Measure Up

Ensuring that a green design actually results in a high-performance building is one of the biggest challenges of green building and of policies that promote or require it. Several tools can help developers decide how to build green and then how to make sure that their designs deliver on the promise of energy and water efficiency, indoor air quality, waste reduction, and durability. Use these tools to guide your city or county to green.

Green building guidelines and standards
Life-cycle cost assessment
Energy modeling software
Stormwater runoff models
Benchmarking tools

For a discussion of how to assess buildings during and after construction, see the Evaluate page.

Green building guidelines and standards overview

Green building guidelines and standards such as Energy Star for Homes and the Enterprise Foundation's Green Communities Initiative criteria are an excellent introduction to building green. Standards and guidelines highlight the key elements of high performance design and suggest additional features. Most include a checklist that you can use as a quick reference and a basic indicator of how a project measures up. Descriptions for each item will give builders a sense of what it will take to go green--that is, how green compares to conventional building. Standards and guidelines also emphasize the process of building green: integrated design, commissioning, and cues for when to incorporate green into design and construction.

Standards and guidelines may double as rating systems or requirements. D.C.'s Green Building Act requires the Green Communities criteria for affordable housing. Some, like Energy Star for Homes, offer verification procedures and tracking tools. These can prove helpful when formulating monitoring and enforcement protocols. Also, if your city or county adopts a certain standard, it will be important to study the relationship between its requirements and guidelines and those in the building, energy, and zoning codes.

While the budget, site, and project goals will affect how a developer incorporates green elements, most standards and guidelines will help to ensure high quality design and workmanship that results in more efficient and healthy homes for low-income residents. Several guidelines and standards work well for affordable housing, while others are more general.

Life-cycle cost assessment

Life-cycle cost assessment is a guiding approach behind many of these green measuring sticks. A variety of computer modeling tools can help choose building assemblies and products with low impacts. Published assessments are available for many building materials. See the life-cycle assessment page for details.

Energy modeling software

Energy modeling software previews a building's performance with simulated climate, sun angle, and wind direction data. Models predict energy use for the whole building, allowing architects and engineers to optimize performance by making changes to orientation, building envelope, window placement, and mechanical systems. Some governments and utilities, recognizing the value of energy efficiency to residents, the environment, and the economy, have subsidized energy modeling for affordable housing development. Check out this list of energy modeling software.

Stormwater runoff models

Stormwater runoff models can show what a development can do for local streams and rivers, how the site can effectively direct, absorb, and capture rainfall before it flows into the sewer system. Casey Trees recently completed a model that can estimate the stormwater impacts of plantings and green roofs in Washington D.C.


Commissioning is the process of verifying and evaluating to make sure that the building works according to your green design. While much of this work happens during construction and even after residents move in, bringing in a commissioning agent early, during the design process, will help the whole development team understand what green building means. Standards and checklists can also be helpful. Refer to the Evaluate and Commissioning pages for more detail.

Benchmarking tools

Benchmarking tools like US EPA's Energy Star Portfolio Manager rate a building's energy performance against similar buildings nationwide. You can see how new windows, for example, improve the rating, or use the Target Finder tool to set a goal for the design of a new building or major renovation. Energy Star's approach differs from many of the green building standards because it requires overall energy efficiency and indoor air quality, instead of specific items on a checklist. Nonetheless, Energy Star and most other benchmarking tools contain more detailed guidelines. Energy Star's tools cover multifamily residential buildings such as condominiums and townhouses up to three stories tall. A pilot program for high-rise multifamily residential is underway in a few states.

Green building guidelines and standards for affordable housing

Green Communities Initiative criteria aim to provide a clear, cost-effective framework for all kinds of affordable housing: new construction and rehabilitation of multifamily, as well as of single family buildings. Modeled on LEED, these criteria include mandatory and optional items within eight categories: integrated design process, location and neighborhood fabric, site improvements, water conservation, energy efficiency, materials beneficial to the environment, healthy living environment, operations and management. D.C.'s Green Building Act requires the 2006 version of the Green Communities criteria for publicly financed affordable housing.

LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, is the most widely used set of green building standards in use today. Four levels of certification and a range of programs for specific building types make LEED attainable on almost any budget; the price of official paperwork certification buys tracking and verification services as well as recognition. LEED for Homes

US EPA's Energy Star program for new homes qualifies residential buildings up to three stories tall (larger structures may qualify in some jurisdictions) by measuring them against international accepted building codes and requiring added features to boost energy efficiency and indoor air quality. Home Energy Rating audits must confirm that Energy Star homes are 20 to 30 percent more efficient than conventional homes.
     Guidelines for ENERGY STAR Qualified New Homes
     Energy Efficient Home Features
Larger residential buildings fall under the broader category of Energy Star's program for commercial real estate are the not yet specifically served by EPA's goal setting Target Finder and benchmarking Portfolio Manager tools.

Austin Energy's Multi-Family Green Building Program rates multi-family buildings three stories or shorter. Austin Energy holds a goal-setting meeting with the development team and reviews construction documents, then requires updates as work proceeds.

Alameda County, California has developed a comprehensive set of Multifamily Green Building Guidelines that include cost and benefit information, project scheduling notes, and technical advice for 63 separate recommended measures. An associated GreenPoint Checklist (Excel file) allows for project tracking and serves as the basis of an independent rating from Build It Green.

Seattle's SeaGreen Affordable Housing Guide lists "essential" and "recommended" actions for each of six sustainable building area. Developers are encouraged to submit a sustainability plan, and to register for the regional Master Builders Association's Built GreenTM housing certification program. SeaGreen's actions match those in Built Green's detailed multifamily handbook.

Greening Portland's Affordable Housing lays out the guidelines for city-funded affordable housing projects managed through the Portland Development Commission. All 66 strategies increase a project's chances of obtaining funding, but not all are required. The guide lists product providers and contains additional information about advanced framing and heating systems.

Global Green USA has developed several tools to help affordable housing professionals green their buildings. A Blueprint for Greening Affordable Housing: Developer Guidelines for Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Communities includes good overviews of strategies for renovation and for operations and maintenance. Find their new Public Housing Authority Energy Efficiency Toolbox and Santa Monica's green affordable housing checklist "here":

Several other municipalities, including Chicago and Santa Monica, have developed green building checklists for multifamily housing.