• Sean

What is a "green certification" for your home?

Updated: May 2, 2019

I talk with my friends, many of them builders, and they can’t answer that question. It makes sense; it’s really not something that we talk about. We look at building a new home and we talk about the type of countertops you’re going to put in, and it makes sense, that’s the stuff you can see, that you can show off.

Can you show off a green certification? You can brag about it, but it doesn’t hit home nearly as much as those gorgeous granite countertops you got. 

So what is a green certification? Is there more than one? How do I choose which to get? Most importantly, what will it cost me and what will it get me?

That’s exactly what we’re going to look at in this post and in this series. In this one we’ll look at an overview of four different green certifications, their similarities and differences, what the process is to get them, and, of course, what will they cost and what is their value.

I’m going to give an overview of four, and I’m going to work in order from the one you’ve least likely heard of to the one you’ve most likely heard of. This order does not reflect how good they are, my preference, or anything like that. I just want to show you some stuff you probably haven’t heard of before and get you thinking about how taking these steps can save you money and save energy.

Overall, energy efficiency is saving the American government, its citizens and businesses more than $500 billion a year in avoided energy costs.

                     – Alliance to Save Energy 

The four we are going to talk about today are ZERH, NGBS, LEED, and ENERGY STAR.

ZERH is one of the most powerful, yet unknown, home certifications

Zero Energy Ready Homes

This green certification is sponsored and run by the Department of Energy. The whole focus of this program is energy efficiency. The DOE’s concept is that a home built to this standard is ready to be hooked into a renewable energy system and that will offset most, or all, of its energy requirements. 

When you look through the checklist for Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH), you’ll find its essentially Energy Star on crack. Not only are these homes built to the Energy Star standard, they then also meet the Indoor AirPlus standard, WaterSense, and a few others.

How do you get your home certified as a Zero Energy Ready Home?

There are two different paths, but in general you will partner with a ZERH certified builder and a ZERH certified verifier and you will have an energy model made of the home. As the house is built there will be some follow-on tests to ensure that it is meeting all the standards. Again, Energy Star will be the baseline of the certification, but you’ll have more stringent tests of the duct system, water efficiency, lighting & appliances, and indoor air quality testing. 

Ok, so what will this cost?

I know that’s the question that’s still on your mind. The DOE estimates costs between $4,600 and $7,200 more to build to ZERH standards. 

And what will you get?

The good news is that DOE estimates you will save 40-50% on your energy bills (and that’s if you don’t go to a renewable energy system). Roll those numbers up and the Department of Energy estimates annual savings on electric bills to be between $450 and $1200 each year. 

This is possible because building to ZERH standards should give you a Home Energy Rating Score (HERS) in the low to mid 50s. An Energy Star home is required to be below 85. A standard home just built to code is much higher than that. (Remember, HERS is like golf, low score wins).


The National Green Building Standard (NGBS) is an ANSI approved green building standard specifically for residential buildings. It was created by a committee and by consensus; the committee included ASHRAE, the ICC and the National Association of Home Builders. That should give you confidence in it, as both the people that establish the building codes and the people that actually build homes agree that this is legit.

NGBS has a wider scope that ZERH because its not just looking at efficiency. Homes earn points in several categories (lot design, preparation, and development; resource efficiency; energy efficiency; water efficiency; indoor environmental quality; and operation, maintenance, and building owner education); these points are tallied and there are benchmarks to earn 1 of the 4 levels of NGBS certification (bronze, silver, gold, and emerald).

The scoring system actually requires a great deal of proportional consistency and equality. That means you can’t just focus on one aspect of the standard and earn all your points that way, you actually have to be successful across the spectrum, giving you a well-rounded and sustainable home.

In order for a home to earn, say Emerald status, it must meet the Emerald score for each category. If one category gets Gold then the best the house can earn is Gold.

What’s interesting about the NGBS is that it uses the IECC as its baseline, not Energy Star.

To get your home certified you will have to partner with a NGBS Green Verifier. They will conduct two inspections of the home, one before the drywall is put up and one after the home is done. They also have to submit the building plans, inspection reports, and some other paperwork for review. This is a surprisingly quick process, though.


For this one the cost estimate is a little tougher. That’s because there are four different levels, and within each one you can pick what points to go after. That means there are cheaper and more expensive ways to earn each level. 

You can certify your home as Bronze for as little as $1375, though. What you’ll find is that the incremental cost is not identical. To say that like a normal human, it costs less to jump from Bronze to Silver than it does to jump from Gold to Emerald.


