All About LEED: A Guide to Obtaining Certification and Accreditation

Building certified LEED Platinum in 2013. Photo from Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr.

Construction uses up a ton of resources and is typically quite harmful to the environment.

Beginning in 1993, the Natural Resources Defense Council began to develop criteria that would make construction more environmentally friendly. Thus, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was born. There have since been a few iterations of the LEED framework, with the current version being v4.1, which was released in October 2018.

LEED has become known as the international gold standard for environmentally conscious construction and design. Buildings can become LEED certified, while people can be LEED accredited. LEED certifications and accreditations were developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) but are also administered by different organizations in other countries, such as the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC).

Currently, LEED has been used for more than 90,000 projects in 165 countries. People are turning to LEED certification as a way to minimize their impact on the environment—both as builders and as consumers looking to buy or rent a LEED-certified property.

Whether you’re a builder, designer, renter or buyer, understanding the fundamentals of LEED certification and accreditation will be helpful when it comes to staying informed in an ever-changing industry.

LEED Certification

LEED Platinum certified building. Photo from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr.

The advantages to having a LEED-certified project are numerous, and include:

  • Higher resale values
  • Building or project notoriety (for being eco-friendly)
  • A healthier living environment for occupants
  • A brand reputation as an environmentally conscious business
  • An efficient use of resources that’s often accompanied by lower maintenance costs

LEED is also recognized worldwide as being a leader in green construction and design.

Buildings that are being LEED-certified can be assessed based on several types of construction:

  • Building Design and Construction (BD+C) – For new building construction or major overhauls
  • Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) – For large interior renovations that don’t involve changes to a building’s external structure
  • Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) – For existing buildings that are being made more efficient 
  • Neighbourhood Development (ND) – For land development, whether it’s residential, non-residential or a mix of the two 
  • Homes – For single-family homes or low to mid-rise multi-family dwellings (up to six stories)
  • Cities and Communities – For entire cities (the infrastructure, from water and energy usage to waste and transportation, is assessed)
  • LEED Recertification – For buildings that were previously certified, in order to meet new standards
  • LEED Zero – For net-zero carbon or net-zero resource buildings

Certification can be given to groups of multiple buildings, such as an entire campus, a group of federal agencies or multiple building projects that have been completed by the same company. This allows for a more streamlined process, and can also offer a cost-effective incentive for grouping building projects together.

Projects are graded by a points system with a focus on several aspects of green building, including (but not limited to):

  • Location and transportation
  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Innovation

Points are earned based on a building’s sustainability, the minimization of its environmental impact, the efficient use of resources and the enhancements the building can make to public health.

Based on the points system, there are different levels of achievement within the LEED certification, depending on the number of points earned during the certification process.

  • Certified – The base certification requires 40 to 49 points
  • Silver – 50 to 59 points
  • Gold – 60 to 79 points
  • Platinum – More than 80 points earned

The process for becoming LEED certified is largely dependent upon what type of construction or building you’re having evaluated (as outlined above). The USGBC sets the fees for all participating countries, with the exception of Canada, in which fees are outlined by the CaGBC. A flat registration fee of $1,500 USD is charged upfront to those applicants who aren’t members of the USGBC.

Precertification is available for BD+C projects, at a flat fee of $5,000 USD per building for non-members, and this can help outline which credits are likely to result from a certification.

Following the payment of the registration fee and possible precertification, the certification fees are calculated per square foot, and vary depending on the type of construction or project being certified. The full schedule of fees is available on the USGBC website.

To obtain certification, you must register on the LEED website (through the USBGC, unless you’re Canadian). Following that, various on-site verifications will be required, depending on what type of project is being certified. These on-site visits will include resource audits and checks to make sure that the proper techniques for a particular project type are being used. Supplemental materials such as project plans and material specifications may also be required.

Certification is by no means an inexpensive process, so the best way to ensure that your project will achieve certification at the level you prefer is by working with a professional who’s LEED accredited.

LEED Accreditation

Person typing on computer. Photo from Pexels.

Becoming LEED accredited is a designation that indicates proficiency with the latest tools and techniques within the field of environmentally friendly construction and design.

With more and more people aiming to implement sustainable building designs and practices, LEED credentials are an excellent way to set a person apart from the crowd and validate their knowledge and experience in the field.

There are two levels of accreditation offered by the USGBC. The LEED Green Associate designation is the entry level one, while the LEED AP designation indicates advanced knowledge (particularly within one area of expertise).

Individuals with the LEED AP credential can specialize in one of five categories:

  • LEED AP BD+C – For those involved in the design and construction of green buildings
  • LEED AP O+M – For those who assist with the implementation of sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly operations and maintenance practices 
  • LEED AP ID+C – For those who perform renovations and improvements on existing spaces to make them more efficient and sustainable
  • LEED AP ND – For those who help plan and build entire neighborhoods
  • LEED AP Homes – For those who design and build single or multi-family homes that use fewer resources than others and are more energy efficient

For the Green Associate level of accreditation, there’s a two-hour computer-based exam, consisting of 100 multiple choice questions that are produced at random, with only some of them being scored.

