Green Building: The Nutshell Version

Passive House. Zero energy buildings. LEED buildings. You’ve probably heard all of these terms used to describe a green building, and you know that all have something to do with energy efficiency. There are certifications, design standards, and buzzwords to track, and while all engender a sort of warm feeling of familiarity, the exact relationships between our edge-of-industry terms are often a bit fuzzier. So we’re doing a quick round up to keep you in the loop, whether to design, buy, or simply impress your dinner guests.


Passive House (PassivHaus)

Passive House is an international design standard that is recognized for the lowest energy usage over time. Begun in Germany in 1996, the PassivHaus Institute is a research center for high efficiency buildings. They have developed a series of designs focusing on the building shell and insulation, and can be constructed as homes, multifamily residences, industrial properties, office high rises, and schools. If the building meets the standard’s low levels of energy use for one year, the owners can apply to be officially PassivHaus Certified. When PassivHaus moved to North America, it became Passive House, and the community has developed several organizations to create both a supply and demand for Passive House design standards.


Net Zero Building (also: zero energy building, zero net energy building, or net-zero energy building)

Net Zero Buildings refer to structures which consume only as much energy as they can produce through clean and renewable sources. This balance is calculated over a year, so there may be times when the building uses more energy or produces a surplus.  There are many different design types and technologies used to become a net zero building, some focusing on the building’s energy efficiency (like PassivHaus), some targeting the site’s energy production (solar panels, wind turbines etc). Though the early adopters have generally been new single family homes, there are now net zero commercial and multifamily buildings, some of which were renovated. Net zero buildings do not have specific certifications attached to them (though most would qualify for LEED), and there are several organizations which set slightly different calculations’ standards.



The oldest green building certification in the US, Leadership in Environmental Design is an evaluation tool which ranks buildings based on 11 different impact areas, including site design, waste, regional impact, transportation, and innovation. It does not prescribe particular designs or building materials, and relies instead on a weighted points based system to encourage particular behaviors and construction methods. Based on the points collected, buildings then achieve certain grades, such as Gold or Platinum. LEED can apply to exterior construction, interior design, building operations, neighborhood development, and homes.

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