As an architect, interior designer, or project manager, you may be wondering if the next build you apply for or are assigned will include LEED Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. This holistic framework for creating sustainable buildings has been around for almost 25 years now.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it takes environmentally-sound building practices into account. 

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) assigns a score based on certain factors, including energy and water usage, the quality of indoor environments, the selection of materials, and the overall site effects.

If a project receives a certain score, the USGBC will confer a basic certification, or a silver, gold, or platinum ranking. Evaluators base the decisions on how well these eco-friendly factors are taken into consideration.

LEED Certification tells customers and employees that you have been intentional about lowering the carbon footprint of your new or renovated structure.

After two-plus decades, LEED is still widely recognized as the most important green building standard in the industry. Buildings with LEED certification can qualify for tax breaks, government grants, and expedited permitting (in some cases).

What is LEED Certification?

USGBC was formed in 1993 as a group of architects interested in creating a rating system for projects that take environmental responsibility seriously. They spent the next five years developing a coalition of trade groups and supporters that committed to voluntary eco-friendly building practices.

The organization serves as a neutral third party to verify if a building or larger project utilizes environmental strategies. In addition, the LEED process is meant to encourage a mutual relationship between architects, design firms, engineers, contractors, and others throughout the design and build phases.

When USGBC unveiled its first iteration of LEED in 1998, it had several goals in mind:

  • Lower construction and renovation work’s effect on climate change
  • Create buildings that contribute to the health of individuals who work, live, or visit there
  • Safeguard the supply of water, biodiversity, and ecosystems
  • Utilize sustainable and renewable resources
  • Improve the neighborhood’s quality of life

Since the initial test launch in 1998 and subsequent public launch two years later, the USGBC has improved and updated LEED several times. 

Updates include a science-based rating system in 2009, a smart-grid approach in 2015, and new algorithms and methodologies in 2019.

By 2010, the USGBC certified 5,000 projects throughout the U.S.

Today, existing and new construction projects can work to achieve LEED v4.1, the most comprehensive certification to date. Projects that opt to shoot for LEED Certification should be ready to address several goals, including building a greener economy and enhancing environmental justice and social equity.

LEED evaluators look at each project’s design and assign point values based on quantitative and qualitative analysis. For example, intended carbon dioxide levels can be measured in parts per million.

On the other hand, assessing a “strong sense of place” is more ambiguous.

The organization admits that scoring a project is often complicated and subjective.

Main LEED Certification Categories

The UDGBC has identified seven impact categories they use to determine if a project will qualify for LEED certification. Each impact category carries a weighted score based on its environmental impact. The impact categories are:

  1. Reverse Contribution to Global Climate Change (35%)
  2. Enhance Individual Human Health and Well-being (20%)
  3. Protect and Restore Water Resources (15%)
  4. Protect, Enhance, and Restore Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (10%)
  5. Promote Sustainable and Regenerative Material Resource Cycles (10%)
  6. Build a Greener Economy (5%)
  7. Enhance Social Equity, Environmental Justice, and Community Quality of Life (5%)

Each impact category is broken down into several sub-categories to gain the overall score. Sub-categories include the protection of natural hydrological cycles, habitat protection, reduction of raw material extraction, and strengthening the green industry supply chain.

Projects are scored on a 100-point scale. Developers must consider all seven impact categories tangibly for a project to qualify. Projects then earn extra points as they pay more attention to various sub-categories.

A project must score at least 40 points to earn certification.

  • LEED Certification – 40-49 points
  • LEED Silver Certification – 50-59 points
  • LEED Gold Certification – 60-79 points
  • LEED Platinum Certification – 80+ points

How Can I Get My Building LEED Certified?

The LEED certification process is broken down into four steps:

Register the project. This includes completing forms and submitting payment. Fees range depending on the building/project size. New construction starts at $2,325 for members of the organization and $2,740 for nonmembers. Prices go up considerably once the project exceeds 250,000 square feet.

Apply for certification. There are more forms and payments to make.

LEED Review. This is the process whereby the USGBC looks over your project and compares it to the seven impact categories mentioned above. It usually takes about 20 to 25 business days for USGBC to score the project. You can ask for an expedited review (as little as 10 days) for an extra $10,000.

Certification. After the review, the USGBC will send its determination. Those who do not receive the 40-point minimum for certification, or wish a more exclusive rating, may appeal.

6 LEED building certification rating systems

The USGBC has developed LEED certifications for six different project types. These include new commercial buildings, new interiors, new homes, and new neighborhoods.

