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LEED certification: meaning and requirements

In this article we'll explore what LEED certification means, what it involves, and how it can help businesses to minimise their carbon footprint.
Business
2023-07-13T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
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LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification has propelled green building into the mainstream, becoming the most widely recognized sustainability credential for architects, project developers, homeowners, and interior designers.

With its holistic framework and versatile rating system, LEED certification can be applied to nearly any type of building project.

👉 In this article we'll explore what LEED certification means, what it involves, and how it can help businesses to minimize their carbon footprint.

LEED certification origins

The visionary architect Bob Berkebile played a pivotal role in the origins of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. In 1989, he led the charge by petitioning the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to embrace environmental design, setting the stage for a transformative movement.

Not long after, Berkebile collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop sustainable design recommendations that would shape the future of architecture. In 1993, his dedication culminated in the establishment of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), an organization entrusted with overseeing the LEED Certification program.

The results of Berkebile's tireless efforts are undeniably remarkable. Over 100,000 commercial buildings have achieved LEED Certification, showcasing their commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, the impact of LEED extends globally, with projects from 180 different countries seeking LEED Certification and embracing environmentally conscious practices.

👉 To find out more about green building, why not check out our article on the topic.

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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.

To obtain a LEED certification, a point system called the LEED credit library is utilised to track the environmental aspects addressed by the LEED project. For those aiming to achieve LEED Platinum status, strict adherence to all components of the rating system is crucial. This entails reducing carbon emissions, enhancing energy efficiency, and safeguarding the health and environment of the project's surroundings.

While not all LEED certification requirements are as stringent, projects aspiring to attain LEED Platinum status or obtain designations such as LEED Green Associate or LEED AP should endeavor to make significant progress across all listed categories.

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The LEED rating system and the Green Building Council

The LEED rating system operates on a point-based mechanism, evaluating sustainable systems and design elements employed in building projects. A maximum of 110 points can be awarded, enabling buildings to attain LEED certification and serve as beacons for future sustainable development.

Upon verification of a project's certification rating by a Green Building Council Inspector, a certificate denoting the achievement level is awarded by a LEED accredited professional.

The LEED rating system encompasses four distinct levels of certification:

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

Each certification level signifies commendable attainment of prerequisites, such as reducing CO2 emissions, promoting environmental sustainability, enhancing energy efficiency, optimizing indoor air and environmental quality, improving energy performance, and prioritizing materials sustainability.

How does LEED certification work?

The good news is that almost any building, whether it's an office building, a public facility, or a residential structure, can achieve LEED certification by adhering to green building principles. This applies to both new construction projects and renovation initiatives.

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

To attain LEED accreditation, each project type must fulfill specific prerequisites. Once these requirements are met, the project becomes eligible to earn additional LEED credits through the point system. Key criteria encompass various aspects such as CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, water usage, waste management, transportation, materials, health, and indoor environmental quality.

Upon receiving LEED certification, a project demonstrates its commitment to the highest level of sustainability, assuring investors, tenants, and other occupants that it aligns with stringent standards. The certification also showcases the project's reduced environmental footprint, bolstering its climate credentials and highlighting its affiliation with the green building industry through a recognised green business certification.

In an era of escalating climate change, green building design and the LEED initiative have assumed greater significance to captivate the interest of customers and investors alike. The certification process offers different levels of recognition, such as LEED Gold or LEED Platinum, serving as a green building rating system.

Therefore, even if a project has already obtained LEED certification, it can strive to attain an even higher standard by leveraging its existing earned points. In other words, the LEED standards can be built upon to enhance the sustainability of already accredited or certified buildings.

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LEED certification’s requirements

Applicants pursuing LEED certification must take into account various requirements that are essential for achieving their green building goals. The certification process mandates the submission of thorough documentation to demonstrate compliance with detailed standards in the following key areas:

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

The certification framework for private homes demands an even more comprehensive approach, encompassing additional areas that are crucial for achieving certification. These areas include:

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

It is important to note that once a building satisfies the certification prerequisites, the points earned through the LEED rating system signify the incorporation of additional sustainable design elements in the project's pursuit of green building certification.

