There's been a lot of talk lately about green building certification, specifically the impact that forthcoming national standards might have on the value of existing local and regional programs, the role of the federal Energy Star program, and consumer awareness and demand.

Misconceptions abound as more and more programs, checklists, and rating systems become available, but a thorough examination of the burgeoning number of green building certification opportunities for home builders reveals only a few fundamental differences, even in terms of costs and the expense to gain third-party certification. Overall, the goal among these programs is the same: to boost the performance of new housing to achieve a smaller environmental footprint.

More important, the proliferation of green building programs and independent certification, both geographically and vertically (in terms of what's required to achieve basic and higher levels of certification), provides builders with an increasingly broader menu of choices to customize their approach to green building according to their circumstances - namely the value that their prospective buyers place on that effort and investment.

It's unlikely, at least in the short term, that many (if any) municipalities will mandate any of the current and upcoming residential green building standards as a condition of the building code or permit approvals process, thus forcing home builders into a box. More plausible are voluntary programs and performance-based standards (if not independent certification) that offer tax credits, faster approvals, or other financial incentives to both builders and home buyers for "going green."

That scenario ensures that builders can tailor an approach to building and marketing their homes according to what their buyers want and are willing to pay. Those just dipping their toes into the concept might choose to follow the Energy Star model, which not only utilizes readily available and affordable products and protocols to reduce a home's energy use well beyond code minimum, but carries a significant amount of brand awareness among consumers that can only aid the builder's sales efforts. Energy Star recently added an indoor air quality component to further its reach.

The next step up are local and regional green building programs - more than one hundred and growing rapidly nationwide, and often affiliated with local building industry association chapters - that offer some level of third-party certification for builders to leverage in their marketing and sales efforts.

Many of these programs, in fact, cite Energy Star-qualified products, such as windows and major appliances, as their baseline specifications for achieving certification, allowing builders to maintain some level of that brand's equity among buyers; such programs have also done an excellent job of building awareness and value along local home buyers, aiding the efforts of participating builders to recoup their investments in achieving certification.

The higher levels include the forthcoming National Green Building Standards and LEED for Homes rating system, especially as high-concept builders strive to earn the extra points offered in those programs to achieve the highest levels of green building and housing performance.

Though not yet a high priority among homeowners (many of whom, according to a 2006 McGraw-Hill/NAHB survey, valued lower utility costs and financial incentives as greater purchasing motives), third-party certification at any level and from any program is fast becoming a necessary badge of green building, especially for those without a long track record of building and marketing high-performance housing.

The good news is that builders have many more choices that enable them to balance costs and value to earn that badge and reap the myriad benefits of green building.