How to Become LEED Certified

Claire Moloney's picture
Claire Moloney
Consultant
June 26, 2014

Becoming LEED certified is a process for buildings (people become LEED accredited rather than certified). Learn how to get new construction certified as LEED.

LEED uses a whole building approach, which means that at a minimum, a LEED certified building must perform better than conventional buildings in all aspects of sustainability.
LEED uses a whole building approach, which means that at a minimum, a LEED certified building must perform better than conventional buildings in all aspects of sustainability.
Credit: Flickr

This article describes how to certify a building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. If you are interested in earning a LEED professional credential, such as LEED Green Associate, click here.

LEED is the US Green Building Council’s certification program for green buildings.  It is the most widely known and used sustainable building rating system in the United States. 

To date, LEED has been implemented in over 140 countries. Indeed, 10 billion square feet of space has been LEED certified, and the program certifies an additional 1.7 million square feet each day.  The directory on USGBC’s website currently lists nearly 41,000 certified and registered projects across the globe.

To further expand its reach, USGBC recently announced that it is rolling out a new program that offers free certification to buildings in the 112 countries without any LEED certified projects, which should increase global participation.

LEED’s widespread adoption has made it a leader in the green building industry, and the rating systems are looked to as a green building “standard”.

Green Building vs. LEED

In the United States, buildings consume 39% of the nation’s total energy consumption and 70% of electricity consumption.  Buildings are responsible for  30% of the country’s waste, consume 40% of its raw materials and use 14% of its potable water. (enter reference... where did this information come from?) The inefficient use of energy, materials and water in our buildings is a threat, not only to our pocketbooks, but also to our environment and our limited resources.  

In terms of a building’s impact on its occupants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that indoor pollutants are up to 100 times more concentrated indoors than outdoors.

“Green building” has emerged as a method of solving these problems.  Green building, also known as sustainable or high-performance building, is the practice of designing and creating structures that are energy efficient, have a low impact , and/or improve quality of life.

While LEED relates to green building, the two terms are not synonymous.  “Green building” is a broad term.  For instance, a building may be considered “green” if it is energy efficient or conserves water or has improved indoor air quality.  There is not a “checklist” of features that a building must have to be called “green” - it can just have one, two, or a dozen sustainable characteristics.

LEED, on the other hand, does have a “checklist” of mandatory and optional features that a building must have to become certified as “green”.  LEED uses a whole building approach, which means that at a minimum, a LEED certified building must perform better than conventional buildings in all aspects of sustainability: site selection and maintenance, energy efficiency and refrigeration management, water efficiency, material selection, and indoor air quality.   The structure and requirements of LEED certification create an important benchmarking tool for the green building industry.  Consumers and members of the industry know that LEED certified building are better performing than average buildings in a number of areas, while a building that is merely marketed as “green” has no definitive meaning.

Why LEED Certification?

Aside from legitimacy and its “whole building approach”, why do project teams seek LEED certification for their buildings? LEED focuses on the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.  LEED certified buildings are healthier and more comfortable for the people who live in them, have a smaller environmental impact, increase property value and cut operational costs.

 

Free LEED GA exam

According to USGBC, LEED certified buildings can cut energy and water bills by up to 40%, saving the building owner or tenants money over time.  In commercial real estate, LEED certified buildings have also been shown to command higher rental rates, and sell for lower cap rates, than their conventional counterparts.  In the residential market, a 2012 study from University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) found that LEED certified homes in California sell for 9% more than average homes.

Additionally, LEED is the most widely recognized green building certification program in the U.S. and has certified buildings in 140 countries.  USGBC is working to have a certified building in every country in the world by offering free certification to the first building in any country that does not currently have a LEED certified building.  LEED’s international recognition makes it one of the best building marketing tools available today.  Certification is great PR, especially for companies embracing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

LEED Certified Buildings

Buildings can become LEED certified in a particular LEED rating system.  The rating systems each address a particular type of building.  These include:  

  • New Construction and Major Renovations
  • Commercial Interiors
  • Core and Shell (for developers with no control over tenant fit-outs)
  • Healthcare (hospitals)
  • Retail
  • Schools (K-12 Schools)
  • Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (existing buildings)
  • Homes (low rise residential)
  • Neighborhood Development (neighborhoods)

Each rating system has a set of Minimum Program Requirements (MPRs) and prerequisite credits, which are mandatory for certification and worth zero points.  Rating systems also have optional credits, which the project can achieve to earn points.  Projects must earn a minimum number of points from these optional credits to earn certification.  The number of points a credit is worth depends on the amount of environmental impact it has(as determined by USGBC).  For example, credits for energy efficiency are worth more points than points for a having a bicycle rack on site.