Well for starters, you’ll save between 15% and 45% on your energy use/bills.  That amounts to hundreds of dollars each year. And since you should consider lifetime value not upfront costs when you’re building a home, you can save thousands of dollars over the time you’ll own the home.

Beyond that, you’ll get expedited permit processing (if you live in Nashville). That’s not necessarily true throughout all of Tennessee, so if that’s what matters to you, make sure you check.

Home Innovation Labs summarizes it this way: you’ll get a healthier home, lower operating costs, and a sustainable lifestyle. 

If you’re interested, the next step is finding a verifier.


Ok. Now we’re getting to the more well-known ones. You may have heard of LEED, but did you know that LEED is for homes, too?

The LEED program is overseen by the USGBC. Its one of the more famous certifications, but many people don't know it also works for houses.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s the standard put together by the US Green Building Council. This standard is very similar to the NGBS. You earn points in a very similar way, there are four different levels of certification, and it aims to make homes healthier, use less energy and water, and maintain value over time by building better homes. 

The USGBC is proud to say that that LEED certified homes sell faster and for more money than comparable homes built to the building code.

Like I said, this certification is very similar to NGBS, so I’m not going to go into nearly as much detail for LEED in this article. NGBS and LEED cover similar categories and even the proportions are pretty similar. If you want to know more, stay tuned for another article in this series where I’ll look specifically at LEED, or you can check out this step-by-step list

LEED and NGBS have similar scoring systems, but they weight different areas more heavily.

If you want to get your home certified, the first step is to find a project team. They will make sure you get the right verifiers. Those verifiers will conduct at least two site visits (more often its actually four) as well as doing a good deal of paperwork. The approval process can take 60+ days for LEED.

Alright, the ever important questions:

How much does LEED certification cost?

Some estimates for the lowest level of certification you are looking at between $2,500 and $4,000. Now, before you go running to the bank with that, keep in mind that it depends on how big your home is and the cost of the home. 

A better estimate of the cost of LEED certification is 2.4% of the cost of building your home. So if you’re paying $300,000 expect to pay $7,200 as a starting point; if you’re paying $500,000 for the home, expect more like $12,000.

What is all that money going to get you?

As a starting point, you can safely expect to save 20-30% on your energy and water usage. That is the average for LEED homes. Some save all the way up to 60%. 

Remember how I mentioned LEED homes sell for more money? A study in Washington DC showed that homes were selling for 3.5% more when they were green.

Energy Star

Ok, last one. Well, the last one for this post at least. 

Everyone knows the Energy Star brand. They have a great, and very attainable, home certification

Energy Star is an EPA program and focuses, as you’d guess, on energy efficiency. When your house gets certified you will get a little blue sticker…that sticker signifies that your home has passed strict testing by an independent party meeting high standards of excellence. 

Similar to a ZERH, you’ll have a specialist build an energy model of the home, and then through a series of tests on the actual house it will be verified that your new house meets the Energy Star standards. This includes having a HERS of 85 or below, and also includes a thorough Thermal Enclosure System test. 

Energy Star raters must be certified through the Energy Star program, but are generally RESNET HERS raters. 

With this certification you will have reduced leaks and drafts, more consistent temperatures, better durability, and improved air quality. Energy Star says you’ll also have peace of mind…but there’s probably no guarantee on that.

You can expect this to save you up to 30% on your energy bills/usage. That translates to an annual savings of $300 each year (as an average). You’ll also be saving an average of 3700 lbs. of green house gases (GHG) if you’re into that kind of thing. That’s approximately like having planted 43 trees. Good work.

You’re right, I went out of order on that one. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.

What will this cost?

Estimates range from about $2,300 to $5,200 to get started and hit the baselines for Energy Star certification.

The bottom line on green certifications

Any one of these certifications is going to cost more money up front than not getting one. It just will. You’ll be building a better home. 

You aren’t taking out a three year mortgage on the home, so why is that how you look at the value of energy use and quality? If you look at the lifetime value of building energy efficient homes, it is absolutely worth your money.

What you get with an energy-efficient home:

1.) you’ll have lower energy bills

2.) you’ll need less maintenance – homes are built to a higher standard

3.) there will be less toxins and pollutants in the air – this can lead to a lower chance that your child gets asthma, less trips to the doctor, and lower medical bills

4.) you’re home will retain value better and probably sell for a higher price

Each of these certifications is a little different, and we’ll look at each of them more in-depth in this series, but they each will make your home better than just building to code. 


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