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An Overview of Green Building Certifications (Video + Comparison Guide)

Joe Di Noto

In today's environmentally-conscious world, green and healthy building certifications can enhance a building's market value, reduce its environmental impact, and promote the health and well-being of its occupants. But with a wide variety of certification programs available, it can be challenging to know which one is right for your building. 

In our recent training video, Kaiterra CEO Liam Bates covered the different types of building certifications, key differences between them, and how to choose the right one for your business. Watch the full video below, or read the written summary that directly follows:


Why Building Certification Matters

Green building certifications are becoming increasingly prominent due to growing awareness and concern for sustainability and human health. Here are some of the main benefits they can create for businesses:

Drive more value from real-estate investments

One of the most significant advantages of obtaining a certification is the potential to increase or enhance the property's market value. Studies have shown that certified buildings can charge a premium from renting tenants, as the quality and sustainability of the building is recognized and valued by potential occupants. Besides the direct increase in asset value, businesses can create long-term cost savings and improve performance by focusing on factors such as energy usage, water usage, and indoor air quality.

Improve brand reputation and create a competitive advantage

Getting certified can improve a business’s reputation. Many leading companies around the world are embracing sustainability initiatives and setting standards for their property portfolios. By obtaining green building certifications and promoting their commitment to sustainable and healthy practices, companies can show employees and investors that they are value-aligned, and build brand equity in the process.

Dedication to green practices can also create a competitive advantage when it comes to talent: comfortable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral workplaces are attractive to employees. This helps with employee attraction, retention, and satisfaction, which ultimately provides a strategic edge for businesses.

Promote sustainability and continuous improvement in the built environment

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges society faces today, and buildings contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Certifications play a crucial role in reducing emissions, as they encourage businesses to increase energy efficiency and implement other sustainable practices. 

Once a business starts on the certification path, it is more than likely to stay on it. Most certifications require periodic recertification, which ensures that the building owners and operators continually maintain optimal performance standards throughout the life of the building. Doing so preserves the value of the real estate asset and further contributes to the well-being of the individuals who spend their time inside these buildings.

The Differences Between Green Building Certifications: WELL vs Fitwel vs RESET vs UL vs BREEAM 

In the following section, we will delve into the differences between some of the most popular green building certifications available today. You can find a handy summary table at the end.

WELL Certification: Prioritizing Health and Well-being in the Built Environment

The WELL Standard, established by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), aims to advance health and wellness through the transformation of the built environment. Unlike other certifications that focus primarily on the building's environmental impact, WELL certification emphasizes the health and well-being of the occupants.

How it works:

WELL Certification is based on ten key Concepts: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, and Community. These concepts are critical to human well-being, and they contribute to the unique, holistic approach that WELL takes to promoting health and wellness in the built environment.

WELL is one of the most rigorous performance-based building certifications available. The certification process requires on-site testing by WELL-accredited professionals or testing agencies to verify that the building's features align with WELL standards. Businesses need to implement both continuous monitoring within the building, as well as third-party validation.

What you need to know:

WELL is fast-growing and well-recognized in the healthy building space. With more than 4 billion square-feet of certified spaces, WELL has seen exponential growth in recent years, solidifying its status as a leading certification program. Notable projects that have achieved WELL Certification include the International WELL Building Institute's headquarters in New York, San Francisco International Airport's Harvey Milk Terminal 1 Boarding Area B, and JLL's Shanghai-Pudong Office.

A price for premium certification: WELL Certification is considered one of the most expensive building certifications, with costs ranging from $10,000 to over $100,000. This cost reflects the rigorous nature of the certification process and the associated expenses for annual maintenance. However, for companies that prioritize the health and well-being of their building occupants, the investment can be a worthy one.

Related resources:

LEED Certification: Championing Environmental Sustainability in Buildings

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a building certification program created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It is designed to recognize and promote environmentally responsible and energy-efficient buildings, and is one of the most widely recognized and respected certification programs.