The certification level depends on the number of optional points the project earns.  The certification levels and their respective points (in most rating systems) include:

  • Certified: 40-49 points
  • Silver: 50-59 points
  • Gold: 60-79 points
  • Platinum: 80+ points

There are 100 base points, 6 Innovation in Design points, and 4 Regional priority points.

Credits are broken up into categories, each of which addresses a different environmental topic.  Credit categories include

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Materials and Resources
  • Innovation in Design
  • Regional Priority

How to Earn LEED Certification

To begin the certification process, register the project on LEED Online.  It’s best to start the registration and certification process before the project begins design or construction or renovation, because certification will require a lot of planning and collaboration from the project team.  

In fact, USGBC stresses “integrated project delivery”, or IPD, as an important strategy for LEED certification.  As Julie Ireton explained in her article, IPD is a process whereby the key players in a building project (such as the building owner, architects, engineers, etc.) collaborate on the design and construction process from start to finish.  This “whole building design” approach makes for a better performing building.  The project team can better recognize possible synergies that could make the building more sustainable as a whole.

The team also needs to work together from the beginning to determine the project’s budget, desired certification level (Certified, Gold, Silver, Platinum) and which credits the building will attempt to achieve.  It is extremely difficult to achieve certification as an “afterthought” after designing and constructing the building, because often it will not have met all of the MPRs and prerequisites.  Therefore, the first step for LEED certification is to gather the project team, assess which credits the building will achieve (and under which rating system), and then register the project on LEED Online.  

LEED Alternatives

While LEED is the most popular green building rating system in the U.S. and has a significant global presence, there are other certification programs for sustainable building design and construction available.

For example, Green Globes, designed by the Green Building Initiative (GBI), which certifies a building with four levels of sustainability, represented by one to four globes.  Like LEED, it was based on the Building Research Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), so it has many similar qualities to LEED.  However, the certification program is simpler than LEED because it uses a questionaire rather than a great deal of documentation.  Certification is cheaper than LEED, and a project team can “self-certify” online.  While it has several advantages to LEED, it is not as popular, with only about 10-15% the number of certified buildings.  While much of this may be a marketing issue, it also does have some weaknesses in comparison to LEED.  For example, it doesn’t have prerequisites or MPRs, which can be both a disadvantage (less stringent than LEED) or an advantage (does not rule sustainable buildings based on one factor that may be unavoidable). LEED Certified Building

Another LEED alternative is the Living Building Challenge, which is considered by many building professionals to be a better, more stringent rating system.  It has a list of 20 imperatives that must be met, such as the building must be net-zero (powered by 100% renewable energy) and 100% of the water supply must be from recycled rainwater.  While Living Buildings may be more sustainable than LEED buildings, they are typically much more difficult to design and construct, especially if the project has limited expertise, money and resources.  Therefore, it is much less popular than LEED, with only three buildings earning the complete certification. Another LEED alternative is the Living Building Challenge, which is considered by many building professionals to be a better, more stringent rating system.  It has a list of 20 imperatives that must be met, such as the building must be net-zero (powered by 100% renewable energy) and 100% of the water supply must be from recycled rainwater.  While Living Buildings may be more sustainable than LEED buildings, they are typically much more difficult to design and construct, especially if the project has limited expertise, money and resources.  Therefore, it is much less popular than LEED, with only three buildings earning the complete certification.

LEED Credentials

While LEED certification for can improve a building’s performance and environmental impact, LEED credentials and improve a green building professional’s resume and skill set.
The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) creates and administers the credentials.  It offers the LEED Green Associate credential and the LEED AP with specialty credential.  Professionals can earn each credential by taking and passing a 2-hour, 100 question multiple choice exam, given in a Prometric testing center.  

It’s important to note that a professional can only become LEED “accredited”, not certified.  Only buildings can earn LEED certification.  People can earn a Green Associate or LEED AP credential.

