homes to Silver, Gold or Platinum standards. Standards are created by committees of experts in each field. All LEED-H-certified homes require third-party verification. An associated program, REGREEN for Homes, offers residential remodeling guidelines.
Testimonial: An early participant in LEED-H’s pilot program, Sloan Ritchie of Cascade Built, says LEED-H is an environmental pedigree: “They want to target the top 10 or 20 percent of homes being built.” (In this, he says, it differs in philosophy from Built Green, which works to get every builder involved at some level.) He emphasizes the importance of LEED’s third-party certification for all projects. “It’s a way for the homeowner to know that it’s not just ‘greenwashing’ coming from a builder, marketer or salesperson,” he says.
Where to see it: Footprint at the Bridge, certified LEED-H Platinum (visit and search for “A Cooler Shade of Green”).

Living Building
Run by: Seattle-based International Living Building Challenge
Details: The most rigorous certification. Standards are defined in the form of a flower with seven petals: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty. Among other requirements, a Living Building must generate its energy on site using renewable resources, capture and treat its own water and use only previously developed sites. The group currently has 70 registered projects internationally. A handful will be certified starting this summer. One unusual component of Living Buildings is that the building must be inhabited for one year before it can be certified, to make sure the systems can be used successfully. Parts of homes may also be certified—a Living Building-certified kitchen, for instance.
Testimonial: “This paradigm is not asking how we can be less bad, but how can we be good,” says Jason McLennan, who conceived of the program and supports its operation as CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council. “We are trying to pull people forward.”
Where to see it: No local residences have been certified, but you can see the principles in action at the Bertschi School science building ( and Seattle’s forthcoming (in 2011) Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction (
More:  Explore the International Living Building Institute (

Energy Star Homes

Through a joint project of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, an Energy Star home is certified exclusively for meeting specific energy standards that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Star does not take into account landscape, toxicity, air quality or other features of Built Green, LEED or Living Building. Visit, and search for “Qualified New Homes.” 

Originally published in August 2010


Follow Us