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What does LEED certified mean?

January 8, 2020 | by Jo Cipolla
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Wasserstrum

What does LEED certified mean? Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, better known as LEED, is the premiere rating system for sustainable and “green” buildings. The program, which began in 1994, is designed to encourage those working in building, construction, and design—from real estate developers to interior designers—to pursue sustainable practices in their work and industry. Since its foundation, LEED has become synonymous with good green building practices and is admired by industry professionals, consumers, and environmentalists alike.

U.S. Green Building Council

LEED certification is administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which is a private non-profit organization founded in 1993 with a mission to promote sustainability in building, construction, and operation. USGBC fulfills this aim largely through the LEED program, as well as with its annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, which brings together green building professionals from around the globe.

The LEED ratings system

LEED ratings are a credit-based system that gives points based on a building’s level of compliance with various aspects of sustainability. There are four tiers:

LEED certification – 40 to 49 points
LEED Silver certification – 50 to 59 points
LEED Gold certification – 60 to 79 points
LEED Platinum – 80 or more points

The credit system considers various critical areas in its LEED rating assessments, including:

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality

How well a building does in utilizing sustainable strategies and processes, green materials, etc. in these categories will determine how many points are awarded, and therefore which LEED certification tier is ultimately achieved.

Main certification categories

All types of buildings are eligible to be LEED certified. The certification is awarded in different categories, depending on the nature of the project, so you need to be sure to select the category that applies to you. The categories include the following:

Building Design and Construction (BD+C) – This category encompasses both new construction projects and major renovations, along with many core and shell projects. Any type of building, from warehouses and retail stores to school and homes, are eligible to be LEED certified in this category.

Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) – Teams that are doing complete interior fit-outs for retail, offices, and hospitality spaces can apply for this certification.

Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) – This category applies to existing buildings that are undergoing improvements for more sustainable operating systems. Any type of building is eligible for this LEED certification.

There are also more specific designations that fall under the umbrella of these larger categories, and some additional classifications like homes, neighborhood development, and communities. Get the complete breakdown here.

The latest in LEED: Looking at LEED v4

The standards and process to become LEED certified has not remained static over the years. New methodologies and technologies in green building are happening every day, and so there have been numerous improvements in LEED over time. LEED v4, and even more specifically v4.1, is the latest version, which USGBC describes as its most inclusive and transparent platform to date. Read all about LEED v4 here.

Characteristics of a LEED certified building

The sustainability methods employed in the building, construction, and design of different LEED certified buildings will vary based on the type of building, the focus of its designers, and on which level of certification they achieve (basic, silver, gold, or platinum). But some of the metrics that are considered in LEED certification include CO2 emissions reduction, water efficiency, energy savings, better indoor environmental quality, responsible use of natural resources, and thoughtfulness about environmental impact.

Why would you consider getting your building LEED certified?

The primary reason for going through the process of having a building LEED certified is because you want to be able to demonstrate that you take sustainable construction, building, and design seriously. Any builder or designer can claim to be green, but a third-party rating (especially one with such an excellent reputation) shows your peers, your industry, and your customers that you have successfully met a high standard.

For instance, an eco-friendly business seeking office space might prioritize buildings that have used green materials and resources in their construction, and therefore will be pleased to see a LEED certification. Any business can appreciate that a LEED certified building may be providing a healthier space for employees and one where the energy and water efficiency will result in lower bills.

Certification and pre-certification fees

To get the coveted stamp of approval that comes from a LEED rating will cost you, but the fees are fairly reasonable. Registration is $1,200-$1,500 per building, with pre-certification costing $4,000 to $5,000 per building. Fees for review are based on gross floor area (square footage) and include minimums. Get a detailed breakdown of LEED certification fees here.

The pre-certification option is available for LEED BD+C projects that are registered under LEED v4 and LEED v2009, and LEED v4 O+M projects. The USGBC explains that it offers pre-certification for the following reasons:

  • To help you determine which credits and prerequisites your project is likely to achieve during the full review
  • To demonstrate your commitment to being LEED certified
  • To market the unique and valuable green features of your project to attract tenants and financiers

Getting LEED credentials

Professional credentials are a great way of promoting your specialty knowledge to your peers, customers, or potential employers. People working on projects that they are hoping to get LEED certified may acquire quite a bit of knowledge on sustainability and green building during that process – yet it’s the building, not the team, that gets certification. Fortunately, the USGBC recognizes that many industry professionals would like to be able to prove their expertise, and offers special LEED credentials for that purpose.

Credentials offered include the LEED Green Associate, which signifies core competency in green building principles, and LEED AP (with specialty), which is an advanced credential that demonstrates expertise in green building and a LEED rating system. Both require taking an exam. Two additional credentials offered – Green Rater and Green Classroom Professional – are designed to further the mission of more green homes and schools.

How many LEED buildings are there?

Growing concern for the environment and heightened interest in ecologically responsible products and processes is reflected in the increasing number of LEED registrations in recent years. LEED registrations in the U.S. numbered at just 3,156 in 2005, and were up to 67,593 by the end of 2018 (see details).

And the demand for LEED certification spans the entire globe. After the U.S., China, Canada, India, Brazil, Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Turkey, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates are among the largest users of LEED worldwide, representing thousands of projects and millions of gross square meters.

How do you know if a building is LEED certified?

Many buildings that have earned LEED certification will have a plaque or signage proudly displayed so that visitors know the building’s green status. The U.S. Green Building Council partners with some vendors to provide options for these plaques and signs, as well as official certificates and badges that can be displayed on websites. People interested in supporting retail sites or businesses that prioritize sustainability should look out for these markers of LEED certification.

Another way of learning about LEED certified projects is through the LEED Project Directory. This is only for non-confidential projects and shouldn’t be considered an exhaustive resource, but it is a good way of browsing projects, learning how they achieved sustainability using LEED, and seeing photos. Once a project is LEED certified, its team is invited to create a profile for this directory, as it is a nice way of promoting the team’s efforts.

Why LEED: The business case for sustainable construction and design

For a very long time, in virtually every industry, sustainability was often framed as something that would be “nice” to pursue – even important – and yet still viewed as a hardship. It has frequently been seen by businesses and organizations as too costly and difficult to implement. But in recent years, the attitude has been changing. As the stakes keep increasing, environmental responsibility is seen as something that can’t be ignored.

What’s more, though, it is becoming more obvious that green and sustainable practices are not only ecologically responsible, but actually mean good business. For instance, consumer desire to buy from and work with green-conscious organizations is rising rapidly, so using sustainable practices helps to meet customer demand.

When it comes to buildings in particular, utilizing green principles could possibly cost more at the outset, but will result in lower operating costs in the long run. Green buildings also tend to enjoy better indoor environmental quality, which leads to happier, healthier, and more productive employees.

LEEDing the way forward

Sustainable construction and design is clearly the way of the future. It is better for the planet, and it is an exciting area for innovation and business. As more developers, builders, and designers embrace this movement, LEED certification is playing an important part in maintaining high standards for green building. If you would like to learn more about the U.S. Green Building Council and how to get LEED certified, click here.

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