Sustainable Buildings: The Meaning of Green

A local expert weighs in on some of the most common sustainability certifications for buildings and what they mean

by Leona Baker

More and more builders, business owners and private citizens are seeking to work and live in spaces that are friendly to the environment or our overall health and well-being. With that in mind, CoVa BIZ consulted a local expert for clarification on some of the distinctions between various of types of sustainability certifications that buildings can be awarded once complete and what those certifications mean.

“Buildings are built for generations of people to experience, which means if not built and operated sustainably, the impacts of those actions will span across generations as well,” says Sydney Covey of STRUCTR Advisors, a commercial building consulting firm with offices in Virginia Beach, Richmond and Charlottesville that provides comprehensive sustainability solutions, planning and facility assessment, energy auditing, virtual design and construction services, third party certification support and post occupancy monitoring among other services.

“Each rating system provides a framework for achieving sustainability goals within the built environment and a commitment to vetting documentation and practices to validate sustainability practices,” Covey explains. “Buildings are organizations’ most outward physical representation of their brand and values, so organizations are seeking certifications to prove to employees, visitors, customers and stakeholders that the organization is committed to delivering sustainability at the highest level.”

For more information, visit

Sustainable Building Certifications

By Laine Harrington 

The information has been adapted from a blog originally posted on STRUCTR Advisors’ website.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
U.S. Green Building Council

The goal of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is to create high performing sustainable buildings through a rating system that provides building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing green building design, construction, operation and maintenance solutions. LEED is a whole-building approach to evaluate environmental impact and performance.

LEED is available for all building types and all building phases—new construction, interior fit outs, operations and maintenance, and core and shell. The certification is awarded when a project has satisfied all the prerequisites and earned a minimum number of credit points by using sustainable strategies in building energy efficiency, water savings, building materials selection, indoor environmental quality, location and transportation, site development, innovative strategies, and regionally focused priorities. There is a total of 110 possible credit points, with various levels of certification with the rating system from Certified to Platinum, depending on the number of points you acquire.

• Environmental, social and governance goal achievement can be communicated to investors
• Third party verified
• Rating system is flexible enough to be applied to all building types
• The LEED brand name is widely recognized, meaning stakeholders will respect and understand the meaning of the certification
• Lower operational costs and opportunities for tax incentives and rebates

• LEED rating system can allow points to become counterintuitive for the sake of point completion and certification achievement
• Requires time and paperwork tracking throughout the certification process
• Fees for various steps of the process
• Associated higher upfront costs
• Possible need for outsourcing (sustainability consultant, innovative architect)

WELL Building Standard
International WELL Building Institute

The WELL Building Standard, created by the International WELL Building Institute, uses a people-first approach to create and certify spaces that advance human health and wellness through the built environment. Buildings that are WELL Certified prove that building design, operations and behaviors within the places we live, work, learn and play can be optimized to advance the health of building occupants.

The core concepts of WELL certification are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. WELL offers certifications to new and existing buildings, new and existing interiors, and core and shell projects. A building must achieve a defined score in each of the above categories, submit project documentation and conduct an onsite audit, which then gives the opportunity to be awarded a Silver, Gold or Platinum WELL certification. After being officially awarded a WELL certification, the registered project must be recertified every three years.

The WELL certification is one that is most suitable for those focused on sustainability for tenants. Those seeking this certification must be prepared to think about building design and operations in a unique way, making sure to put people before profit and prioritize health and well-being.

• Improved rate of retention and production in tenants
• Third party verified through Green Business Certification Inc.
• Can be utilized on existing buildings without requiring major capital improvements
• Opportunity for price reduction eligibility

• Not focused on environmental sustainability
• Benefits are not always tangible, but are seen overtime after building is established

EarthCraft—Light Commercial and Residential
Created by Southface; Managed in Virginia by Viridiant

The EarthCraft Light Commercial and Residential certifications are centered around reducing environmental impact and utilizing sustainable design solutions. Through the Light Commercial certification, resource-responsible design and construction practices are implemented into small-scale or “light” commercial buildings. Through the EarthCraft Residential certification, homes are designed, sourced and constructed to reduce environmental impacts.

Both EarthCraft Light Commercial and Residential follow the same steps for their certification process. All applicants must meet the minimum standard for certification and encourage builders to earn badges representing enhanced efforts in performance, health, environment and comfort. The client best suited for an EarthCraft Light Commercial certification would be a client hoping to certify a smaller scaled commercial building with the goals of improving their environmental impact. Homeowners or prospective homeowners looking to reduce personal utility bills and wanting to live eco-consciously are best suited for EarthCraft Residential.

• Increased quality of life for building occupants
• Lower operations and maintenance costs
• Opportunities for tax credits and incentives through state and federal programs
• Increased property value

• Requires a more detailed level of quality control due to heavy reliance on site inspections and diagnostic testing
• Includes fixed costs for registration and type of badge, other costs depend on choices made by the design and construction teams as to which sustainability attributes will be implemented

Passive House
Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)

The goal of the Passive House Certification is to implement a performance-based energy efficiency design standard using five passive house principles: climate appropriate insulation levels, airtight building envelope, thermal bridge free design, high performance windows with orientation and shading as required, and continuous ventilation with heat recovery. The Passive House building standard relies on energy efficiency with passive solar techniques and internal heat gains to reduce heating and cooling demands while creating simple methods for providing needed heat.

In order to achieve a Passive House certification, building representatives must provide record of adjustment of the ventilation system, a declaration by the construction supervisor, photographic documentation and a completed review by an official Passive House building certifier. The Passive House certification utilizes an independent third-party verification step using a blower door test to verify the thermal regulation of the building. A client who is best suited to achieve a Passive House Certification is one that has a focus on reducing energy usage, lowering utility costs and improving the efficiency of their building envelope.

• Provides premium indoor air quality and comfort for tenants
• Design choices are tailored to location and building specifications
• Lowers utility bills and operational footprint
• Tax incentives for ownershipof a Passive House

• High initial costs, but the larger the building the less of a cost difference between becoming certified and using conventional energy star standards

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