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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The "many shades of green"

Special to The Seattle Times

When it comes to homes, green is the new black.

Builders, real-estate agents and cities across the country want you to buy a green house, and with good reason: They're much better for the environment.

But with seemingly everything labeled green these days, how do you tell if a house is really living up to its color?

It's surprisingly difficult, particularly because the market for green homes is relatively new and government agencies and developers are, in many cases, making up the rules as they go along.

What's also challenging is that some homes have been subjected to "green-washing," a term Patti Southard, program manager for King County's GreenTools program, uses to describe development labeled as energy-efficient when it's really not.

"There are many, many shades of green," Southard said. "Everyone has a different way of identifying it."

Much like finding organic products in a grocery story, the easiest way to tell if a home is green is to check its labeling.

A certification of green by a reputable program is the only way to weed out the good from the bad, said Eva Otto, a real-estate agent with Seattle-based GreenWorks Realty, which specializes in green homes and properties.

It also makes shopping around a lot easier for potential homebuyers who want to go green but don't know that much about it.

That could be easier said than done, though. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates there are at least 70 programs across the country that certify green buildings, all with different guidelines.

If you're looking for a home in the Seattle-area, builders and real-estate agents recommend these three programs above all else:

• Built Green: Developed by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, this program is a partnership with King and Snohomish counties and the city of Seattle. Through the nonprofit Built Green, builders can certify their homes based on features of their project, with five stars indicating the highest level of greenness achieved.

• LEED: Perhaps the most widely known program nationwide, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is offered through the U.S. Green Building Council. Similar to Built Green, it offers different levels of green certification, which are based on features in a development. Each project is certified by an independent third party, usually a local contractor of LEED, providing an unbiased review of the home.

The program, developed in 2000, focuses on commercial development. The Green Building Council only recently launched a pilot home-certification program. That program is scheduled to make its formal launch this fall.

• Energy Star: Known largely for certifying products rather than structures, this program uses guidelines for energy efficiency set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. Homes have to be at least 15 percent more energy efficient than the 2004 national residential code to receive the program's signature blue star of approval.

While each certification is different, some of the factors include resource efficiency (making use of natural light, reducing energy use, etc.), indoor air quality, a home's carbon footprint (i.e., how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are emitted from the home), materials used to build the house, water efficiency and appliances, ranging from refrigerators to air-conditioning units.

Some programs are more complicated than others. In the LEED program for example, homes are judged on 36 categories and are given points for features and attributes of the home.

To begin the process, homes must meet 18 measures ranging from the indoor air quality of the home and the materials used for building. To receive the lowest certification, a home has to receive 45 points. The highest shade of green is awarded when a minimum of 90 points is achieved.

A home can have some of these features — say, improved insulation and energy-efficient light fixtures — and still not be considered officially green because it hasn't been certified by a reputable program and therefore hasn't met enough of the green guidelines.

It's also important to look at the entire house and not just the inside — truly green houses should not be built on a wide swath of land and are often remodeling projects on already-existing homes, said Southard. That's also a factor that certification programs take into account.

"It's not good enough to just build a green building; you have to treat the environment around it as well," she said.

Even more challenging than figuring out whether a home is green is identifying products that are energy-efficient.

The most widely recognized program for certifying green products is Energy Star, which labels only about 50 popular product categories from a variety of manufacturers, said Karen Schneider, an environmental-protection specialist with the EPA.

That means you'll be able to find Energy Star televisions and refrigerators, but not energy-efficient hot tubs.

The program, which got its start in 1992, sets different guidelines for products to achieve the Energy Star label. Appliances, for example, have to use 10 to 50 percent less energy or water then the federal standard.

Energy Star products have to be cost-effective for buyers as well, so if they cost more than the standard product up front, then they should make up that cost difference through energy savings within five years of the purchase.

"We know energy efficiency is not always going to be the top criteria when finding a product," Schneider said, "but we want to help make sure it's a factor."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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