Building Design and Construction

Developers of healthcare facilities, schools, banks, distribution centers, or data centers can apply for LEED certification. Additionally, designers of multifamily residential projects may use the BD+C option if their project is at least four stories high. Hotels, motels, and other types of short-term or transitional lodging projects are also eligible.

USGBC evaluators will look over the planned construction of new buildings or major renovations. They will specifically pay attention to and grade the following:

  • Planned greenhouse gas emissions
  • Building materials and resources
  • The amount of daylight expected in the building
  • The amount of noise limiting structures
  • Rainwater management

Interior Design and Construction

Project teams who work on a building’s inside but exercise no control over its exterior can apply for the ID+C certification. These are built for commercial functions, retail spaces, or the hospitality sector.

USGBC evaluators will focus much of its score on the following criteria:

  • Ensuring that smoking is prohibited throughout the space
  • Further Improvements to indoor air quality and ventilation systems
  • Daylight exposure
  • Acoustic limitations

Operations and Maintenance

USGBC says it takes up to 80 years to realize environmental efficiencies when one building is demolished and another one is built in its place. So, they specifically designed the O+M certification for buildings that have been occupied for at least a year and undergoing renovation.

Evaluators will key on the following:

  • Refrigeration management
  • The use of green cleaning products
  • Pest control
  • Occupant satisfaction surveys

Residential

The latest LEED certifications also include new home construction. Developers of single-family homes in a new subdivision may volunteer to qualify. So can developers of a new apartment or condominium complex. Major renovations to existing structures may also become LEED certified.

Evaluators expect new construction to avoid floodplains, prevent pollution during the build, and use tropical woods. They will give extra points for several planned efficiencies, including:

  • Waste management techniques
  • Radon resistance
  • Hot water distribution
  • Housing density of at least seven units per acre

 Cities and Communities

City and county planning agencies and developers of new master-planned communities may also apply for LEED Certification. They can do so during the plan and design phase or retroactively in cities or communities that are at least 75% built already.

To be considered, evaluators expect a threshold of calculated green space, residential areas within walking distance of a public park, and housing for younger people (age 18 or less) and older populations (65 and over). Higher points can be earned by developing:

  • Walking paths and bike paths
  • Smart water systems
  • Recycling infrastructure
  • Emergency response times of less than 9 minutes

Recertification

Any project that achieved a LEED certification under a previous version may apply for a new rating. Recertification ensures the project maintains its eco-friendly status as new technologies and systems develop. Positive recertification lasts for three years.

Developers who desire recertification must supply the USGBC with one year’s data in several categories. These include energy and water consumption, transportation and waste efficiencies, and human experience. Evaluators will consider the provided data in relation to the current LEED v4.1 Operations and Maintenance guidelines.

Projects may achieve a new certification at the same level or a higher or lower designation. The same point values are given, but all previous LEED projects earn an automatic 10-point bump for their original certification.

9 LEED building certification categories

Project teams should accomplish several prerequisite requirements before considering an application to LEED. After that, they can pursue additional credits to give their project a higher score and earn more exclusive certifications.

Sustainable Sites

LEED assigns more points under this section for projects that encourage interaction with the environment through physical activity and passive recreation, restoration of damaged habitats, and reduction of rainwater runoff.

Passive recreation includes walking, biking, canoeing, or birding.

Water Efficiency

Evaluators give extra credit to projects that reduce indoor and outdoor potable water consumption, track water usage, and control corrosion.

Projects must consider the effects of total alkalinity and chlorine levels in their water usage.

Energy and Atmosphere

LEED awards numerous additional credits for projects that demonstrate a commitment to higher levels of energy performance based on cost and greenhouse gas emissions.

Developers earn up to 18 bonus points for using sustainable roofing and flooring materials, lighting design, interior finishes, and upgraded HVAC systems and water heaters.

Projects that follow these guidelines tend to earn the most points and qualify for the higher levels of LEED certification.

Materials and Resources

Projects that recycle materials during construction earn more points under this section. Evaluators give more credit to projects that reuse onsite materials, but those that incorporate salvaged materials from offsite locations are also encouraged.

In addition, LEED will give extra credit for projects that perform a life-cycle assessment that addresses such things as ozone depletion, global warming potential, and acid formation.

Indoor Environmental Quality

LEED evaluators will assign extra points for projects that expect to utilize the sun to light the interior of a building, especially at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on clear-sky days. They also give credits for limiting background noise and reverberation, an air quality management plan, and individualized climate controls.

