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LEED certification: meaning and requirements

LEED Certification shows a building project’s “leadership in energy and environment design.” Getting certified helps businesses reduce their carbon footprint.
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LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certification has brought green building into the mainstream. It is the most widely recognised building sustainability credential that architects, project developers, home owners, and interior designers can receive.

LEED certification provides a holistic framework and rating system that can apply to almost any type of building project. ‍

LEED certification and LEED certified buildings began with one outlier architect – Bob Berkebile – who petitioned the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to embrace environmental design back in 1989.

It wasn’t long before he managed to work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create sustainable design recommendations for architecture.

Bob Berkebile and his team founded the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), whose core competency has been to oversee the LEED Certification program since it began in 1993.

What are the results of his efforts? well, the numbers speak for themselves:

  • Over 100,000 commercial LEED Certified buildings
  • Projects in 167 countries worldwide have applied for LEED Certification

What is the LEED certification?

The acronym LEED stands for “leadership in energy and environmental design.” As the cornerstone of USGBC activities, LEED Certification helps building owners and designers demonstrate the sustainability of their projects.

Getting certified by the world’s most widely recognised 3rd-party green building certification means a lot for improving your ESG credentials.

👉 Certification involves a rigorous process of assessment by professionals at the USGBC institute. Upon certification, projects are granted a rating, which their owners can then use to demonstrate the verified sustainability of their property.

In order to acquire a LEED certification, a point system is used to monitor which environmental categories the LEED project is pertaining to – which is more commonly known as the LEED credit library. Any project seeking to become LEED platinum should adhere to all the components of the rating system: such as reducing carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency, and protecting the health and environment in the project's surroundings.

Not all LEED certification requirements are this stringent, but projects seeking to acquire LEED platinum status or become a LEED green associate or a LEED AP should strive to improve upon all of the categories listed.

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The LEED rating system and the Green Building Council

The LEED rating system works by providing points to each building for the sustainable systems and design elements used. Building projects are awarded up to a total of 110 points. Through the use of the rating system, buildings can become a LEED certified building and encourage future sustainable sites.

Once a Green Building Council Inspector has verified a project’s Certification rating, the project receives a plaque for its level of achievement from a LEED accredited professional.

The four different ratings for the LEED rating system are:

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

Every certification shows distinction for achieving certain prerequisites for meeting the minimum program requirements, such as CO2 emissions reduction, promoting environmental sustainability, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, indoor environmental quality, energy performance, and materials sustainability.

How does LEED certification work?

If an existing building wishes to become a LEED certified project, the good news its that almost any office building or type of project can earn a certification rating by following green building principles. This includes public buildings and residential buildings for new construction or renovations.

The five main categories for project types are:

  • Building Design and Construction (BD+C)
  • Interior Design and Construction
  • Operations and Maintenance (O+M)
  • Neighbourhood Development
  • Homes

Each project type has a number of prerequisites in order to receive a LEED accreditation. After those are met, a project team can be awarded additional LEED credits through the point system. Criteria include: CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, water use, waste systems, transportation, materials, health, and indoor environmental quality.

Once a project receives a certification identifying them as a LEED building, investors, tenants, and other users of the spaces can be assured that the building checks the boxes of the highest degree of sustainability. LEED certification also gives your project climate credentials to show its footprint is reduced, and can be used to demonstrate that your project is a part of a green building industry with a green business certification.

As climate change continues to worsen, green building design and the LEED initiative is more pivotal than ever before in order to attract the interest of customers and investors alike. In fact, the certification process has different levels of being LEED certified which act as a green building rating system: such as a LEED gold or LEED platinum rating.

Therefore, even if a project has already received this green building certification – they can strive to acquire an even higher LEED standard by building on their existing points achieved. In other words, the LEED standards can build upon existing LEED accredited or certified buildings.

LEED certification’s requirements

The different criteria used to assess buildings seeking to become green buildings are a good starting point to consider. LEED certification requirements required ask applicants to provide documentation for detailed standards in the following areas:

  • Site sustainability
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Materials and natural resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Overall carbon footprint

Private homes require an even more detailed certification framework, based on the following additional areas:

  • Locations and linkages
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation and interior design and construction
  • Regional priority

Keep in mind that once your building passes the prerequisites of certification, the points it earns through the LEED rating system reflect the additional sustainable design elements of a building project seeking a green building certification inc.