How it works:

LEED certification provides different rating systems catering to various types of buildings, each of which works on a is based on accumulating points. For instance, the LEED for Existing Buildings rating offers 110 total credits across seven categories:

  • Building Operations and Maintenance (30 credits)
  • Energy and Atmosphere (35 credits)
  • Indoor Environmental Quality (15 credits)
  • Materials and Resources (13 credits)
  • Sustainable Sites (6 credits)
  • Water Efficiency (5 credits)
  • Innovation and Design Process (6 credits)

Buildings can achieve certifications at four levels, ranging from Certified to Platinum, depending on the points earned. The certification process involves a detailed assessment of the building's design, construction, and operation. This includes extensive documentation, reporting, and onsite assessments. LEED certifications are typically valid for five years, after which the building needs to be recertified.

What you need to know:

LEED's global impact: LEED is one of the most widely used certification programs globally, with billions of square feet of certified space added every year. The program has expanded its reach to nearly every corner of the planet, emphasizing its commitment to environmental performance and sustainability.  LEED-certified projects can be found across the globe, showcasing the impact and reach of this program. Some notable examples include: Soldier Field in Chicago’s Park District, One Bryant Park (Bank of America), and the Shanghai Tower.

Focus on environmental performance: LEED places a strong emphasis on the environmental performance of buildings, particularly in energy efficiency, water conservation, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. This focus on sustainability offers a complementary perspective to other certifications that may prioritize health and well-being.

Certification costs: The cost of obtaining LEED certification can vary depending on the size, scope, and complexity of the building or project. Generally, the price range falls between $15,000 to $50,000 for the certification process alone. It is important to note that these costs do not include any additional expenses, such as retrofitting the HVAC system, which may be necessary to meet the standard's requirements.

Related resources:

RESET Certification: Emphasizing Occupant Health with a Focus on Indoor Air Quality

Developed by GIGA, RESET is a green building standard that places particular emphasis on the health of building occupants, with a strong focus on indoor air quality (IAQ). As the world's first certification program that is sensor-based and performance-driven, RESET sets itself apart from other certifications that primarily concentrate on design and construction strategies.

How it works:

Unlike other certification programs, RESET utilizes sensors installed throughout the building to continuously collect data on indoor air quality during occupied hours. This data-driven approach ensures that the certification is constantly updated and reflects the building's current performance rather than a one-time snapshot. 

Initially focused exclusively on indoor air quality, RESET has evolved over time to become a more comprehensive standard. Today it offers different modules for materials, air, water, energy, and circularity, allowing for measurement and certification of various aspects of the building.

What you need to know:

Emphasis on sensor data and performance-driven approach: RESET's reliance on sensor data to continuously monitor building performance sets it apart from other certifications that focus on documentation and one-time assessments. This constant monitoring ensures that the building is consistently meeting indoor environment standards. The program also provides accreditation for data providers and monitors, and RESET-certified air quality monitors are also accepted for WELL certification.

Relatively new, but making an impact: Though it is relatively new and not as widely adopted as LEED or WELL, its unique approach has garnered attention in the industry. RESET certification has been applied to various high-profile projects around the world, including the Brookfield Shanghai Office in China, DLR Group Chicago in the United States, and the Starbucks Greener Stores Lab in Shanghai, China.

Certification costs: The cost of obtaining a RESET certification can vary widely, typically ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the size and scope of the building. Additionally, there are recurring fees, as data is constantly being captured, ensuring that the certification remains up-to-date.

Related resources:

Fitwel Certification: A People-Centric, Flexible Approach to Building Health

Fitwel, originally created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the U.S. General Services Administration, is a real estate certification platform focused on building health for all. It is a people-centric certification that not only prioritizes health and well-being but also considers the communities in which buildings are located.