How to Earn the LEED Green Associate

The LEED Green Associate exam (often referred to unofficially as the LEED GA exam) is the first step and the LEED AP exam is the second step in becoming a LEED professional.  The Green Associate tests on general green building and LEED concepts, while the AP tests on a specific rating system.  Taking the Green Associate exam is required for taking the AP test, so it is considered the “Tier I” credential.  

(Note: While it is required to take the Green Associate exam before the AP, you can technically take the AP exam before passing the Green Associate exam.  See “Can I Earn Both At Once?” below for more information).

Before November 2012, the Green Associate exam had eligibility requirements.  Professionals could qualify with proof of either green building education OR experience on a LEED project OR work in a sustainable field.  However, GBCI dropped these requirements just before 2013, so now virtually anyone over 18 can qualify to take the exam.

The Candidate Handbook from USGBC discusses the 7 topics covered on the exam.  These include:
1. Synergistic Opportunities and LEED Application Process
2. Project Site Factors
3. Water Management
4. Project Systems and Energy Impacts
5. Acquisition, Installation and Management of Project Materials
6. Stakeholder Involvement in Innovation
7. Project Surrounding and Public Outreach

Essentially, the test covers the MPRs, general prerequisite and credit requirements for a LEED certification project (rather than an in-depth knowledge of each credit requirement, like the LEED AP), integrated project delivery strategies, relevant building codes, the LEED certification process and documentation, LEED Online, the USGBC and its values, and costs of green building.

For more information on what is covered on the Green Associate exam and how to prepare, see Poplar’s LEED Green Associate topic page.

How to Earn the LEED AP

The AP with specialty exams allow the candidate to earn a credential that specializes in a specific LEED rating system.  The available specialties (and their respective rating systems) include:

  • BD+C: Building Design + Construction (New Construction, Schools, Core and Shell)
  • ID+C: Interior Design + Construction (Commercial Interiors)
  • O+M: Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance rating system
  • Homes: Homes rating system
  • ND: Neighborhood Development rating system

Unlike the GA, the AP exam does have eligibility requirements.  The candidate must have (1) taken the LEED Green Associate exam and (2) have experience on a LEED registered or certified project within the last 3 years.  

If you do not have experience on a LEED project and cannot easily gain access to one through work, you can participate in the LEED Project Experience Program.  This allows you to work on a project 100% online, gain valuable experience, and qualify for the AP exam.

For this exam, candidates should use the appropriate LEED reference guide related to the specialty, memorizing it and preparing using a variety of means.  To learn more about how to study for the exam, see Poplar’s LEED AP topic page.

Signing Up for the LEED Exams


There are a few steps for signing up to take the LEED exams.  

  • Go to GBCI.org and create an account.
  • Log into “My Credentials”.
  • Apply for the exam.  You will hear back within 7 days (but in my personal experience, it usually only takes one or two).
  • Once your application is approved, log into “My Credentials” and register for the exam.  You’ll receive a confirmation email with a code within 24 to 48 hours.
  • Go to Prometric’s website and schedule your exam (using the code from GBCI).
  • Study!
  • Pass the test.

Can I Earn Both At Once?

GBCI does allow candidates to take both the GA and AP exams in one four-hour “marathon” session.  The candidate is allowed two hours for each exam and can take them back to back.  

While this could “kill two birds with one stone”, we don’t recommend this method. It is very difficult to study for and pass both exams at once (though not impossible).  We believe that taking and studying for each test individually will most often produce better results.

So, while the LEED Green Associate credential isn’t technically required to take the AP exam in this scenario, it is required to earn the AP credential.  You cannot fail the GA exam and pass the AP and become a LEED AP.  

LEED v4 and Credentials

LEED v4 is due to go live in November 2013.  Since the rating systems will see a lot of changes, the LEED exams are likely to change as well.  The AP exams will almost definitely see a lot of updates, as they test on specific rating systems, and v4 will introduce both new rating systems and credits.

However, GBCI has been very secretive about how and when the tests will change.  When I called and asked, the representative said they do not have information about when the tests will be updated.

My guess is that the exams will change some time in 2014, and that professionals will have a good amount of notice before the switch.  When GBCI added the Green Associate credential and AP specialties in 2009, professionals had several months of notice before.  I assume they will certainly not change until the rating systems are released in November, but it could be anytime after that.  To be safe, you can take the GA and AP exams before November 2013, so you don’t have to adapt to the changes.

 

 

Photo credit: Haseo via Flickr

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