The GHB Interview: Sarah Alexander, Senior Vice President of Credentialing & Certification at GBCI

Sarah Alexander shares her insight on green building certifications and the importance of sustainable practices.

Green Home Builder: Can you tell us a little about your history with homebuilding and how that intertwined with your dedication to sustainability?

Sarah Alexander: Although I started my career as an exploration geophysicist in the UK, I moved to the U.S. in the mid-90s and started a family that resulted in a profound career change for me. I went back to university to earn a degree in architecture, and this coincided almost exactly with the launch of the first version of LEED, the world’s leading green building rating system. This was a lightbulb moment for me, and I have been working towards equitable, resilient and sustainable green buildings ever since.

GHB: Can you tell us about what GBCI has accomplished so far this year and what you still hope to accomplish for the remaining year?

SA: Here at GBCI, we have been busy certifying buildings of all types using LEED and our other green business programs. In addition to supporting commercial projects, LEED also provides a roadmap for designing and constructing green single family and multifamily projects. There are over 1.6 million residential units currently participating in LEED around the world.

Within the last year, LEED v4.1 was introduced to the market. The residential updates took the familiar and relevant aspects from four previously-existing rating systems and streamlined them into three updated versions for single family, multifamily, and new multifamily homes core and shell. The changes are designed to make the decision to implement LEED easier for residential projects and revitalize the approach for the housing market.

GHB: Can you tell us about the most popular green certifications administered by GBCI? How many homebuilders seek these certifications? Have you seen that number to increase?

SA: While GBCI administers many green certifications, LEED is our predominant global rating system. The residential arm of LEED has seen a particular upswing in multifamily residential unit certifications both domestically and internationally. In fact, last August USGBC released a report on the use of LEED in the residential space, which showed as of 2019 certifications were at an all-time high and grew 19% from 2017 to 2019.

We also certify buildings to EDGE, which is a program that supports green building practices in developing countries and empowers builders to quickly identify the most cost effective ways to reduce energy use, water use and embodied energy in materials.

GHB: What advice can you offer homebuilders looking into green building?

SA: The green home market has grown over the years, but a major factor in continuing that momentum is helping homeowners understand the benefits that these homes provide. Green homes, like those that are LEED certified, are built to be healthier and more efficient by providing better indoor air quality, while using less energy and water leading to monthly savings on utilities. Plus, they maintain their value over time. On average, certified homes use at least 20% less energy than non-green homes, with some homes reporting savings of up to 60 percent. LEED-certified projects may also qualify for discounted homeowner’s insurance, tax breaks, and other incentives. Builders who can talk to potential customers about the environmental and economic benefits of green homes will contribute greatly to the growth of the market. Resources, like those mentioned above, as well as those found in USGBC’s Green Home Guide are important tools the green homes community can leverage.

Additionally, a 2016 study suggests consumers in the market for new homes prioritize energy-energy efficient features over luxury items. It speaks to the growing importance of efficiency for potential buyers and is something builders should be incorporating into projects.

GHB: What advantages do certified green homebuilders have over those who do not follow the sustainability trend?

SA: Certification plays a critical role across the green building community – residential or commercial. It’s about accountability and GBCI represents that third-party verification of the process and practices used on a project. Behind LEED, in particular, is an infrastructure developed by industry leaders that supports project teams as they innovate and create high performing homes. A LEED certification stands for leadership and demonstrates that a building has been designed, built and is operating as intended. We rely on the concept of certification or verification in our everyday lives as well, whether it’s a degree or buying organic or hiring a reputable electrician. We look to certification to make informed decisions and build trust.

Looking beyond the triple bottom line benefits, green building is an important part of improving community resilience. For areas that are prone to severe weather, green building encourages the use of resilience-enhancing designs, technologies, materials and methods. Teams that have green building experience can help neighborhoods and communities better prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to adverse events.

GHB: Why is it so essential that we move more towards sustainable practices?

SA: Sustainable practices are vital to the health and well-being of people, our communities, and our planet. We want to ensure that our water is clean, that the materials used in construction are not filled with toxins and pollutants, and that the air that we breathe is healthy. As a community, residential homebuilders are able to make an impact on all these sustainability factors and help minimize climate risk by building safe, healthy and resilient homes. We are all seeing the direct impacts of severe weather events from fires, extended droughts and flooding, including the Californian and Australian wildfires, and the flooding and destruction from hurricanes in the United States. These will only get worse if we fail to take action. A higher living standard is what every person on the planet deserves, and we can work towards that goal every day through the implementation of green building practices.