How it works:

Fitwel encompasses over 55 evidence-based design and operational strategies across 12 categories: location, building access, outdoor spaces, entrances and ground floor, stairwells, indoor environments, workspaces, shared spaces, water supply, cafeterias and prepared food retail, vending machines and snack bars, and emergency procedures. These strategies are designed to have a positive health outcome for building occupants, covering various aspects such as active design, culture, healthy food, and tobacco smoking restrictions or control.

Unlike other certifications, Fitwel does not have prerequisites or required strategies. This flexibility makes it one of the most cost-effective and easy-to-use certifications available. The certification process typically takes fewer than 12 weeks, and an online self-assessment tool is available to guide users through the process.

What you need to know:

Flexible and accessible: Fitwel is suitable for a wide range of building types, including offices, schools, multifamily residential buildings, new constructions, and existing buildings. Its flexibility allows users to pick and choose from various options to accumulate points, without any mandatory prerequisites.

Cost-effective certification: Fitwel certification costs typically range from $5,000 to $25,000, making it an affordable option for organizations seeking to improve their building's health and well-being features.

Notable projects: Fitwel has been applied to various high-profile projects worldwide, such as Wells Fargo Center in Miami, United States; The Stock Exchange of Thailand in Bangkok, Thailand; and BCI Headquarters in Victoria, Canada.

Related resources:

UL Verified Healthy Building Program: Science-Driven Reassurance for Tenants and Occupants

Developed by UL, one of the largest and most well-known safety science companies, the UL Verified Healthy Building Program is a comprehensive building standard and certification that’s based on the most up-to-date understanding of the built environment. The program is designed for commercial and federal buildings and aims to help business owners communicate their building's high standards to tenants and customers.

How it works:

The Verified Healthy Building Program features three flexible tiers that examine different factors:

  • Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Air: Focused exclusively on indoor air quality.
  • Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Air and Water: Covers both indoor air and water quality.
  • Verified Healthy Building for Indoor Environment: Addresses indoor air quality, water quality, building cleanliness, lighting, and acoustics.

UL is aligned with other industry-recognized codes like ASHRAE, LEED v4.1, EPA, NIOSH, WHO, and CDC, and is based on rigorous scientific standards. 

What you need to know:

Active assistance from UL: UL's unique approach involves working with building owners and managers to help them reach the required standards and improve their indoor environment,  providing guidance on the necessary steps to improve their indoor environment. This hands-on support has led to every applicant for the verification mark to achieve it, demonstrating UL's commitment to helping organizations achieve a healthy built environment.

Notable projects: Some high-profile projects that have received UL's Verified Healthy Building recognition include the NBC Tower by Metropolis Investment Holdings in Chicago, United States, and the Bank of America Plaza by Dallas Main LP in Dallas, United States.

Related resources:

BREEAM Certification: Comprehensive Sustainability Assessment for the Built Environment

Developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) is a UK-based sustainability assessment and methodology for buildings. It aims to promote the construction and development of sustainable buildings that have a minimal impact on the environment. BREEAM is widely recognized and respected, especially in the UK and Europe, and can be used in many countries with local adaptations.

How it works:

BREEAM offers a comprehensive sustainability assessment framework that evaluates a building's sustainable value across different categories: management, health and wellbeing, transport, water, materials, land use and ecology, energy, resources, resilience, pollution, waste, and innovation.

BREEAM certification uses a 1-to-5-star rating system, with different levels of certification ranging from Pass to Outstanding. Projects are assessed by licensed BREEAM assessors who examine the evidence against the credit criteria.

What you need to know:

One of the more comprehensive programs available: BREEAM covers a wide range of sustainability and efficiency issues, making it one of the most comprehensive building certification programs available.

Widely recognized in the UK and Europe, but applied worldwide: While BREEAM is more UK-focused, it has a strong global presence, with projects all around the world.  BREEAM has been applied to various high-profile projects worldwide, such as China Basin by McCarthy Cook & Co. in San Francisco, United States; The Oaks Mall by Macerich in Thousand Oaks, United States; and The Energy Conservation Office at UC Davis in California, United States.

