What makes a home a green home?

Asked by Drew Baker
Whiteland, IN

I am designing a green home for a class project and I need to know what can be done to a house to make it as green as possible.


Randy Potter

Answered by Randy Potter

Alameda, CA

August 20, 2010

This is an excellent question that can be answered in a number of different ways, but the bottom line when it comes to a green home is it depends on which aspects of green are important to YOU.

  • We have clients who are totally focused on energy efficiency and achieving true zero energy, but overlook the importance of indoor air quality in a tight efficient home and put items in their home which are a detriment to their indoor environment.
  • We have other clients who look at sustainability and material efficiency as their key metric and sometimes overlook important aspects like durability and replacement cost.

We make an effort to deliver the personally meaningful green values to our clients while making them aware of the implications of ignoring other important green areas.

For us, a green home means one that has been designed and built intelligently with specific focus on a passive design and a well-sealed, efficient building envelope. Once the efficient envelope is addressed through good engineering and high-quality insulation, areas such as durability, sustainability and indoor air quality can all be addressed. As a final step, we look at a client's desire to achieve even greater efficiency through renewable energy sources like PV solar power or solar hot water.

For your purposes of designing a green home for a class project, I would think that you would want to include as many of the generally accepted categories of residential green building that are commonly used today.

  • For this, the best place to turn would be the green home rating systems which will lay out in objective terms the materials, systems and methods recommended for today's green home along with their relative importance.
  • These programs provide a prescriptive "green home checklist" type approach where various categories of green design and construction are split up into specific practices which when achieved are awarded points.
  • The total points achieved is what qualifies a project and/or dictates its score or level of certification.

The most prevalent green rating system on a national scale is the USGBC's LEED for Homes. The LEED system rates a home on 8 important areas, each of which will have an impact on the design of a home:

  1. Indoor Environmental Quality - Maximize fresh air and minimize occupant exposure to toxins.
  2. Energy Efficiency - Should perform significantly better than traditional construction.
  3. Water Efficiency - Create water savings and re-use.
  4. Site Selection - Close to public transit and services so as to reduce occupants' need for travel by car.
  5. Site development - Includes landscaping, site water management, and other site-oriented sustainable practices.
  6. Materials - Ensures the use of recycled, reclaimed, and environmentally responsible products in the construction of the home.
  7. Education & Awareness - Educates occupants as well as others in the community.
  8. Innovation - Rewards innovative regional practices and ensures an integrated approach to managing the project.

You can get all of the details on the LEED for Homes program and even download the actual checklist at the USGBC website. The checklist will tell you exactly how many points are available in each specific area so that you can get a better idea of the more important elements of a LEED home.

You also might want to check with your local building department to see if there is a more regional system that they use that might take into account your local climate. Some of the better regional green building rating systems will actually have more detailed and applicable practices for your area that might give you even more insight into some specific design elements that you may want to integrate into your project.

You can also visit our website at and check out some of the project profiles; we have provided the green rating check lists for all of our projects that have been rated so that you can see what a real completed checklist looks like.

Best of luck with your project!


For more information:

Check the new green homes section of GreenHomeGuide for a directory of both national and local green home programs.

Tagged In: leed for homes

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