Sustainability Topics: LEED Certification

Companies looking for ways to show they are being more sustainable often turn to certifications for their buildings. Buildings use up a lot of energy, during the construction phase and especially during daily use, so being able to show that companies are using less energy and are thinking about sustainability is a big deal. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be describing some of these certification programs in more detail, starting with LEED:


LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is a certification program for all building projects, not just new construction. It is overseen by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Projects satisfy prerequisites for their type, and earn points within the program to achieve different certification levels.

Depending on the project type, five different rating systems can be used: Building Design and Construction, for new construction or major renovation; Interior Design and Construction, for interior renovation; Operations and Maintenance, for existing buildings undergoing improvement work with little or no construction; Neighborhood Development, for land development projects involving multiple buildings; or Homes, for single or multi-family, low- to mid-rise homes. The points available for a project depend on the rating system being used.

There are different credit categories in which projects can pursue different types of credits to earn points. Categories include Location and Transportation, Water Efficiency, Sustainable Sites, and Innovation. The categories have prerequisites that must be satisfied, and then more points can be earned on top of the baseline.

The number of points a project earns determines its certification level: 40 points is enough for basic certification. LEED Silver, Gold, and Platinum require 50, 60, and 80 points, respectively.

People can also be LEED certified, by taking the LEED credential exams. This shows you have expertise in the area of certification. The first level is Green Associate; after that, you can take LEED AP and specialize in a specific project type.


So, at the start this looks like a great program. It’s easy to follow and see how many points you’re earning, the prices are reasonable for obtaining certification, and the program is very popular – in Washington D.C., all new public buildings must achieve LEED certification. However, it is not without controversy. Critics say the system is too easy to manipulate, by earning easy points and not making actual substantive change. In addition, there’s no requirement for energy use models to line up with actual usage, and there is some debate about whether LEED buildings actually use less energy than similar non-LEED buildings. Also, there is little emphasis on using the building sustainably: having lights that turn off automatically when no one is in the building doesn’t help if people stay there working through the night. Finally, the USGBC has no way to take certification away if the project doesn’t live up to its models. Once a building has been certified, it is always certified, even if it’s using more energy than it should be.

LEED was the first green building design program to become really popular, though that doesn’t mean it should stay popular if there are better programs. I’ll be exploring some of these alternatives over the next few weeks. It is important that LEED paved the way for green building design to become a standard in the industry, and we should be looking for ways to improve these programs to enforce better standards for construction.


Let me know what you think – is LEED still a helpful program? What’s your favorite standard for green design?


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