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Comparing Green Building Guidelines and Healthy Homes Principles: A Preliminary Investigation

Recently, there has been a proliferation of voluntary green building programs aimed at improving commercial and residential environments. The guidelines for these programs primarily focus on product and material selection, maximizing energy-efficiency, and reducing the impact of building on the outdoor environment. However, proponents of green building programs are increasingly emphasizing the indoor environmental aspects of their programs and their related occupant health benefits. Ideally, a home should be designed, constructed, and operated in a manner where all building goals are optimized — including environmental, energy, durability, affordability, and occupant health concerns.

 

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In this preliminary report, the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) compared major national green building and indoor air quality guidelines with its own set of recommended healthy housing criteria to assess the extent to which these programs protect residents from health and safety hazards. The analysis examined guidelines produced by both the public and private sectors including: the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes, the National Association of Home Builders’ NAHB Green Home Building Guidelines, and Enterprise Community Partner’s Green Communities Criteria, spearheaded by Enterprise in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other national entities. NCHH also included in the analysis the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star with Indoor Air Package and the American Lung Association’s Health House Builder Guidelines, which are programs aimed primarily at improving the quality of the indoor environment.

Editor's note:

 

The full formatted version of this document is available at: http://www.centerforhealthyhousing.org/Green_Analysis.pdf.

 

The National Center for Healthy Housing produced this report in April 2006, and has released an updated version at: http://www.centerforhealthyhousing.org/Green_Analysis_2008.pdf.

 

The analysis examines whether national green guidelines address housing conditions known to affect health status, such as asthma and respiratory disease, unintentional injuries, and toxic agents. We compared the criteria in the selected guidelines with NCHH’s healthy housing principles, which were developed by a group of national experts under a cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for use in a nationwide training and education program. In short, these Healthy Homes principles provide for keeping homes dry, clean, well-ventilated, pest-free, free from contaminants, safe, and well-maintained.

The results showed that there is significant variation in the degree to which national green guidelines consider occupant health. For example, although most programs had elements related to reducing moisture and improving ventilation, injury prevention was omitted from all of the guidelines and protection from contaminants such as lead and pesticides were not uniformly covered. Only one program, Green Communities, focused on affordable existing housing, an important consideration since low-income families are disproportionately impacted by housing-related health problems.

Overall, the analysis suggests that green building programs offer a significant opportunity to achieve public health benefits and have the potential to transform the housing market toward healthier building. This report suggests ways to strengthen the occupant health criteria for green building programs so that they may deliver greater benefits to those who are building and rehabilitating homes, and to the families who reside in them.
 

Background

Most communities rely primarily on residential building codes to protect occupants from housing-related health and safety hazards. The International Code Council (ICC) publishes building codes, which are recognized by many states and municipalities that regulate construction practices. Properly enforced building codes provide a baseline for building safety. According to the ICC, “the purpose of building codes is to establish the minimum acceptable requirements necessary for protecting the public health, safety and welfare in the built environment.” Traditionally, the minimum standard concentrated upon structural, fire, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing concerns.

Expanding on these basic protections, dozens of jurisdictions have created more comprehensive green and healthy housing building criteria. For this analysis we chose to focus on guidelines with a national focus. These guidelines exist in many formats and are produced by several organizations with varying goals, such as energy conservation, improved quality of life, and preventing adverse environmental impacts.

We obtained green building guidelines or checklists from the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), and Enterprise Community Partners. In addition, we obtained the indoor air quality guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association. The following is a summary of the guidelines developed by these organizations.

National Association of Home Builders Green Home Building Guidelines

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) developed its Green Home Building Guidelines with “mainstream” builders in mind. It is intended for people with some expertise in environmentally conscious design and construction and includes a criteria list with several performance levels and associated verification measures. The program emphasizes and rewards durable, well-built homes. There is also a companion user guide to assist with implementation. NAHB developed the guidelines through a consensus-based process in 2004, with input from a variety of stakeholder groups. The development process included borrowing or actively involving administrators of the then twenty-eight existing regional green building programs. The guidelines seek to reduce the environmental impacts of housing development by focusing on several key aspects of the building process, which are termed “guiding principles.” The stakeholder group determined the minimal requirements for a house in each of these guiding principle groups, and then developed additional features for each principle to distinguish a home as “green.” The stakeholder group identified point values for these additional features and developed bronze, silver, and gold designations for them. The point schedule assumes that a home is located in the same Department of Energy designated climate as Baltimore, Maryland. Unlike LEED for Homes, NAHB’s program requires point totals in each category (site, water, energy, etc) and it assigns Bronze, Silver, or Gold performance levels in each category. [Editor's note: In 2007, NAHB announced that, to further promote industry advances, it would create an American National Standards Institute-accredited residential green building standard, slated to be completed in 2008.]

