More than a Rubber Stamp: a Guide to Green Building Certification Programs


Most, if not all, of our clients come to us looking for a strong ethic of sustainability to underpin their project, so dealing with green certifications is often of interest.   Some of them are far more relavant to our clients than others.  Here is a rundown of some of the important green certifications you might encounter in your green building project.


Note: All the labeling systems we’ll discuss here are THIRD PARTY SYSTEMS, which means that the stamp of approval comes from an organization that has no financial connection with the product or project being certified.  Every sincere effort to be “green” in the building industry is laudable, but we can’t give points for companies that give themselves a green label.

Here are the biggies – the whole building certification systems in use in the US right now.

LEED – US Green Building Council

green labels leed

LEED certification is based on a numerical scoring system with credits awarded in multiple categories (including Location and Transportation, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, and Regional Priority).  Designers and owners can use it like a check list to pack their projects with as many good ideas as possible during the design process.  A point can be earned for on-site recycling collection, for having bike parking or for using daylight to supplement artificial light. The total number of points determines a Certification, Silver, Gold or Platinum rating.

For all its fame, LEED is a relatively new kid on the block – the certification has only been around since 2000.  Still, you can’t throw a rock in the green building trades without hitting a USGBC (US Green Building Council) certified building or professional.  Certainly you can’t miss one here in Illinois which has the most LEED certified square footage per capita per the latest reports earlier this year.

We applaud that ranking for Illinois (and Chicago) although we don’t contribute to that number with our own work.  Why not?  LEED certification is an expensive and labor intensive process that pays off best for big corporate or institutional buildings that use the label (literally a sign on the door) as proof to all who enter that they have made a commitment to green construction.  For smaller projects in either commercial or residential spaces we don’t need a rubber stamp to tell people coming in what we did to make the project sustainable – the owner can do that in a conversation about the space.

LIVING BUILDING CHALLENGE – International Living Future Institute

green labels lbc

Rather than providing a checklist of green design features, the Living Building Challenge is an aspirational standard, aiming to achieve zero impact in each of its seven “petals”, or sustainability categories (Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty).  Certified projects must recycle 100% of their water on site, for example, and produce 105% of their own energy.  A lengthy “red list” of environmentally nasty products is verboten in LBC buildings and materials must all come to site from within a specified max distance.  Furthermore, buildings are only certified after 12 months of occupancy to ensure that they are actually performing as designed.

Only five buildings have successfully been certified by the Living Building Challenge although 12 more have met the criteria for between three and seven of the petals.  This low number is intentional – the standard is meant to be set so high that projects will have to stretch beyond the current comfort zone of building practices.     As with LEED the project certified tend to be large institutional or educational buildings as the standard is prohibitively complex for most smaller projects but a building of any scale can study the standards set by the LBC and strive to meet its tenants.

We regularly make an effort to source our equipment and building materials from the following product certification programs.  When you work with moss you will likely hear us discuss some or all of these labeling programs to ensure that our buildings are as legitimately sustainable as they can be.

ENERGY STAR – US Environmental Protection Agency

energy star

Energy Star certified products meet energy efficiency standards with specific targets of reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  You’ll find energy star labels on appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, on heating and cooling equipment, on computers, and even on christmas lights – all of which have been designed to meet improved low power standards.  While there is some criticism of the program for not being stringent enough it is certainly helping customers drive demand for more energy efficient products.

WATER SENSE – US Environmental Protection Agency

green labels water sense

The Water Sense label works much like the Energy Star, administered by the EPA it certifies plumbing products that meet lowered levels of water use.  For more on this one check out our previous post Low Flow Fixtures 101: or How to Save 11,000 Gallons of Water in 5 Minutes 

FSC – Forest Stewardship Council

green labels fsc

When we can’t source RELCAIMED wood, its important to think about where and how our wood products are being harvested.  The FSC label “ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.”  It checks on forest management programs and traces wood products back to their sources in the forest.  

GREEN GUARD – UL Environment

green labels ul

The Greenguard certification identifies materials and products (multi material components) which have low chemical emissions to prevent the kind of off-gassing.  Greenguard is the standard used by LEED for their low-emissions furniture credit.  Learn more about the dangers of VOCs in our post: Green Construction: What You Should Know About VOCs in your Home Improvement Project 


green labels green seal

Like Greenguard, Green Seal is a bit of a grab bag of a program which certifies a wide range of products as being low in emissions and environmental impact over the lifetime of the product.  They cover cleaning products, paper products and paints.