The final action hearings for the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) begin on Wednesday, November 2 in Phoenix, AZ. The current lack of a provision for low-rise residential within this new code is both stunning and controversial. While the lengthy story behind that oversight can be found elsewhere, this column takes a look at the lack of movement within the voluntary marketplace.
First, allow me to provide both qualifiers and disclaimers for the data below:
The three main national green building programs/rating systems are USGBC’s LEED-H, NAHBGreen and the Department of Energy’s Energy Star. Data on the total number of LEED-H projects is pretty straightforward, and easy to access.
NAHBGreen’s totals are easy to see as well. However, there are state, regional and local HBAs who developed their own green building programs prior to the genesis of NAHB’s national program. Some of these programs allow reciprocal certification with a national program, so there is an element of “double counting” that is almost impossible to delineate. It should also be stated that some projects obtain dual certifications (LEED-H and NAHBGreen, LEED-H and Energy Star, etc.), so there will be additional duplication attributable to that. However, to make the math easy, we’ll pretend there are no duplicate projects contained in the data set.
Speaking of those non-national programs, it can be challenging to obtain their figures. While I’m sure all are very proud of their accomplishments, only a few post the total number of certified projects on their home page. Others require you to search through some of their sub-pages, while others don’t post the information at all. There appear to be a couple of non-national programs that have gone out of business, so that data is very hard to find.
Including projects certified under Energy Star is a bit misleading. Prior to the launch of Energy Star 3.0, the program revolved solely around energy efficiency, and did not take into account other sustainable characteristics like water management, material usage, IAQ, site development, etc. like the two aforementioned national programs. For this analysis, we’ll include all Energy Star homes, too.
Finally, I’ll be dividing the above totals by the total number of housing starts since 1991, the first year for any formal green building program in the U.S. (I’ll also divide by housing starts since 1995, when the first national program came into existence, but as you’ll see, it doesn’t change the numbers much.) Of note is that some of the program totals above include projects from 2011, as they should. However, since 2011 isn’t over yet, the Census Bureau hasn’t released 2011 housing starts numbers yet. So, anywhere from 400,000 – 600,000 residential projects are missing from the divisor in this equation. The absence of those homes will artificially inflate the overall percentage of certified green homes.
Now that we’ve gone through that housekeeping, let’s dig into the numbers. LEED-H certified their first residential project on May 12, 2006, or roughly 5.5 years ago. According to USGBC data from 10/19/2011, they have certified 14,337 residential projects. In 2008, NAHB formally unveiled NAHBGreen. At the time of this writing, their online counter (which can be viewed here) displayed 6,110 residential projects. The number we’ll be using for this analysis is 5,536. Finally, Energy Star boasts at least 1.2 million homes certified since 1995. If you want, we can include Passivhaus’ 24 U.S. residential projects. Add it all up, and the major national programs account for 1,219,897 green residential projects.
Looking at the non-national programs, I was able to get information from 9 organizations. The total was 48,495 projects. There are at least 3 other non-national programs from which I was not able to obtain information. I’m not going to guess, or even use an estimated average for those programs, as the data I was able to accumulate had quite a broad range. Combining the national and non-national programs, I’ve arrived at a total of 1,268,392 residential green projects.
While that total is an honorable achievement, let’s hold off the balloon-and-confetti party for a minute.
The number of housing starts since 1991 is 28,471,300. We could treat Austin Energy’s Green Building Program as an anomaly, and instead consider housing starts since 1995, when Energy Star began. (But we’ll still retain Austin’s totals. This is semi-scientific, after all.) That lowers the total to 23,513,100.
It doesn’t really matter what year you choose. We either have 4.45% or 5.39% of all new homes (since 1991 and 1995, respectively) that are certified green through some sort of formal program. Put another way, for every 100 new housing units built since the early to mid ‘90’s, somewhere between 4 and 5 were certified green. Think about that!
We all know there are many other homes out there that are green, but haven’t gone through any formal process of certification. But what do you think that total is? Do you think it’s greater than or less than the number of certified homes? If we assume it’s an equal number, we’re still only talking about 8 to 11 out of 100 new housing units. Consider that the next time you drive through a neighborhood built sometime in the last 16-20 years.
But wait, you say. The rush to build green is a relatively new phenomenon. We shouldn’t be going back that far. We should only look over the past 5-6 years. Ok, I’ll ignore the disrespect to all the sustainable pioneers out there and take a quick look at those short-term numbers. The LEED-H and NAHBGreen numbers still apply. For Energy Star, their total (starting in 2006) would represent approximately 650,000 homes. Through the national programs only, we’re looking at 669,873 residential projects. Total housing starts (including a conservative estimate of 400,000 for 2011) during that time span is 5,003,000. That produces a percentage of 13.3%. While a positive trend, we’re still talking about approximately 87 out of 100 new units that aren’t being built to any kind of green certification.
Is this the kind of progress you thought we were making as an industry? Does anyone feel the calculations above represent a valid reason why we should exclude low-rise residential structures from the IgCC? I sure hope no one expects me to buy that rationale. Rather, if you have a true interest and passion for sustainability and the environment, you’re saddened and disappointed by these numbers.
Please understand, this isn’t meant to be a knock on any of the aforementioned organizations or their programs or rating systems. There are many worthy and valid green building programs and rating systems. A lot of time and effort has been put into the development of these market tools, and that shouldn’t go to waste. I feel there’s a real need for the voluntary programs, because they continue to push the bar higher for the entire industry.
Instead, I point all this out to show that in 16+ years, the voluntary market has responded to the tune of… 4.45% – 5.39%. While that might be an enjoyable rate of return on a financial investment these days, I wouldn’t qualify that as any sort of success rate. If that decimal point wasn’t there, I could get excited. But the number is what it is, and there’s no going back and changing it. We can only move forward, and the IgCC gives us the vehicle to navigate down that road. It provides the vehicle for us to act responsibly towards the impact of structures on the environment, and affect real and significant change.
(For those who feel I’ve overlooked a program or rating system, please let me know. I’ll add it to the numbers above and revise the post.)
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 That number includes lots and remodels, and for this exercise we’re trying to analyze new construction only. While the remodeled units should not be included in an analysis of new construction, we’re not able to extract the existing home data, so we’ll have to retain it.