Sustainable Building Certifications- Where did they come from, why they are important, and where can you learn more

By Nicole DeNamur, Esq., Owner, Sustainable Strategies

November 29, 2023

The building design and development industries are rich with third party certification programs that highlight the sustainable attributes of projects.  These certification programs are applicable to a wide range of developments, from single buildings to entire neighborhoods, commercial to residential, and specific materials to infrastructure – there’s a lot to cover.  These programs also vary widely in complexity, level of detail, verification requirements, and many other aspects.  So where should practitioners start?

What are “green” building certification programs?

Certification programs can generally be grouped into two categories:  multi-attribute or single-attribute.  Multi-attribute programs address multiple aspects of sustainability in one program (i.e. energy, water and waste), whereas single-attribute programs focus on just one attribute (i.e. the Energy Star program’s singular focus on energy efficiency).

Most certification programs that relate to buildings are multi-attribute.  Some of the most commonly addressed attributes are:

  • Energy use
  • Water use and quality
  • Building materials and toxicity
  • Site selection
  • Air quality
  • Waste and materials reuse or salvage
  • Access to efficient transportation
  • And many others

Regarding format, certification programs are often structured with a set of mandatory strategies (i.e. prerequisites) and a suite of choices (some more difficult than others).  Project teams have to meet any prerequisites before they can pursue additional strategies.  Teams earn points for the strategies they complete; and more points means a higher level of certification.

While many of the original certification programs focused on environmental sustainability, over the past several years, there has been a general expansion to include strategies that support human health and social justice issues.  Certification programs specifically focused on health and wellness have also emerged, including fitwel and the WELL Building Standard, along with transparency tools focused on social issues, such as Just from the International Living Future Institute.

Brief historical context:  BREEAM and LEED

Currently, there are many third-party certification programs in the marketplace.  From a historical perspective, BREEAM, or the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method, is often credited as the first green building certification program.  BREEAM was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and released in 1990. LEED, or the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed shortly after BREEAM, and based on many of the same aspects.  LEED is arguably one of the most widely recognized programs in the United States, and it has been incorporated into many federal, state and local codes and policies, as outlined on this interactive map.

Both LEED and BREEAM are multi-attribute programs.  It is also important to keep in mind that certification programs are just one tool that provides a framework for sustainable building; there are many sustainable buildings that are not certified under any specific program.

Why are certification programs important?

Certification programs are important for various reasons, which is why they are so prolific.

First, certification programs help create a common language, because  a “green” building can mean many different things.  Programs like LEED help create an industry definition and some standardization.  This can help manage the risks of unmet expectations by ensuring that all project participants are talking about – and expecting – the same result.  For example, consider the difference between a project targeting a “green building” versus a project targeting “LEED v4.1 Interior Design and Construction (LEED ID&C), Commercial Interiors, Silver Certification.”  The former leaves significant room for interpretation, the latter does not.

Additionally, some certification programs require third party verification.  Ideally, an independent third-party organization reviews the documentation and conducts an on-site check, and potentially some testing, of the strategies pursued on the project.  Generally speaking, third-party verification supports more accurate data reporting and helps ensure that the project actually achieves its goals.  As such, when a program requires third-party verification prior to certification, the program is generally considered more credible. Third party verification also provides project teams with additional assurance that their marketing of the project’s sustainable attributes is defensible, meaning it reduces the risk of “greenwashing.”

Finally, as noted above, many certification programs are incorporated into law.  This means that certification can be a necessary step for legal compliance or a pathway to achieving a valuable incentive.  And as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) has gained increased traction, certification programs like LEED, the WELL Building Standard, and others, have demonstrated how certification aligns with ESG frameworks and goals.

What are the opportunities and where can you find more information

The world of third-party certification programs is complex and rapidly changing. As described above, certification can be a key risk management strategy. To help practitioners navigate this evolving landscape, the Whole Building Design Guide maintains a comprehensive summary of multi and single-attribute systems, and BuildingGreen maintains a guide to product certifications and EcoLabels.

Nicole DeNamur is an attorney and sustainability consultant, based in Seattle, WA.  Her company, Sustainable Strategies, helps clients identify and manage the risks of sustainable innovation so they can pursue robust sustainability goals.  She is also an award-winning contributing author and has developed and taught graduate-level courses at the University of Washington and Boston Architectural College. Nicole was named Educator of the Year by the International WELL Building Institute, and Sustainable Strategies hosts an online course, Accelerated WELL AP Exam Prep.

AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.