Evaluating Buildings: 12 Green Building Certifications to Know

The Brundtland Report, 1987 - "Our Common Future" - introduced the notion that the sustainable use of natural resources must "meet the needs of the present generation without affecting the ability of future generations to meet theirs." Since then, the term sustainability has been popularized and, often, trivialized in our daily lives. In the construction industry, this is no different. As much as we know that to build, we need to destroy, how is it possible to mitigate the effects of construction during the useful life and demolition of buildings? A sustainable building, in its design, construction, and operation, must reduce or eliminate negative effects overall and may even generate net positive impacts on the climate and environment – preserving resources and improving the quality of life of the occupants simultaneously. To say that a building is sustainable is easy and even seductive. But what exactly makes sustainable construction?

Answering this question is not a simple exercise. That is why, in the last 30 years, several building sustainability certifications have been created. Through outsourced and impartial evaluations from different sources, they aim to verify the sustainable aspects of any construction. Each of them addresses particular building elements and is typically focused on certain regions of the world. While there are some certifications that verify whether the building meets certain efficiency criteria, others create different classifications, assigning a score based on these evaluations. Below, we list some of the primary sustainability certifications around the world – ranked alphabetically – and include their main architectural applications alongside a brief explanation:

Active House

  • Country of origin: Denmark
  • Year: 2017
  • Applications: New buildings; Existing Buildings and Remodeling

Active House is a seal of quality for comfortable and sustainable buildings. It advises on the elements that are most important for residential dwellings and daily living. Its main focuses are on reducing the use of resources during construction and during the life of the building, as well as on aspects of visual, thermal, and acoustic comfort. It can be applied to buildings up to approximately 2,000 m², although there are plans to expand the assessment to include larger constructions.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)

  • Country of origin: United Kingdom
  • Year: 1990
  • Applications: New construction; Interiors; Renovations; Existing commercial buildings and Urban Areas

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Sede da Tagusgás, by Saraiva + Associados, certified by BREEAM. Image © Fernando Guerra | FG+SG

BREEAM was the first certification system in the world to assess, classify, and certify the sustainability of buildings, and it remains extremely popular. Its main focuses are on energy; health and wellness; innovation; use of the soil; materials; management; pollution; transport; and waste.

CASBEE (Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency)

  • Country of origin: Japan
  • Year: 2001
  • Applications: New construction; Renovations and Existing Buildings

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Shell House, por Tono Mirai Architects, certificado por CASBEE. Image © takeshi noguchi

CASBEE is a method of assessing and classifying the environmental performance of buildings and the built environment. It was originally developed by a research committee established in 2001 through a collaboration of academia, industry, and national and local governments, which established the Japan Sustainable Building Consortium (JSBC) under the auspices of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT).

The certification process is done by calculating a quotient, the Built Environment Efficiency – BEE.

DGNB (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen)

  • Country of origin: Germany
  • Year: 2007
  • Applications: New construction; Commercial interiors; Renovations; Existing Buildings and Urban Areas

The DGNB System was created in 2007 by the German Sustainability Council and is primarily used in Germany and its neighboring countries. It is based on the concept of holistic sustainability, placing equal emphasis on the environment, people, and commercial viability. It focuses not only on sustainability, but also on good technical quality and on the architectural processes involved. Its flexibility allows for its easy adoption in various types of buildings.

Green Globes

  • Country of origin: USA
  • Year: 2004
  • Applications: New construction; Renovations and Interiors

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The Clinton Presidential Center / Polshek Partnership and Hargreaves Associates. Certified by Green Globes. Image © Timothy Hursley

Green Globes is a construction classification system that supports a wide variety of different types of construction projects and existing buildings. It was designed to allow building owners and managers to select which sustainability features best fit their programs and occupants, and it awards a seal to projects that meet at least 35% of the 1,000 available points. It was created as an online self-assessment tool and is therefore simple enough that any responsible agent can assess their own building by completing questionnaires over the internet.

Green Star

  • Country of origin: Australia
  • Year: 2003
  • Applications: New buildings (with the exception of single-family homes); Interiors; Renovations; Existing Buildings and Urban Areas

Launched by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), the Green Star seal assesses the sustainable attributes of a project through several impact categories: management; quality of the indoor environment; energy; site; water; materials; use of energy; and emissions. It has been used in New Zealand since 2007 and in South Africa under the name Green Star SA since 2008. Four classification tools are available for certification:

  1. Communities - Certify a district-wide development plan.
  2. Design & As Built - Certifies the design and construction, or major renovation, of a building.
  3. Interiors - Certifies the adaptation of the interior of a building.
  4. Performance - Certifies the operational performance of an existing building.

HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale)

  • Country of origin: France
  • Year: 1995
  • Applications: New construction; Commercial interiors; Renovations; Existing Buildings and Urban Areas

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Tour First / KPF. Certified by HQE. Image © Hufton+Crow

HQE is the French certification granted to construction and building management projects, as well as urban planning. It has four principles with 14 objectives used to structure a set of criteria. The goals balance human well-being and environmental protection.

LBC (Living Building Challenge)

  • Country of origin: USA
  • Year: 2006
  • Applications: New construction; Renovations; Existing Buildings and Urban Areas

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San Diego studio / Miller Hull Studio. Certified by LBC. Image © Chipper Hatter

To obtain certification, buildings must generate more energy than they use, capture and treat a certain quantity of water on site, and be constructed with eco-friendly materials. Notably, this certification system heavily emphasizes the social dimension of sustainability. Of its seven principles – location, water, energy, health, materials, heritage, and beauty – only a few focus specifically on environmental sustainability.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

  • Country of origin: USA
  • Year: 1998
  • Applications: New construction; Interiors; Renovations; Existing commercial buildings and urban areas

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Makers Quarter Block D Office Building / BNIM. LEED Platinum. Image © Nick Merrick

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is one of the largest certification systems in existence, and the most widely used around the world. It focuses on both the environmental and social dimensions of sustainability, especially water and energy efficiency, CO2 emission reduction, promoting a healthy and comfortable indoor climate, and renewable building materials. Projects are evaluated according to 8 criteria:

  1. Location and Transport
  2. Sustainable Space
  3. Efficiency of water use
  4. Energy and Atmosphere
  5. Materials and Resources ]
  6. Internal Environmental Quality
  7. Innovation and Processes
  8. Regional Priority Credits

All have prerequisites (mandatory practices) and credits (recommendations) that, as they are met, add points to the building 'score.' The level of certification is determined by the number of points acquired, ranging from 40 points to 110 points. The levels are: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System)

  • Country of origin: Australia
  • Year: 1999
  • Applications: Existing buildings

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GPT / Woods Bagot. Certified by NABERS. Image © Tyrone Branigan

NABERS is used to measure a building's energy efficiency, carbon emissions, water consumption, and waste production, and to compare it with similar buildings. The analyzed elements are:

  1. Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Use of refrigerators (Global Warming Potential)
  3. Water use
  4. Permeable area
  5. Rainwater pollution control
  6. Volume of sewage expelled
  7. Landscape diversity
  8. Transport
  9. Toxic materials
  10. Indoor air quality
  11. Occupant satisfaction
  12. Waste

Nordic Swan

  • Country of origin: Nordic countries
  • Year: 2005
  • Applications: New residential buildings; New schools and preschools

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Allé Youth Housing / WE architecture. Certified by Nordic Swan. Image © Rozbeh Zavari

Nordic Swan is the official eco-label for Nordic countries, and it certifies many other products in addition to buildings. It especially focuses on reducing resource consumption and banning toxic materials and compounds. In the construction stage, the label focuses on minimizing toxicity levels in materials throughout their life cycle. It also assesses energy and resource use during both construction and the life of the building, and addresses recycling as well.


  • Country of origin: USA
  • Year: 2014
  • Applications: New construction; Interiors; Renovations; Existing Buildings and Urban Areas

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Sede da Symantec. Certificado por WELL. Image Cortesia de Little

WELL measures the well-being and health of the users of a building, focused almost entirely on the social dimension of sustainability. It provides an analysis framework for project teams to incorporate a variety of strategies, designed to place human health and well-being at the center of the construction and operations.

The purpose of this article was to provide a comprehensive overview of various building certifications. There are other sustainability certifications for products and even construction seals that are not included here. It is known that buildings use around 40% of the world's energy, emit 40% of the world's carbon emissions, and use approximately 20% of the drinking water available in the world. Transforming civil construction into an industry with less environmental impact through greater efficiency, better materials, and more conscious choices is an effort of vital importance worldwide. Certifications can help guide this transformation, in part by changing the mentality of the market itself, as well as the target users of new buildings. There are companies, for example, that choose office and headquarter locations according to the sustainability of their buildings. It is for these and others that certifications are often seen more as marketing tools than, in fact, the real concerns of the agents involved in relation to the environment. Does having a certification really guarantee sustainability? And will a building that has not gone through the process be less green than another certificate? While these questions are hard to answer, certifications can be agents to trigger transformations in the industry.

For more information on most of the certifications mentioned in this article, visit the Guide to Sustainable Building Certifications, which makes a detailed comparison between each one.

About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "Evaluating Buildings: 12 Green Building Certifications to Know" [Edifícios em avaliação: 12 certificações de construção sustentável para conhecer] 27 Aug 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/946290/evaluating-buildings-12-green-building-certifications-to-know> ISSN 0719-8884

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