Certification costs: The cost of obtaining BREEAM certification can vary greatly depending on the scope of the project, typically ranging from several thousand to tens of thousands of pounds. The certification process has several stages, with costs increasing accordingly.

Related resources:

Summary: Comparing the Leading Green Certification Programs

Certification Focus Assessment Method Key Features Global Presence Certification Cost
WELL Health and well-being of occupants On-site testing, continuous monitoring, third-party validation 10 key concepts, rigorous performance-based process More than 4 billion square-feet of certified spaces $10,000 to over $100,000
LEED Environmental sustainability Points-based system across categories, assessment of design, construction, and operation Energy efficiency, water conservation, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality Billions of square feet of certified space added every year $15,000 to $50,000
RESET Indoor air quality and occupant health Sensor-based, continuous data collection Emphasis on sensor data and performance-driven approach Applied to various high-profile projects around the world $5,000 to $15,000, with recurring fees
Fitwel Health and well-being in the built environment Evidence-based design and operational strategies, flexible approach People-centric, flexible and accessible, cost-effective Applied to various high-profile projects worldwide $5,000 to $25,000
UL Verified Healthy Building Science-driven building health Three tiers, examining indoor air quality, water quality, building cleanliness, lighting, and acoustics Active assistance from UL, science-driven Applied to various high-profile projects worldwide Not specified
BREEAM Comprehensive sustainability Evaluation of sustainable value across categories, 1-to-5-star rating system Comprehensive sustainability assessment, UK-focused but applied worldwide Widely recognized in the UK and Europe, applied to projects worldwide Several thousand to tens of thousands of pounds

Additional Regional Certifications

  • BCA Green Mark: Developed by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore, this certification focuses on promoting environmentally friendly and sustainable buildings, with criteria such as energy and water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and management.
  • HQE: A French certification system for sustainable and environmentally friendly buildings, evaluating factors like energy efficiency, indoor air quality, water management, materials, and waste management.
  • CASBEE: A Japanese certification system for sustainable buildings developed by the Japan Sustainable Building Consortium (JSBC), providing a comprehensive assessment of the environmental performance of buildings and emphasizing sustainable design and construction.

Comparing Certification Programs: Key Considerations

When choosing a green building certification, it's important to take a holistic approach that considers your specific goals, stakeholders, and building requirements. The following are key factors to consider when comparing certification programs:

Goals and expectations:

Before selecting a certification program, ask yourself:

  • What are the business goals you hope to achieve through certification?
  • What matters most to you and your stakeholders, including building owners, design and build team, operations team, and occupants?

Identifying your priorities and objectives will help guide your decision. For example, if occupant health and well-being are most important, WELL might be a suitable choice. If your focus is on creating an environmentally sustainable building, LEED or BREEAM might be more appropriate.

Planning and execution

Consider the practical aspects of obtaining certification, such as:

  • What's your budget for getting the certification?
  • Do you have a timeline that you need to work with?
  • Do you have the manpower and expertise internally, or do you need to find help?

Some certifications are more expensive and time-consuming than others. Fitwel, for example, can be completed in fewer than 12 weeks, while WELL typically requires a longer commitment due to its more involved process.

Technical feasibility

Lastly, consider the current state of your building and what changes you're willing or able to make:

  • What phase is your building or space currently in: design, construction, or existing building or space?
  • What does your building or space allow for? What factors can you control and change, and what you can't?

Not all certification programs apply to all stages of a building's life cycle. Additionally, your building may need specific upgrades or retrofits to meet certain certification requirements. It's crucial to assess your building's capabilities and limitations before committing to a specific certification program.

Simplify Your Certification Process With Kaiterra’s Air Quality Monitoring and Reporting Solutions

Kaiterra can help you monitor indoor air quality and earn points towards most of the green building certifications covered above. Our solutions go beyond merely collecting data, as we offer a suite of software tools to automate data verification and submission. If you have any questions regarding these standards or air quality monitoring, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experts!

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