What are the goals of LEED?

LEED certification's goals

LEED certification applies the complicated lens of sustainability to all aspects of buildings. Often, sustainability improvements are mutually beneficial with both environmental and human health benefits.

That said, the targeted building strategies of certification have different weights of emphasis:

  • Reduce the contribution of buildings to climate change (35%)
  • Improve human health (20%)
  • Preserve freshwater resources and improve upon water efficiency (15%)
  • Prevent biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems and their services (10%)
  • Support regenerative, long-term material use (10%)
  • Build thriving communities and stimulate neighbourhood development (5%)
  • Conserve natural resources (5%)‍

As you can see, LEED certification looks at building projects holistically. The goals of the LEED initiative are to improve the DNA of buildings to support healthy, safe living in our environmental habitats and human communities.

LEED also acknowledges the huge risks presented by climate change, so it gives priority to both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions as well as the embodied carbon of buildings.

How can buildings achieve these goals?

Energy efficiency

Energy and environmental design go hand in hand. For climate change, building electrification for all heating and appliances can prepare buildings for a future renewable energy grid. In addition, it can use on-site renewable energy and battery storage power generation as a means to supply clean energy for its own needs.

Not all change needs to be major renovations, existing buildings can be easily optimised for energy efficiency through the use of either technology or design considerations like LEDs, insulation, and double paned windows to prevent heat loss and maintain temperature control. Smart thermostats can help building owners operate their buildings efficiently, while simultaneously working towards various certifications.‍

Natural materials

Buildings can contribute to human health by incorporating natural materials that don’t have negative health impacts as well as bringing sunlight or mood enhancing plants and air flow into the space. ‍

Many paints, synthetic carpets, and cleaning supplies contain high levels of toxic chemicals that don't look good in the eyes of a green building certification institute. By avoiding these materials or other sources of indoor air pollution and making more sustainable materials selection during interior fit outs, existing buildings and newfound sustainable sites can help resulting in environmental and human health benefits.  

Low-water use

Freshwater resources are increasingly scarce and negatively impact water efficiency, and buildings play a role in addressing this issue. By including appliances designed for low-water use, and recycling rainwater, buildings can effectively reduce their water footprint, address a common regional priority, and also work towards becoming a LEED accredited project.‍

Ecosystems and wildlife

Biodiversity loss is driven in part by human development, so sustainable site development can minimise their impact on the local ecosystems and wildlife. Bird proof buildings, rooftop gardens, planting native plants in landscaping and building permeable landscapes for wildlife can minimise biodiversity loss.


In terms of regenerative materials use and conserving resources, many of the building materials of new projects can have a reduced environmental impact by using recycled materials. Some materials even store CO2, so they have a positive impact on their surroundings.


Finally, building thriving communities is an intrinsic part of building sustainability. Building projects should strive for construction ideals in order to present shared benefits that equally support communities through education, access, and more.

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What are the benefits of LEED initiatives?

Now that you’ve discovered all that LEED entails, you may be thinking: what’s in it for me? Well, the benefits are almost as multifaceted as the certification criteria.

A LEED rating can provide new buildings with a wide range of economic, health, and environmental benefits offer a well-rounded value that’s worth it for many building owners.

Economic benefits

Cost savings - certification often results in overall lower operational costs for a building. Certified projects from 2015-2018 achieved roughly $1.2 billion in energy savings, 149.5 million USD in water savings, 715.3 million USD in maintenance savings, and 54.2 million USD in waste savings. While the initial flat registration fee may seem daunting, it will ultimately lead to financially benefits in the long run.

ROI - As many as 61% of executives believe that sustainable building design and green buildings improve financial performance.

Occupancy - Certified buildings bring higher rents and 4% lower vacancy rates. Lease-up rates are around 20% above average. Therefore, sustainable building design can also financially benefit any new construction site or LEED buildings seeking accreditation through the rating systems.

Building management - LEED projects receive support for green systems across the life-cycle of a building for design, construction, and operations.

ESG - A certified LEED project gives ESG investors evidence of environmental, social, and governance performance.  Real estate represents an important area of ESG improvement which businesses can easily implement.  

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Health benefits

Employees: Certified spaces correlate to improved worker productivity, higher recruitment and retention rates.

Indoor air quality: Lower risk for asthma, allergies, mood disorders, and stress.

Ambient (outdoor) air quality: Lower smog levels in communities.

