LEED Comes Home In This

October 8, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — In the midst of frenzied publicity for large green-building projects throughout West Michigan, a significant number of local builders have quietly embraced the LEED for Homes green building standard, with five houses slated for this fall's Parade of Homes, and 26 houses under way or completed as part of the standard's ongoing pilot program.

"A lot of this was through the homeowner. They wanted a green-built home with things like geothermal heat, so I suggested the rating system," said Scott Branc of New Urban Home Builders LLC, which is building a LEED-registered home on Burton Street in Grand Rapids. "There are a lot of people looking for this right now. It's what the market is starting to demand."

For several years, New Urban has built all of its homes to Green Built Michigan standards, a certification developed and administered by the Michigan Association of Home Builders similar to — if much less comprehensive than — the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

With little fanfare, the Midwest rollout of the council's latest LEED system is being managed locally by the Grand Rapids-based Alliance for Environmental Sustainability. The group currently has 78 projects on the books throughout its seven-state region and has trained hundreds of builders, raters and designers.

Branc was introduced to the LEED system through these training sessions, which qualified him as the home-building field's equivalent of a LEED Accredited Professional. There is no such program currently for the home rating system.

"It's amazing all the projects that are going on right now, and there has been no marketing for it," said Michael Holcomb, principal of Home Inspector General in Byron Center and founder of the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability. "We just had Kiplinger's magazine in East Grand Rapids do a photo shoot on one of our homes; we had Home and Garden at another one in Minneapolis, and Cooking Light at one in Chicago. And it's happening all over the country."

A 20-year-veteran of the green building field, Holcomb has been an Energy Star rater since 1993 and helped launch the Green Built Michigan program in 2000. He launched the nonprofit alliance, today managed by executive director Jeanine Reynolds, as a means of promoting the green-built standard, and is now serving as the chief instructor for its LEED training programs across the Midwest.

The ready adoption of the green standard is a dream come true for Holcomb, who has long railed against the state's weak energy code.

"A LEED home in Michigan is probably 50 to 70 percent more energy efficient," he explained. "Michigan has the weakest energy code of any cold weather state. We're a national embarrassment."

Holcomb was one of four raters dispatched by the state in 2005 to evaluate the costs of building energy-efficient homes as part of a rewrite of the Michigan Uniform Energy Code. The changes were subsequently blocked by an MAHB lawsuit. The current energy code is at least 15 years out of date, Holcomb said, and the first thing owners of a LEED home will notice are the immense energy savings.

Several home builders across the state have already committed to build all of their homes to criteria set by the EPA's Energy Star program or the more stringent Green Built standard. Like Green Built, LEED uses Energy Star as a baseline for its rating system. Points are assigned on top of those basic criteria for concerns ranging from air quality to durability issues.

Ensuring a low concentration of volatile organic compound emissions and an effective heating, ventilation and cooling system are a cornerstone of the program. Toxic products such as pesticides and certain cleaning materials are banned from the structure. Water use and reduction is carefully monitored, as is the creation of waste and how it is disposed. Like all of the LEED certification programs, the occupant is required to complete a lengthy monitoring period before earning certification.

Builders are also required to look at more practical green applications, such as ensuring that the home is not in constant need of materials to keep it in working order, that landscaping minimizes water runoff and maximizes geothermal attributes, and that locally produced materials are used. Other considerations include the site plan, preserving vegetation and the home's proximity to public transportation and services.

And with that, severe penalties are built into the system for large homes with a large amount of open space.

"The larger the home, the fewer number of bedrooms, the more points you're going to have to score," said Holcomb. The reasoning is that larger homes require more materials and resources to build and maintain. The more square footage per occupant, measured by bedrooms, the more wasteful the environmental impact.

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