Green Initiatives Guide to Green Building Design: An Introduction to Certifications

Published on by Green Initiatives

Although man has been striving toward the goal of the perfect abode since the dawn of civilization, what we think of today as modern, sustainable “green buildings” began development during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when builders and designers began searching for ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, turning instead to solar panels (source:
Builders and designers ultimately settled on a variety of certification programs, the most prominent and relevant which include:
  • LEED
  • China’s 3 Star Standard
  • Living Building Challenge
  • WELL, and

Let us now take a look at these certifications in detail.



Arguably the most premier green building standard today is the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design or LEED (source: LEED is first and foremost a third-party certification program, and it encourages more sustainable and energy-efficient design through a point-based system. Within LEED, there are 4 tiers of recognition: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. The LEED certification program is research-and expertise-backed, and one can expect to reduce energy and water consumption by as much as 40% (source:

Within the LEED system different project types earn points in the following categories:

  • location and transportation (concerning how sites motivate connectivity and access to local services)
  • materials and resources (concerning the resue of existing and/or local materials)
  • water efficiency (concerning water conservation)
  • energy and atmosphere (concerning efficient energy usage)
  • sustainable sites (concerning the conservation of surrounding ecosystem dynamics)
  • indoor environmental quality (concerning quality of indoor comfort)
  • innovation (concerning any other green-minded strategies not mentioned previously), and
  • regional priority credits (concerning environmental priorities unique to the locale)

Even with a rather comprehensive set of sustainable considerations, it is still unclear if the LEED approach is the most efficient and effective one for completely revolutionizing the design landscape.

For example, as a result of LEED’s (non-weighted) point system, some projects may attempt to grab low hanging fruit to obtain the minimum requirements for certification. One article “How to cheat LEED homes” serves as a great example of how LEED can actually serve to make the process more like a game, than a devotion to sustainable practices (source: On the one hand, LEED is expensive to do on one’s own, but on the other hand, having to refer to an expert also makes one more susceptible to play follow-the-leader blindly (source:

Perhaps most concerning of all, LEED is conceptually a design-based tool--not a performance-based one. LEED promotes a one-size-fits-all solution that is not necessarily concerned with optimizing project-specific performance for the interest of the environment (Newsham, Mancini, and Birt 2009).

For example, designing natural ventilation in areas with low relative humidity would not make sense for a building in higher humidity environments that require a backup cooling strategy (source:

 China’s 3 Star Standard

China, meanwhile, has also created its own 3 Star Standard, though it bears striking similarity to LEED. It separately rates public and residential buildings, assigning credits under major themes such as land savings and outdoor environment, energy savings, water savings, material savings, indoor environmental quality, and operations and management (look familiar?), as well as so-called “preference items” that encourage innovation in the local green design industry (source: chinagreenbuildings).

The rating system is managed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) and certifications by the China Green Label Office at the Green Technology Centre, allowing greater control of the program's implementation by China proper (source:

If a building passes the first phase, it may be marketed as a Green Design Building to future tenants and the community. Once a building passes the second phase, it obtains a Green Design Operation Label and a score based on the predicted (note, not necessarily actual) performance of the building.

Living Building Challenge

Yet another green standard that deserves mention is the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

LBC was started in the mid-1990s by a group of designers who left USGBC on the grounds of lacking criteria strictness (source: It has not achieved as much prominence as LEED, but it notably only awards both net-zero energy and water consumption buildings.

Unlike LEED, LBC places its one and only premium on performance.

Because LBC holds a stricter standard, much fewer buildings have been awarded the label, but one example exists right here in Shanghai: Glumac, a sustainable design consulting agency for commercial, educational, healthcare, and other institutional buildings (source: The Glumac office space in Shanghai is highly sensitive to energy and water demand, effectively being able to power up or down according to sensory feedback on occupancy, simultaneously saving money and keeping people healthier.


WELL is another third-party certification program that has taken root globally alongside LEED. The most prominent feature of WELL is its research-orientated focus on occupant health and wellness.

This foundation aligns well with the most recent spike in the sustainable movement in China, which is exactly this focus on individual health in China as it has been directly threatened by environmental degradation ( WELL is third-party certified by the same company that registers LEED buildings: the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). However, unlike LEED, it is based on performance and buildings need to satisfy a certain level of points in all 7 categories--air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind--in order to receive certification (source:

The WELL building standard is actually based on seven (and counting!) years of medical research; therefore constituting a more rigorous standard for the status of a ‘green’ building.


The previously mentioned LBC-certified Glumac building is also RESET certified.

RESET is an operations-focused certification system created by green building material research and consulting firm GIGA, focusing entirely on the ‘health’ aspect of a building, i.e. providing a healthy environment to its inhabitants (source:, which it does through continuous monitoring of buildings and spaces, through certified 'sensors'. Again, ‘healthy’ constitutes an area where LEED largely fails because the latter focuses primarily on anticipated energy efficiency.

Receiving RESET certification requires documentation of chemicals (‘TVOC’) in building materials that predict the air quality of the space, identifying the potentially hazardous air conditions which may lead to health issues. The RESET initiative has also produced its own app that utilizes cloud-based calculators to monitor the health impact of indoor materials. The RESET app reports values of the following factors affecting indoor working quality: relative humidity, PM 2.5 (level of fine particulate matter), TVOC (total level of volatile organic compounds), CO2 and temperature.

With the installation/maintenance of associated monitors, the app is able to indicate whether various parameter levels exist on dangerous levels given the user’s current location. Furthermore, RESET is cognizant of all other certification programs, offering the service of streamlining material documentation and IAQ requirements of complementary project certification systems.

RESET app's cloud-based calculator function can alert users to potentially dangerous indoor surroundings ( In the coming months, RESET aims to extend its certification program to also track and report Circularity (waste), energy, water, light and sound.

What China’s 13th FYP Means for the Construction Sector

Here in China, there has been less investment in the green building industry, which therefore, necessitates substantial foreign investment.

To be sure, Greater China to date has already invested considerably in green building, becoming the second largest region for LEED outside of the US and hosting complementary programs such as WELL, which places an emphasis on human well-being to increase environmental awareness of Chinese citizens (to be touched upon later) (source:, Crea).

Most recently, discussions over the upcoming 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) has brought an exciting opportunity for innovation in this still nascent field. China expects the percentage of new, green construction projects to grow from 2% to 50% by 2020, and because most Chinese suppliers have little experience with green materials, this policy is also expected to address conditions of foreign investment (source: Other aspects of the FYP may not be directly related to green building design, but they will undoubtedly influence the success of the green building industry within China (source:

These aspects include population management factors (involving increases in the urbanization ratio and removal of the one-child policy), as well as a lower target for GDP increases (at least 6.5%) and a drive toward non-fossil fuel energy generation (rising to 20%); all of these factors would influence the resource allocation to the green design industry (source: .

In the second instalment of this two-part series, we will take a look at some of the most innovative green buildings in our side of the globe that continuously challenge humans in their interactions with their environment.

The article was written by Green Initiatives contributing writer Janice Chan. Please contact us for a full list of references.