A Guide to LEED Certifications and Professional Credentials
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is the most widely used certification system for green buildings throughout the world. According to the US Green Building Council, developer of LEED, over 1.85 million square feet of built environment are certified daily.
LEED offers various certification frameworks, adapting to the needs of all types of projects. The certification is based on accumulating points across various sustainability categories, and there are four certification levels based on the score obtained: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
The latest version of the program is LEED v4 and it was launched in November 2013, at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Philadelphia. The main reason for launching LEED v4 was to update the program to reflect new trends in green construction; for example, buildings can now earn points for deploying demand-side response and other smart grid technologies, categories that were not included in previous versions.
How the LEED Certification Adapts to the Type of Project
The best approach to make a building greener changes depending on its characteristics. For example, new constructions offer more flexibility than existing buildings, and measures that are valid for high-rise commercial buildings may not be suitable in single-family households. Since construction projects are so different in terms of their needs, LEED offers five different certification pathways, each designed with for a different market segment.
LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C)
This LEED framework is designed for new constructions and buildings undergoing major renovations, where there are less constraints for implementing sustainability measures. Green construction tends to offer the highest financial return in new buildings, since there is already a baseline cost and upgrades are assessed based on how much they raise the budget, not their full price.
One of the most significant areas of opportunity in new buildings and those undergoing major renovations is the building envelope. If it offers an effective barrier against heat transfer and air leaks, the operating cost and installed capacity of HVAC systems can be reduced, offering savings upfront and throughout the entire life cycle of the facility.
LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M)
Demolishing an existing facility to build it again from scratch with sustainability measures defeats the purpose of green engineering: the waste generated in the process tends to offset any benefits offered by the new building. It may take several decades for a new building to make up for the impact of a full reconstruction, even if the new facility deploys the latest green construction measures.
The LEED O+M framework addresses existing buildings, where the flexibility to deploy green measures is reduced compared with the case of major renovations and new constructions.
LEED for Interior Design and Construction (ID+C)
Companies don’t always own the facility where they have their operations: commercial and industrial spaces are often leased. LEED ID+C is designed for firms with limited control over building conditions, who may be unable to deploy sustainability measures for all building systems.
LEED for Homes
This LEED framework focuses on the residential sector, and it can be applied for projects ranging from single-family dwellings to buildings up to eight stories high. A residential LEED certification can be a very powerful marketing tool, drawing the attention of homeowners who want to reduce their utility bills while helping preserve the environment.
LEED for homes gives special attention to indoor air quality, ensuring residential spaces are built with consideration to health and the general well-being of occupants.
LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND)
Rather than focusing on specific buildings, LEED ND offers an approach to develop green neighborhoods, and there are two certification options to meet the needs of projects in different stages of development:
- Plan Certification applies for projects in the planning and design phase.
- Built Project Certification is for projects that are almost completed, or those built within the latest three years.
LEED Credentials for Green Building Professionals
To achieve LEED certification for a building, you need the services of professionals who are well versed in the topic. However, LEED certifications are not limited to projects: professionals can also be accredited in green building practices.
LEED Green Associate
This is the entry-level LEED credential, and it guarantees that the professional who holds it has updated and documented knowledge of green building principles and best practices. The fee is $100 for students, $200 for USGBC members and $250 for non-members.
LEED AP – Accredited Professional
Holders of this credential have advanced knowledge in green construction and are specialized in a specific LEED rating system. This means there are five versions of the LEED AP credential, corresponding to the rating systems: BD+C, O+M, ID+C, ND and HOMES.
The LEED AP exam has a fee of $250 for members ($350 non-members) and can be taken along with the Green Associate exam for $400 ($550 non-members).
LEED Fellows are APs who have an exceptional track record in the green building field. The recognition is awarded after the candidate is evaluated based on five aspects of the green building industry:
- Technical Proficiency
- Education and Mentoring
- Commitment and Service
To become a LEED Fellow, an AP must have made significant contributions in Technical Proficiency and at least three of the other four areas. To be eligible, the AP must have held his or her credential for eight years or more, and must have at least ten years of experience in the field.
LEED Certification Steps for a Commercial Building
The process to get a LEED certification for a building includes four main steps:
Keep in mind that the LEED certification process has a registration fee and a review fee, and they are paid regardless of the result. Therefore, make sure you have a LEED-eligible building before proceeding; the consulting services of a LEED Accredited Professional will be of great help.
Before applying, make sure you select the LEED rating system that best matches your project. When more than one rating system is applicable, the USGBC provides the following guidelines:
- If a LEED rating system is appropriate for more than 60% of the project’s floor area, it is recommended.
- On the other hand, if the rating system is appropriate for less than 40% of the project’s floor area, the building has a low chance of getting certified. The best option in this case is to choose another rating system.
- For any value between 40% and 60%, the project team must assess the situation and take the best decision.
Once you are ready to proceed, you can visit LEED Online, where the building owner submits key project information, pays the registration fee, and signs the certification agreement.
The application phase consists on gathering and submitting the required information for review by GBCI. The procedure is as follows:
- Select the LEED credits you will pursue, and assign them to project team members.
- Gather information and carry out the respective analysis for each credit.
- Prepare documentation that proves your building meets the LEED minimum requirements and the selected credits.
The completed certification application can be submitted entirely through LEED Online. After the building owner pays the certification review fee, GBCI initiates the reviewing process. As with all technical documentation, clarity and conciseness are important to communicate information effectively, and they increase the chances of a successful application.
Regardless of the LEED rating system and credits you selected, the review process stays the same:
- Preliminary review: GBCI checks the submitted information for completeness and compliance, in accordance with the LEED credits selected. GBCI responds within 20 to 25 business days, stating which credits are anticipated to be awarded and which will require extra information or be denied. The project owner can accept the preliminary review as final, or can attempt extra credits and submit additional information.
- Final review: GBCI reviews the application again, evaluating compliance for any new credits attempted by the project owner, and re-evaluating the awarded credits considering the new information. The process is completed within 20 to 25 business days.
- Appeal review: This review only proceeds if the project owner is not satisfied with the final review. For the appeal review, new credits can be attempted and additional information is submitted. There is no limit to the number of appeal reviews, but each of them has an extra cost beyond the normal certification review fee.
GBCI offers the option of an expedited review, which is carried out in 10-12 days per phase. It comes with an additional cost and subject to staff availability.
The building will then be assigned one of four certification levels, depending on the total points earned during the review process:
- LEED Certified: 40 to 49
- LEED Silver: 50 to 59
- LEED Gold: 60 to 79
- LEED Platinum: 80 or more
If your project is certified, it means your sustainability efforts have paid off. In addition, the LEED Certification is a powerful marketing tool that proves your company is environmentally responsible. Also, if you are certified at the Silver level or above, you earn a discount on subsequent applications.
Aiming for a LEED certification ensures that the latest green construction practices are implemented in your project, which will greatly reduce your operating costs in the long run. In addition, the certification validates your company as a corporate citizen, which has significant marketing benefits.
Architects, engineers and other professionals in the green construction industry can add great value to their professional record by becoming LEED Green Associates and Accredited Professionals. Green buildings are a strong trend in the construction industry globally, and professionals with LEED credentials can gain a significant competitive advantage.