Essential Green Building Terms for Homeowners

Sustainable design and home construction has created a new vocabulary. And if you’re new to it, the sheer amount of these green building terms can be overwhelming. You may hear architects, builders, and product suppliers use them to describe their work, and gaining a working knowledge of them is helpful. Here are few benefits for you:

  • Get familiar with the green and sustainable options available to you and your home project.
  • Be better equipped to prioritize the green design features and products that are most important to you.
  • Feel more prepared in meetings with your architectural and construction teams.

With this in mind, here is a glossary of some of the most common terms in sustainable and green building. It’s not an exhaustive list (this glossary would be a small novel if we included them all!) but it will provide you with a good understanding of the fundamentals.

A Guide to Sustainable Building Terms

Carbon neutral

Carbon neutral definitions vary somewhat across agencies and organizations, but the term generally refers to the elimination or significant reduction of carbon emissions in building design and construction. Key carbon neutral elements in construction include those that improve energy efficiency and onsite renewable energy: a high-performing building envelope, ENERGY STAR appliances, smart home systems, energy efficient lighting, and solar ready design.

ENERGY STAR certification

Appliances and products that meet the ENERGY STAR certification must meet or exceed specific energy performance standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These appliances require less energy to operate to improve resource conservation and reduce household energy bills. 

Green codes

Green codes are a set of building standards that focus on improving overall sustainability in building design, construction, and operation. Here in Colorado this past spring the Colorado Energy Office and Colorado Department of Local Affairs released statewide green code model language for local adoption to improve the energy efficiency of new buildings and make them solar ready.

HEPA filtration

A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is a high-performance air filter that improves indoor air quality by trapping microscopic particles like dust, mold, bacteria, and pet dander. HEPA filters, whether they are installed in a whole-house air filtration system or in a standalone air purifier, remove at least 99.97% airborne contaminants as small as 0.3 microns.

Indoor AirPLUS certification

AirPLUS is an EPA-backed voluntary certification program for home builders to improve indoor air quality and energy efficiency. In order to earn this certification and AirPLUS label, builders must meet or exceed the program’s standards of high-performance product specifications and better construction practices.

Life cycle embodied energy

This sustainable building term refers to the total amount of energy consumed in a construction project. Energy requirements are calculated from the earliest stages of raw material procurement and production, project design and material transportation, and through the construction phase. Total embodied energy also takes into account energy consumed post-construction, building use, and all the way through its demolition and removal.

Low-E windows

Low emissivity or low-E windows feature an invisible metallic oxide coating that deflects ultraviolet and infrared light while allowing visible light to pass through. The benefits of low-E windows are solar gain reduction, improved insulation and increased energy efficiency. In other words, they keep your home cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Bonus: Low-E is available in most window styles to complement your home’s architecture.

Low HERS score

The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is a nationally recognized rating system for evaluating a home’s energy efficiency. The rating system ranges from 0 to 150, and an individual home’s score is calculated by a certified RESNET home energy rater. The lower a home’s score, the higher its energy performance and efficiency. 

Low VOCs

Volatile organic compounds are gases emitted from various building and household products. VOC concentration can be up to ten times higher indoors and can impact indoor air quality and people’s health. In construction, materials like paints, lacquers, adhesives, sealants, and insulation should be low VOC to limit exposure and improve a home’s air quality.

MERV filtration

MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value and is a rating classification system for air filters in a home’s or building’s HVAC system. The higher the MERV rating or number, the better the filter is trapping particles and preventing them from circulating in a home.

Passive house

Passive house design is a rigorous group of design and construction metrics that significantly improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Insulation, an airtight building envelope, glazing, and ventilation are a few example of passive design principles. The result is a home with consistent interior temperatures that consumes less energy, enjoys lower monthly utility bills, and offers superior indoor air quality.

Residence 8 Passive House

Passive solar

This type of design approach uses a home’s location, orientation, climate, and building materials to reduce its energy consumption. Some examples of passive solar design for homes are southern-facing windows with appropriate glazing, overhangs, thermal massing for heat absorption and storage and whole-house ventilation systems, and shade-producing landscaping.


Photovoltaic solar panels are the most common type of solar technology for residential use. PV cells absorb sunlight to create an electric current that gets converted into usable electricity to power a home’s systems, lights, and appliances.


R-value has to do with construction insulation and measures how well it prevents heat and cold from traveling in to or out of a home or building. A high R-value means a product or material offers protection against thermal conductivity, thereby increasing a home’s energy efficiency.

Solar ready

Solar ready is a sustainable building term that describes a home or building that is constructed with the necessary features, materials, and requirements to accommodate a future solar panel system.

Structural insulated panels (SIPs)

Structural insulated panels (SIPs) are a type of prefabricated building system that is made up of an insulating foam core housed between two pieces of structural sheathing. Panels are manufactured offsite in a controlled facility and assembled onsite. SIPs offer a superior airtight building envelope, insulation, and indoor air quality. On average, they are 50 percent more energy efficient than the traditional lumber framing method.

Currently under construction in Bow Mar, this contemporary custom home is being built using SIPs. Simplicity in massing helps with their performance and installation.⁠

WaterSense certified

WaterSense is a voluntary program from the EPA that identifies and labels products and new homes that consume at least 20 percent less water than their regular counterparts. 

Zero Energy Ready home

The Zero Energy Ready program is offered by the U.S. Department of Energy. It is designed to recognize high-performance homes whose renewable energy systems offset nearly all of their energy needs. Participating home builders must be ZERH certified, and homes must meet specific criteria to earn the designation. Learn more about the benefits of net-zero energy homes.

Sustainable Home Takeaways

Sustainable design, materials, and construction methods are continuously innovating and improving. Jurisdictional regulations, codes, and requirements are always in flux, as are homeowners’ preferences in designing for wellness and wellbeing. The KGA team is committed to providing local leadership in helping shape green building codes in greater Denver.

We offer a pragmatic approach to sustainability and green building design. We consistently design to outperform the minimum code standards for sustainability and energy efficiency to create beautiful, high-performance homes for our clients.

Visit our project portfolio to see more of our work, or contact us for a complimentary consultation.

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