Exam-takers aren’t aware of which questions will be scored, and a score of 170 out of a possible 200 is required to pass. The score is displayed on the computer at the end of the exam, and is also emailed to you following the exam. If obtained, the credential is updated on the USGBC website within 72 hours.

The types of questions asked on the exam include recall questions, application questions and analysis questions that pertain to green building practices. More specifically, you may be asked about:

  • The LEED process
  • Integrative strategies
  • Location and transportation
  • Sustainable building sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Project surroundings and public outreach

To obtain the LEED AP (with specialty) credential, you’ll need to take an exam with a similar format, except that part of the exam will be specifically related to your chosen specialty. If you already have a Green Associate designation, then it’s possible to take only the specialty portion of the exam, without having to complete the entire thing.

For the specialty designation, there will be 100 multiple choice questions, in addition to the 100 general Green Associate questions. These will be delivered at random, with some questions not being scored.

This means that the combined exam consists of 200 questions, whereas the specialty exam consists of 100 questions by itself. Scores of 170 out of 200 for the general Green Associate questions, as well as 170 out of 200 for the specialty section of the exam, are required to pass.

The topic areas are much the same as those listed for the Green Associate exam, but for the specialty qualification, there will be some more in-depth questions that will vary based on the specialty being obtained.

Registration for exams occurs online, but a paper copy of the registration confirmation should be brought to the exam location. Study guides and workshops are available through the USGBC, and there are other third-party companies that offer exam prep courses, too.

If necessary, it’s possible to cancel or reschedule the exam by providing at least three days’ notice. Once the exam has been started, it must be completed before you exit the room, or the results won’t be valid.

The fee for taking the LEED Green Associate exam is $250 USD, and for the LEED AP exam, it’s $550 for the combined exam or $350 for just the specialty portion. Both exam fees are discounted if you’re a student or a USGBC member. Translated versions of the exam are available in several languages besides English, including Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

Maintaining your LEED credentials will require 15 hours of continued learning every two years. This requirement ensures that those with accreditation are up-to-date with industry standards. Courses are available online and in person, and some are offered at USGBC events. You can even earn learning credits by reading the USGBC magazine and answering a quiz!

Becoming a LEED Fellow

Three architects collaborating at table. Photo from Pexels.

For those who obtain the advanced specialty credentials and have a minimum of 10 years of experience, there’s also a fellowship associated with LEED.

Members can be nominated by their peers to become a LEED Fellow if:

  • They have outstanding expertise in the field
  • They’ve advocated for sustainability
  • They’ve worked to educate and mentor others on the topic of green building and design
  • They’ve made a lasting impact on environmentally conscious building and design practices

Nomination applications must reflect the elements of mastery in the nominee’s field, and must include letters of endorsement from the nominee’s peers. The elements of mastery consist of technical proficiency, education and mentoring, leadership, commitment and service, and advocacy.

Finding LEED Homes and Businesses

If you’re seeking a LEED home or property, the CaGCB and USGBC maintain databases of LEED-accredited businesses that can help guide you in the right direction when it comes to building a home or finding a property that’s LEED-certified.

Dipping Your Toes In

With varying levels of certification and accreditation available, LEED is more accessible than ever. You don’t have to have a net-zero carbon property or subscribe to a zero-waste lifestyle in order to fit into one of the LEED categories!

Obtaining Green Associate credentials will also allow you to enter the world of being an accredited resource in regard to sustainable construction and design.

It would be relatively simple to implement a form of rainwater management (such as barrels) to collect rainwater, as well as envelope insulation, energy-efficient windows, efficient hot water heating systems (which might involve insulating existing pipes and maintaining an efficient water heater) and high-efficiency appliances.

These adjustments could be made over time, and would each go a long way towards minimizing a home’s impact on the environment (and lowering the utility bills in the process!). This would put a homeowner well on their way to meeting the criteria for a base-level LEED certification.

If you’re entering the world of green construction and design, an entry-level Green Associate designation is fairly inexpensive to obtain, and will set you apart as someone who truly knows what they’re doing when it comes to environmentally friendly design.

CaGBC and USGBC memberships also offer support to those entering the industry, in the form of networking events and the databases of accredited businesses that are maintained on their websites. There are also local chapters of these organizations that can offer mentorship opportunities

LEED-certified properties are beneficial for property owners and managers, tenants, employees, homeowners and home builders. They’re more cost-effective, use fewer resources, offer better air circulation and natural light, and may be more desirable.

While the upfront costs of certification or accreditation may seem daunting, the benefits will pay dividends in the years to come. A LEED-certified building can save you up to 40 percent on utility bills, because it’ll run that much more efficiently!

For the health of the planet, as well as our own health, it’s highly important that we seriously consider LEED-certified properties and support LEED-accredited businesses.

To find out about just some of the registered LEED projects throughout the world, check out this infographic»

image 1: Oregon Department of Transportation; image 2: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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