Indoor environmental quality: Certified spaces bring natural light, airflow, and fewer harsh chemicals from paint into spaces.

Environmental benefits

The following figures are from a study called “Re-Assessing Green Building Performance” which evaluated 22 buildings.

CO2 emission reduction: Certified buildings show 34% lower CO2 emissions than standard buildings on average. Avoided CO2 emissions equal roughly 78 million tons.

Energy efficiency: Energy consumption reduces 25% with LEED certification. LEED projects receive an 89/100 ENERGY STAR score on average.  

Water consumption: 11% lower water use with sustainable building design and construction.

Waste diversion: 80 million tons of waste did not reach landfills thanks to LEED buildings.

In addition to these figures, a few more categories are worth mentioning:

Transportation: LEED certified projects and LEED buildings help avoid vehicle travel (4 billion miles) due to site selection and efficiency.

Materials: LEED certified designs support the use of green building materials, channeling an estimated 100 billion USD total into this sector.

Sustainability improvements: Buildings with LEED-certification help educate on ways to perform even better than the baseline over time, pushing for sustainable market transformation.

Assurance: Certification gives third party assurance to state and local governments that their building projects are meeting certain objectives, reducing energy use, and creating a healthier environment. LEED Green Raters provide verification for LEED projects and play an important part in LEED certification.

Green building rating system - the different LEED ratings create a tiered system that identifies the projects that go the furthest in terms of energy and environmental design. It encourages projects owners to strive to an even higher certification.

What are the types of projects that can be accredited?

Five total building project types can earn LEED certification, while larger areas such as neighbourhoods and communities can also receive accreditation.

Building Design and Construction (BD+C) covers new construction, the core and shell of building designs, and public buildings such as schools, retail, hospitality, data centres, warehouses, distribution centres, and health care facilities. BD+C is essential to implementing sustainable building design and construction as the new normal in society.

Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) is the category covering renovation, interior design updates, and fit out projects for commercial interiors and the retail, and hospitality sectors.

Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) relates to sustainability upgrades that don’t require much construction for existing buildings, and sectors like schools, retail, hospitality, data centres, and warehouses & maintenance. In other words, a project team can make a building LEED certified with a few modifications to improve upon existing sustainable sites.

Neighbourhood Development (ND) applies to development projects for residential, non-residential, or mixed projects. These projects can receive certification at any point of development, whether planning or construction. ND covers both planned and built projects.

Homes refers to single family homes, multi-family low-rise homes (1-3 stories), and multifamily mid-rise homes (4+ families). Buildings in this category taller than 4 stories can use BD+C.

Cities and Communities is for city sections or whole cities to manage their environmental resources and quality of life.

LEED Recertification Is available for buildings to maintain their LEED credentials over time.

LEED Zero supports projects with net zero goals for carbon emissions or other resources.

‍👉 Note: There are minimum size requirements for projects (based on square feet), more detail can be found here.

6 steps to get the LEED certification

LEED Certification requires some careful planning and key action items. These actions will help you excel in the LEED Certification rating system for your green building project.

Set a goal - When you can predict the exact LEED certification rating you hope to achieve, you can put all of the stepping stones in place to get there.

Define your project type - Some building projects fall into two or more types, so you’ll need to choose which type is more beneficial for your accreditation purposes. LEED suggests using the “40/60” rule to determine your rating system.

Use a rating system that applies to 60% or more of your floor plan area, but not for one that applies to 40% or less of your area. For any project that applies for around 50% give or take 10%, choose the most applicable rating system based on your independent evaluation.

Start your LEED project - Whether you’re intending to make upgrades, develop a project, or re-certify, make the changes to put you within range for your target rating.

Register and pay the registration fee - LEED certification requires an official project registration and registration fees ranging from $900 to $5000. The factors that influence the fee are project size and certification goal. The flat fee should not deter those seeking a LEED rating, as a LEED building will benefit other sectors of the business and help the environment at the same time.

Additional fees may apply for different rating systems (Design, Construction, or both). These cost roughly $0.0014-0.0057 per square foot.

Compile and submit data - LEED relies on the voluntary data provided by building project managers.

Review period - the USGBC takes approximately 20-25 days to assess a project’s sustainability.

What about Greenly?

Greenly specialises in identifying priorities for business CO2 emissions reductions like green building projects. The carbon management process starts with a carbon footprint assessment. Get started today.

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