 

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Homes (LEED for Homes)

 

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED for Homes is a voluntary initiative designed to actively promote the transformation of the mainstream home building industry toward more sustainable practices. The LEED for Homes Program’s long term goal is to recognize and reward the top 25% of new homes, in terms of environmental stewardship. LEED for Homes includes market rate and affordable homes as well single family and multifamily homes. USGBC is targeting the innovators, early adopters, and early majority segments of E.M.Rogers’ taxonomy.

USGBC has seven committees of national experts that have oversight over LEED for Homes, including the LEED for Homes Product Committees, five Technical Advisory Groups, and a Technical Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC). A Builder Review Panel evaluated the pilot program and provided input to the pilot version of the Rating System that rolled out in August 2005. A public review period also occurred just prior to the release of the pilot. The pilot demonstration phase was planned for eighteen months. The development cycle included two public reviews, and a membership ballot. The costs of participation in the LEED for Homes Pilot were largely established by local or regional Providers. The Provider is responsible for the third party inspection and performance testing services. These verification and rating services take a total of approximately 2 to 3 days per home, although the costs will very with the size and location of the homes, and the number of green measures to be inspected and tested. USGBC charges each builder a $150 fee to register, and an additional $50 fee to certify each LEED Home. LEED for Homes has seven primary criteria categories with associated point totals adding up to a maximum of 108.

 

LEED for Homes has several performance tiers termed Certified (30-49 points), Silver (50-69 points), Gold (70-89 points), and Platinum (90-108 points). The third-party Provider is responsible for determining the LEED for Homes score and the rating.

Enterprise Community Partners Green Communities Criteria

Green Communities,™ a major initiative by Enterprise Community Partners (Enterprise), is a five-year, $555 million initiative to create more than 8,500 homes that deliver significant health, economic and environmental benefits for low-income families and communities. This groundbreaking effort is a partnership between Enterprise, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Global Green USA, the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the National Center for Healthy Housing, Southface, and leading corporate, financial and philanthropic institutions. The foundational document for the program was the Seattle SEAGreen.

Projects developed under the criteria must satisfy all mandatory elements, and gain additional points (twenty five points for new construction or twenty for rehabilitation projects) from optional criteria. The criteria allow flexibility if a particular hardship is demonstrated and an alternative is proposed that meets the intent and accomplishes the same outcome as the criteria. Building projects that conform to the criteria are eligible for grants, loans, and tax credit equity as incentives. This is currently the only green building program that requires a certain percentage of new homes or apartments to be dedicated to lower-income residents. Some studies have demonstrated that mixed income neighborhoods can demonstrate significant health improvements, compared to segregated, low-income communities.

 

The criteria are divided into categories in a similar fashion as the other green building programs:

 

•   Integrated Design Process
•   Location and Neighborhood Fabric
•   Site Improvements
•   Water Conservation
•   Energy Efficiency
•   Materials Beneficial to the Environment
•   Healthy Living Environment
•   Operations and Maintenance

Optional criteria are available in Location and Neighborhood Fabric, Site Improvements, Energy Efficiency, Materials Beneficial to the Environment, and Healthy Living Environment. Integrated Design Process, Water Conservation, and Operations and Maintenance contain mandatory elements exclusively. A review panel evaluates each project for grant approval that includes a self-certification of compliances by the grantee’s project architect and construction manager, thereby eliminating the need for a third-party rating system.

American Lung Association Health House Builder Guidelines

The American Lung Association Health House Builder Guidelines are primarily focused on the indoor environment and occupant health (particularly respiratory health) and focus on newly constructed homes. Both required and optional elements are included. Optional elements are upgrades that are recommended to enhance building performance. The Guidelines are organized by the following building categories:

 

•   Site
•   Building Envelope
•   Finishes and Furnishings
•   Mechanical Equipment
•   Commissioning
•   Construction, Hygiene, Safety and Health

The basic tenets of the Health House guidelines are to prevent moisture accumulation from soil, precipitation, and condensation; limit or modify materials that off-gas pollutants; ensure ventilation to all critical areas of a house; promote the ease of home cleaning; and to educate the homeowner about critical operation and maintenance procedures.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star with Indoor Air Package Pilot Specifications

