Green Building Rating Systems

By Scott Phillips, Associate Planner at M-Group; and Karen Hong, Associate Planner at M-Group

In the ever evolving realm of green building construction techniques and materials, residential home and commercial building owners continually have more building choices that they are confronted with. Green Building techniques, at their root, are for the purpose of conserving resources (raw materials, energy and water), air quality improvements (indoor and outdoor), reduction of impacts on the site and financial gain. Sustainable construction techniques that can be implemented into construction projects are virtually limitless. Developers, builders and property owners see cost savings in the long run as they implement green building practices. The value and marketability of built property using green building construction techniques are also higher than if the development was built using traditional but non-sustainable methods. Also, as green building standards become increasingly mandatory State-wide, such buildings would avoid compliance issues in the future. A study published in 2012 by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Los Angeles, found that California homes certified by Energy Star, LEED for Homes and/or GreenPoint Rated sell for about 9 percent more than comparable, non-certified homes [1]. Homes and buildings that obtain certification through the GreenPoint rating process increase their property value beyond the cost of the certification.

Over the past several years, many city and county governments throughout the San Francisco Bay Area have decided that setting a minimum green building standard through the adoption of a green building program is a necessity, not only for reducing costs but for environmental sustainability as well. Another motivating factor for adopting green building standards is to reduce greenhouse gas emission. California Assembly Bill 32 requires that all California Cities and Counties reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Each city is required to create a Climate Action Plan that outlines how the city will obtain this milestone. M-Group recently conducted the research and compiled the greenhouse gas data in preparation for the Foster City Climate Action Plan, which is currently in its draft form.

Projected Sea Level Rise - San Mateo County Shoreline, Quadrangle

Projected Sea Level Rise - San Mateo County Shoreline, Quadrangle

Cities and counties currently have three viable green rating systems that are available and commonly used: CALGREEN Tier 1 or 2 (voluntary tiers above the mandated portion of the CALGREEN code), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), or Build it Green (BIG). LEED and BIG are well-established systems, whereas adopting a CalGreen Tier requires decisions by the City, but this option could offer more choices. See the Green Building Program Matrix below for a detailed comparison between the major green rating systems.

Typically, jurisdictions use LEED to rate commercial buildings as the system is well-suited for various scenarios of commercial development, including new construction, tenant improvements, core and shell, and provides differentiation between retail, office, or other uses. LEED is an internationally recognized sustainability rating system regulated by the U.S. Green Building Council. BIG is commonly used for single-family and multi-family developments, and has a simplified option for homeowners to gain credit for minor improvements.

See the following matrix for more information: Green Building Program Matrix.

Cities commonly reference a rating system and establish a baseline for sustainability measures and green building construction techniques through an adopted ordinance (usually zoning). Compliance with the green building rating system is then required through the permit process. Homeowners and developers are encouraged to implement more measures beyond the minimum requirement. One particular example of exceeding a city’s Green Building requirement can be seen on the following website:

Tiburon Bay House. The Tiburon Bay House went through the permit process immediately after the Town of Tiburon Green Building Ordinance was adopted. The Green Building Ordinance required compliance with the BIG checklist for new homes. This requirement was voluntarily exceeded by the homeowners by the implementation of an extensive list of sustainability measures (see website for more information). LEED Platinum certification was obtained for the home in Tiburon.



[1]          Kok, Nils and Kahn, Matthew. “The Value of Green Labels in the California Housing Market: An Economic Analysis of the Impact of Green Labeling on the Sales Price of a Home.”