Also, at least three-quarters of all building users should have an outdoor view. If this is impossible, they should at least see an indoor atrium.

Location and Linkages

The USGBC takes site location seriously. They award several bonus points for projects that reduce the need to travel by car, encourage physical activity, and reside within the boundaries of poor communities.

Developers earn points for remediating brownfields, providing affordable housing units, and partnering with local not-for-profit community groups or social service organizations that engage with targeted populations.

They can also earn extra credit for linking to mass transit, providing bicycle facilities, and encouraging electric vehicle use.

Awareness and Education

LEED offers more than 1,000 computerized green building courses and live events to showcase its sustainable design philosophy. Architects, designers, construction managers, and others can qualify to become LEED evaluators. They can take tests to show proficiency or earn continuing education credits.

Innovation in Design

LEED included this section for projects that take their designs to the next level and use strategies that aren’t yet on the certification checklist. Project teams earn up to five bonus points for demonstrated achievement using this new approach.

They must explain how the proposed tactic will address environmental compliance.

Evaluators will also award these points if the design takes any current LEED prerequisite level and doubles its achievement standard.

Regional Priority

Projects built in specific zones around the United States are also given priority credit. To qualify, the project must be in a permanent location, comply with size requirements, and use agreed-upon boundaries.

LEED’s website includes a geolocation map to determine if a new project will meet the criteria under this section.

FAQs

Below are some of the most important questions people ask regarding the USGBC and LEED certifications.

  • How long does LEED certification take?

    Upon submitting all required paperwork and fees, the certification process takes 20 to 25 business days. During this time, a LEED evaluator will remotely work with the project design team to pore over the documentation, ask questions, and assign the corresponding point values.

    However, this does not include any pre-work needed to prepare documents for submission.

    That part of the process takes many hours and weeks by the project design team. USGBC encourages any development team interested in a LEED certification to contact them early in the process and file pre-certification paperwork long before the design phase is complete.

  • How long does LEED certification last?

    A LEED certification lasts for as long as the building does.

    When USGBC introduces a new version of LEED, project designers have the voluntary option to recertify under updated guidelines. If successful, the recertification is good for three years.

  • What are criticisms of LEED?

    Over the years, two main complaints have emerged.

    The first is the cost. LEED evaluation can be expensive, especially when a project includes more than 250,000 square feet of usable area. Plus, many of the costs to implement LEED tactics and strategies are pricey, and they drive up the overall project budget – sometimes by millions of dollars.

    Second is the overall effect on the environment. LEED is based solely on project design and not on its implementation. Several studies over the past decade have noted that LEED-certified buildings do not provide significant energy reduction over non-certified buildings.

  •  Why is LEED certification important?

    Developers who design eco-friendly projects want to know their efforts are meaningful for the environment, builders, and end-users.

    For Building Owners and Property Managers

    The USGBC maintains that LEED-certified buildings are easier to maintain and cost less to operate. This, in turn, creates more annual profit to reinvest in job creation and expansion.

    For Tenants

    Because their homes or apartments use less energy, they are more affordable. They may also be closer to mass transit hubs, provide walking/biking paths, and provide clear views of nature. Occupants should enjoy a higher quality of life.

    For Contractors

    LEED accreditation gives contractors a competitive edge when bidding on projects. This is especially true for government contracts, as most new government buildings must be certified at the gold or platinum level.

    Accreditation provides contractors with more projects to bid on as the eco-friendly building trend grows each year.

    For the Environment

    LEED certification illustrates that developers are concerned enough about their projects to produce energy and resource efficiencies. They show a commitment to lowering waste generation and the use of water, electricity, and other natural resources.

  • How much does LEED certification cost?

    The fee structure varies depending on the size and scope of your project. Below are the minimum costs per project.

    • New construction: $2,325 members, $2,740 nonmembers
    • Interior design only: $1,165 members, $1,900 nonmembers.
    • Building Operation and Maintenance: $1,900 members, $2,250 nonmembers
    • Recertification: $1,140 member, $1,350 nonmembers
    • Expedited review costs $5,000 for recertification, $10,000 for new construction
  • How many LEED buildings are there?

    As of October 2018, the USGBC had certified 43,700 LEED commercial projects spread throughout 167 nations. This includes more than 7.2 billion square feet of space.

  • How do you know if a building is LEED-certified?

    Each LEED-certified building showcases a medallion in a public place, such as the main lobby. The medallion distinguishes the level (certified, silver, gold, platinum) received.

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