 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Energy Star with Indoor Air Package (IAP) Pilot Specifications to recognize homes equipped with a comprehensive set of indoor air quality measures. IAP is targeted to production builders, which according to EPA, are the most rapidly growing sector of the home building industry and is highly influential in home building trends. Homes that comply with these specifications can use “Indoor Air Package” as a complementary label to Energy Star for homes. As a prerequisite for this label, a home must first be Energy Star qualified. Energy Star is a performance-based program, which requires qualified homes to be at least 30% more energy efficient than homes built to the 1993 national Model Energy Code or 15% more efficient than state energy code, whichever is more rigorous. These savings are based on heating, cooling, and hot water energy use and are typically achieved through a combination of building envelope upgrades, high performance windows, controlled air infiltration, upgraded heating and air conditioning systems, tight duct systems, and upgraded water-heating equipment. IAP requires a suite of additional prescriptive measures, consisting of seven primary components:

 

•   Moisture Control
•   Radon Control
•   Pest Control
•   HVAC Systems
•   Combustion Safety
•   Building Materials
•   Home Commissioning

Like Energy Star, IAP requires third-party verification through the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) to ensure compliance.

Method of Analysis

We developed a matrix to compare the criteria of the five national programs with NCHH’s recommended health and safety criteria that enable a home to meet NCHH’s seven healthy homes principles:

 

•   Keep It Dry
•   Keep It Clean
•   Keep It Well Ventilated
•   Keep It Safe
•   Keep It Free of Contaminants
•   Keep It Pest Free
•   Keep It Well Maintained

These principles were developed by a broad-based expert workgroup of housing and health professionals as part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — funded National Healthy Homes Training Center and Network. For more information see www.healthyhousing.org/training. The principles reflect the latest in scientific research and best practices related to reducing housing-related health hazards.

 

Download the formatted version of this document (with tables and graphics) at: http://www.centerforhealthyhousing.org/Green_Analysis.pdf.

 

The National Center for Healthy Housing produced this report in April 2006, and has released an updated version at: http://www.centerforhealthyhousing.org/Green_Analysis_2008.pdf.

Discussion

There is substantial variation in the occupant health criteria of the national programs. Because of their specific focus on occupant health, the ALA Health House and EPA’s Energy Star Indoor Air Package generally scored better. LEED for Homes includes a 10 point credit for completing the ENERGY STAR with IAP certification. The green programs were more variable in their consistency with NCHH’s criteria. For example, NAHB’s guidelines are flexible in nature enabling a wider variety of practices to attain air quality goals. Although this offers builders the ability to exceed the basic requirements, it also provides the opportunity for builders to under-perform on indoor air quality measures. The NAHB standards received the lowest rating because the criteria are optional and it is difficult to ascertain whether they would be followed.

All of the standards and guidelines specify low or no volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting materials as a mandatory or optional requirement. Traditional sources of formaldehyde, panels with urea formaldehyde resins such as particleboard or plywood, are either discouraged or required to be sealed with a low VOC sealer. From an occupant health standpoint, wood is a “healthy” building material, generally creating a cleanable surface without contribution of contaminants to the home. Wood's visual warmth may also offer intangible emotional value to occupants. Wood has been historically an expensive material that raised affordability concerns and its harvest can reveal broader sustainability issues.

Polyvinyl chloride products are another controversial material group for green building. Some environmental groups consider vinyl the worst plastic from an environmental and human health perspective, citing among other things the disproportionate impacts vinyl production facilities have on the poor and communities of color and the harmful chemicals generated through the vinyl production process, including chlorine and dioxins. Vinyl building products are not restricted by any of the standards, although most encourage natural products through optional criteria. Other residential green building guidelines such as SeaGreen in Seattle discourage the use of vinyl because of its environmental health impacts. The leading green building guidelines for the health care industry, the Green Guide for Health Care, offer credits for avoiding vinyl.

All of the programs have similar, some more explicit, requirements or recommended practices for moisture control. LEED for Homes and the NAHB guidelines provide builders with more moisture control options, while the other standards explicitly require specific surface water controls and building practices to prevent moisture problems. The moisture management requirements for LEED for Homes are optional and therefore scored a one in the detailed matrix. However, the program requires the preparation of an extensive durability plan tailored to local climate conditions as well as verification of that plan. NCHH believes that several of the criteria in the Keep it Dry category are universally appropriate and should be mandatory requirements (e.g. avoiding carpets in wet areas). At the same time, we recognize that local climate conditions and geology vary considerably in the United States and that a sound moisture management plan should reflect these differences. We acknowledged LEED’s approach by assigning the middle ranking to the Keep it Dry category.

