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Green Building Certification Systems

What is a green building certification system?

Green building certification systems (GBCS) broaden the focus beyond products, materials, and ecolabelsopens in new window to consider a building as a whole. Certification systems rate or reward relative levels of compliance or performance with specific environmental goals and requirements. Certification systems require an integrated design approach to create projects that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle. Some certification systems are single-attribute, focusing solely on one aspect of a building such as water or energy, while others are multi-attribute addressing emissions, toxicity, and overall environmental performance in addition to water and energy. While the philosophy, approach, and certification method vary across systems, they all award or certify projects designed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and the environment.

Benefits of using certification systems

There are a wide range of economic and environmental benefits to sustainable design, often achieved through the use of standards, rating, and certification systems.

In a 2008 study by the GSAopens in new window, 12 sustainable buildings analyzed from a whole building perspective cost less to operate, featured excellent energy performance, and higher occupant satisfaction with the overall building than occupants in typical commercial buildings. The 12 GSA buildings were compared to industry standard performance metrics for energy, water, maintenance and operations, waste, recycling, transportation, and occupant satisfaction.

GSA conducted an updated studyopens in new window in 2018 that examined 100 of its legacy buildings and 100 of its high-performance green buildings. Compared to legacy stock buildings, GSA’s high-performance buildings have:

  • 23% lower energy use,
  • 28% lower water use,
  • 23% lower building operating expenses,
  • 9% less waste landfilled and
  • 2% higher overall tenant satisfaction.

Energy and water savings are even greater when compared to industry benchmarks – 43% for energy and 35% for water. Investing to improve building performance presents savings opportunities. If the 100 legacy stock buildings met the average performance rates of high-performance buildings, they could save over $44 million per year.

Federal agency requirements for use of GBCS

Agencies are not required to use green building certification systems. However, should they choose to use one, the certification system must meet certain criteria established by a federal regulationopens in new window managed by the Department of Energy. This rule applies to new Federal buildings or a Federal building undergoing a major renovation that requires Congressional approval or for which the estimated design and construction costs are at least $2,500,000 (in 2007 dollars, adjusted for inflation), and design for construction began after October 14, 2015.

Should a federal agency desire to use a certification system, the rule requires agencies to use certification systems that:

  1. (1) allow assessors and auditors to independently verify the criteria and measurement metrics of the system;
  2. (2) Be developed by a certification organization that:
    1. (i) Provides an opportunity for public comment on the system; and
    2. (ii) Provides an opportunity for development and revision of the system through a consensus-based process;
  3. (3) Be nationally recognized within the building industry;
  4. (4) Be subject to periodic evaluation and assessment of the environmental and energy benefits that result under the rating system; and
  5. (5) Include a verification system for post-occupancy assessment of the rated buildings to demonstrate continued energy and water savings at least every four years after initial occupancy.

GSA’s Review of Green Building Certification Systems

Section 436(h) of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) requires GSA to evaluateopens in new window green building certification systems and provide the findings to the Secretary of Energy who, in consultation with the Department of Defense and GSA, formally identifies the system(s) to be used across the federal government (via a rule - referenced above). Three reviews have been completed: 2006, 2012, and 2019. For more information, visit GSA’s GBCS review page on gsa.govopens in new window.

GSA has developed crosswalks showing how certification systems help agencies meet the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings. Green building certification systems are routinely updated and revised to include new requirements and methodologies. GSA continuously reviews the certification system market and makes revisions to the crosswalks, where warranted.

GSA has also developed resources to assist agencies in identifying specific credits within each third-party system that may align with meeting various statutory and regulatory requirements, as referenced in the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings. These GSA resources are provided for informational purposes; agencies remain responsible for ensuring that meeting the credits indicated also result in meeting the relevant statutory and regulatory requirements.

Other types of certification systems

In addition to multi-attribute green building certification systems, there are several that are single attribute systems focusing on one particular issue such as energy or health. Energy Staropens in new window is one of the most well-known single-attribute building certification system focused on energy consumption in buildings.


Fitwelnon government site opens in new window
Generated by expert analysis of 7,000+ academic research studies, Fitwel is implementing a vision for a healthier future where all buildings and communities are enhanced to strengthen health and well-being.

WELL Building Standard (WELL)non government site opens in new window
Developed over 10 years and backed by the latest scientific research, WELL sets pathways for accomplishing health-first factors that help every one of us to do our best work and be our best selves by supporting our physical and mental health across 10 core concepts.

GSA’s Green Building Advisory Committee (GBAC) developed a crosswalk showing how green building certification systems and standards help agencies meet Federal building performance requirements and establish operational health and wellness goals.

Net Zero (energy, carbon, waste, water)

Energy Star NextGenopens in new window
ENERGY STAR NextGen is a proposed certification system for commercial buildings. It will recognize energy-efficient, low-carbon buildings, and will encourage U.S. building stock to move towards efficient electrification while contributing to the growth of renewable energy.

Green Globes Journey to Net Zeronon government site opens in new window
Beginning July 2023, GBI is offering two net zero certification programs that are available to new buildings, existing buildings, interior spaces, and portfolios. The programs have stand-alone minimum requirements and pre-certification with Green Globes Green Building certification is not required. New buildings may achieve a “Designed to Achieve” rating. Existing Buildings and Portfolios that meet all requirements achieve a Green Globes Net Zero Energy or Green Globes Net Zero Carbon certification. The programs are designed to support all building sizes and building types.

LEED Zeronon government site opens in new window
Since 2019, LEED has offered four typesnon government site opens in new window of net zero ratings that are available to buildings that already have an existing LEED Building Design and Construction (BD+C) or Operations and Maintenance (O+M) certification.

Zero Energy Certificationnon government site opens in new window and Zero Carbon Certificationnon government site opens in new window
The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) offers building certifications that require at least net zero operation as well as building decarbonization. Compliance is determined through third-party audit.

In 2023, the GBAC, through its Green Leasing Task Group, developed this summary of current modules available for use in the market.

Share non government site opens in new window

Did You Know?

Every ton (about 40 cartons) of 30% postconsumer content copier paper saves the equivalent of 7.2 trees

Source: ConservaTreenon government site opens in new window

Case Study

Occupant Comfort

Operable Windows

Comfortable workers are more likely to be productive and engaged with their work than those who struggle to work in spaces that create barriers and stresses. With an ever increasing number of environmental issues to be mindful of when designing spaces, GSA is developing practices that support both sustainability and worker comfort.

View Case Study