Right now, the US economy is big, mostly bad news - with implications for every beat, including the environment. The news is especially gloomy for the new housing market, hard hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
- On Jan. 17, 2008, the Census Bureau reported that two key economic indicators, housing starts and building permits, are way, way down. Release.  Details. 
- CNN is calling this the "sharpest homebuilding drop in 27 years." 
So maybe this isn't the most auspicious time for the US Green Building Council to release its long-awaited final LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system for new home construction,  as well as its REGREEN guidelines  for residential remodeling projects. Press: Taryn Holowka,  202-828-1144.
Still, given the strong influence that previous LEED standards have gained in recent years in commercial and other building sectors, as well as among building code officials, LEED for Homes is worth watching.
USGBC is also working on a new green rating and certification system for neighborhoods, LEED-ND,  which will integrate an urban planning and growth management perspective rather than just looking at each home separately. LEED-ND is expected to be finalized in 2009.
Also worth watching are similar existing and upcoming programs designed to improve the energy efficiency and environmental performance of new or renovated homes:
- ENERGY STAR HOMES:  EPA's program currently implemented formally (with third-party certification) in New England. EPA also offers a less strict Energy Star labeling program for homes  nationwide. EPA press: Enesta Jones,  202-564-7873.
- NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOMEBUILDERS Green Building Program:  This will officially launch Feb. 14, 2008, at the 2008 NAHB International Builders' Show in Orlando, FL. According to NAHB, the initiative will "link dozens of successful state and local green building programs with a universal online certification tool, national registry of green homes and green builders, and a wealth of educational tools and resources for home builders and home buyers." NAHB press: Paul Lopez, 202-266-8409.
Also at the Orlando show, NAHB will debut its Certified Green Professionals program to certify individual building industry professionals as having the required skills, training, and resources to reliably build green homes (release ).
NAHB also has teamed with the International Code Council to develop a national green building standard that would apply to many types of construction, including residential. The second draft of this standard  is open for public comment through Feb. 4. There's debate in the green building community  about whether this effort will amount to a "race to the bottom."
- HOME ENERGY RATING SYSTEM  (HERS), offered by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). New or remodeled homes can score 0-100 points to qualify for energy efficient mortgages, EPA's Energy Star Homes program, or local building code compliance. RESNET: Steve Baden, 760-806-3448. More consumer-oriented HERS info  from EPA.
Of all the above, LEED certification for homes appears to be the most stringent and costly rating system. That's a concern even for green homebuilders, such as Terence Hoaglund,  970-472-9125, of Vignette Studios in Ft. Collins, CO. He recently blogged about the pros and cons  of LEED for homes from a builder's perspective.
WHY WATCH FOR GREEN BUILDING ACTION NOW?
Despite the economic downturn, many homebuilders and building owners are aggressively touting their LEED compliance or certification. LEED is complex, so if you're covering a LEED building or project it's important to verify claims with USGBC, which maintains a searchable LEED projects directory.  This directory is also a great way to find green projects or homebuilders in your region.
In the bigger picture, right now many state and local governments are feeling a tight squeeze between competing pressures to spur their economies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the long term, greener buildings (especially homes) can go a long way toward achieving both goals - which is why more state and local governments have been raising the energy efficiency and environmental requirements in building codes. Tightening building codes can be a politically palatable first step toward implementing emission-control plans. Building greener buildings also is one of the most dependable ways to achieve long-term emission reductions.
How green are the building codes in your region? Before you start plowing through voluminous, detail-laden documents, check the Building Codes Assistance Project;  Aleisha Khan,  202-530-2211. All but five states currently have adopted some kind of residential energy efficiency standard (map ). In a handful of states, implementation of those codes depends on voluntary adoption by local jurisdictions. Generally, local jurisdictions are free to adopt stricter standards than what the state requires.
- More information and links to state building codes  from the Alliance to Save Energy.
Talk to building code officials in your region. Are they considering implementing any of the existing or upcoming standards, in addition to state requirements? Which ones, and why? Also talk to local homebuilders: which standards do they favor, and why?
Meanwhile, homebuyers are increasingly demanding greener construction due to concerns about ever-rising energy costs and a healthy indoor environment. This is a key point for cities and states trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions, because research at the University of Florida  and elsewhere indicates that it remains surprisingly difficult to convince consumers to voluntarily change their behavior to save energy. It may be easier to sell green homes than green habits. Contacts: Mark Hostetler  or Nancy Richardson,  270-869-9419.