The Green Communities, Energy Star with Indoor Air Package and Health House guidelines all discourage the use of carpeting in moisture-prone areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, entryways, and basements. Neither the NAHB guidelines nor LEED for Homes explicitly restrict the use of carpets. Although LEED for Homes does recommend using either less carpeting or CRI certified carpeting.

Ventilation varies among the programs. LEED for Homes and Energy Star with Indoor Air Package specifies ASHRAE 62.2. Green Communities includes many but not all of the 62.2 requirements. Health House requires more ventilation than 62.2 and NAHB requires less ventilation than the other programs.

Conclusion
The goals of the green and healthy housing programs and guidelines vary by the mission and constituency of the organizations that develop them. NAHB’s Green Home Building Guidelines are intended to serve as a foundation upon which other organizations can develop their own guidelines. The Guidelines have a very informative and well-referenced user’s guide to assist with implementation. LEED has a formidable presence in commercial green building and therefore it brings brand recognition to the residential environment. A major advantage to LEED for Homes is its third-party assurance of performance. Green Communities Criteria is extremely well organized and user-friendly and has an additional focus on lower-income residents and addresses housing rehabilitation. Each criterion, intent, and explanatory statement is concise and easy to follow. The Energy Star with Indoor Air Package is also very well organized and referenced. The ALA Health House program is extremely detailed, but less user friendly by comparison. A key strength of the Health House program is that it involves builder training and as such does not rely on the criteria list as the main vehicle for promoting change in practice. Overall, for healthy indoor environments, Energy Star Indoor Air Package Pilot Specifications and the ALA Health House Builder Guidelines offer the greatest protection of occupants whereas the Green Communities Criteria explicitly consider the special needs of affordable housing and existing housing.

Importantly, this study did not examine program feasibility or effectiveness. Simply strengthening program criteria without corresponding behavior change among builders will not achieve healthier homes. Likewise, widespread compliance with criteria that are not explicitly linked to the health benefits they claim does not move the nation toward better quality housing. This preliminary analysis demonstrated the need for further scientific research and evaluation of the health benefits for residents living in green housing. Tracking and measuring the expected health improvements among all of the green programs is worthy of consideration. Furthermore, there is a need to standardize the health and safety hazard assessment and treatment protocols currently in use across the country. Finally, additional research and evaluation are needed to understand both the impact of green building programs on public health during the “use” phase, and also the lifecycle impacts on public health. A cradle to grave approach to building acknowledges both the impacts for current residents, as well as considerations for future families and communities.

 

NCHH applauds the national and local organizations that have developed green building programs to help conserve our nation’s energy and natural resources, protect the environment, increase our access to nature, and protect families from environmental health threats. These programs offer new opportunities to create more livable and sustainable communities and underscore the relevance of the built environment to our health and well-being. NCHH hopes this review will promote the proliferation of these programs and will spur a greater commitment to resident health as these programs evolve and new programs emerge.

Credits

The National Center for Healthy Housing April 2006. Authors:
Naomi Mermin, Senior Advisor to the National Center for Healthy Housing
Rebecca L. Morley, National Center for Healthy Housing Kevin Powell, Building FYI Consulting
Ellen Tohn, Senior Advisor to the National Center for Healthy Housing

Acknowledgements

The National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) would like to thank all of those who provided thoughtful comments on this report including:
Dana Bourland, Enterprise Community Partners
David E. Jacobs, National Center for Healthy Housing Maureen M. Mahle, Steven Winter Associates, Inc. Tom Neltner, National Center for Healthy Housing
Gail Vittori, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems Eric Werling, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Jay Hall, Building Knowledge Incorporated

 

(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)

 

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Comparing Green Building Guidelines and Healthy Homes Principles: A Preliminary Investigation:  Created on March 25th, 2008.  Last Modified on June 19th, 2011

 

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About National Center for Healthy Housing

The National Center for Healthy Housing is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation based in Columbia, Maryland, dedicated to developing and promoting practical methods to protect children from residential environmental hazards while preserving the supply of affordable housing. NCHH has over a decade of experience conducting applied research, program evaluation, technical assistance, training, outreach, and case management focused on reducing the health consequences of indoor exposures. NCHH staff includes housing, health, and environmental professionals with expertise in biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health, public health, housing policy, and industrial hygiene.

 

 

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