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What are the goals of LEED?

LEED certification examines all facets of buildings through the lens of sustainability. Often, sustainable improvements yield both environmental and human health benefits, making them mutually advantageous.

  • The certification's targeted building strategies emphasize different aspects with varying degrees of importance:
  • Reduce the contribution of buildings to climate change (35%)
  • Improve human health (20%)
  • Preserve freshwater resources and enhance water efficiency (15%)
  • Prevent biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems and their services (10%)
  • Support regenerative, long-term material use (10%)
  • Build thriving communities and foster neighborhood development (5%)
  • Conserve natural resources (5%)

As evident, LEED certification takes a holistic approach to building projects. Its initiative aims to enhance the DNA of buildings to support healthy and safe living.

LEED also recognises the immense risks posed by climate change and prioritizes reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as addressing the embodied carbon of buildings.

👉 To find out more about climate change, why not read our article. 

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How can buildings achieve these goals?

Energy efficiency

Energy and environmental design are intrinsically linked, especially in the context of addressing climate change. Building electrification plays a vital role in preparing buildings for a future powered by renewable energy. By transitioning to electric heating systems and appliances, buildings can align with a renewable energy grid. Furthermore, integrating on-site renewable energy generation and battery storage allows buildings to generate and utilise clean energy for their own operations.

It's important to note that not all changes require extensive renovations. Existing buildings can significantly enhance energy efficiency through the adoption of technology and thoughtful design considerations. Simple upgrades such as LED lighting, improved insulation, and double-paned windows can minimize heat loss and maintain optimal temperature control. Additionally, incorporating smart thermostats empowers building owners to operate their properties efficiently while concurrently working towards various certifications and sustainability goals.

Natural materials

Buildings have the power to enhance human health by embracing natural materials that are free from adverse health impacts. Incorporating elements like sunlight, mood-enhancing plants, and proper air circulation can further contribute to a healthy indoor environment.

It is crucial to be mindful of the potential health risks associated with certain materials commonly found in paints, synthetic carpets, and cleaning supplies. These items often contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which may hinder the pursuit of green building certification. By consciously avoiding such materials and other sources of indoor air pollution, and instead prioritising sustainable material choices during interior fit-outs, both existing buildings and newly developed sustainable sites can foster environmental and human health benefits.‍

Low-water use

With freshwater resources becoming increasingly scarce, it is essential for buildings to take an active role in addressing water efficiency concerns. 

Incorporating appliances specifically designed for low-water use and implementing rainwater recycling systems are effective measures for reducing the water footprint of buildings. These strategies not only contribute to the preservation of precious freshwater resources but also align with common regional priorities. By adopting such practices, buildings can make significant strides towards becoming LEED-accredited projects, showcasing their commitment to sustainable water management.

Ecosystems and wildlife

Biodiversity loss is an unfortunate consequence of human development, but sustainable site development presents an opportunity to mitigate its impact on local ecosystems and wildlife. Implementing measures such as bird-proofing buildings, establishing rooftop gardens, incorporating native plants in landscaping, and creating permeable landscapes that support wildlife can effectively minimize the loss of biodiversity.

By integrating these sustainable practices into site development, buildings can contribute to the preservation and enhancement of local ecosystems, providing habitats for diverse species and promoting ecological balance. This approach not only helps to counteract biodiversity loss but also aligns with the principles of responsible and environmentally conscious construction and design.

Recycling

When it comes to regenerative materials use and resource conservation, incorporating recycled materials into the construction of new projects can significantly reduce their environmental impact. Furthermore, certain materials have the remarkable ability to store CO2, creating a positive influence on their surrounding environment.

By opting for recycled materials, buildings can contribute to the circular economy and minimize the extraction of raw resources. This approach helps conserve natural resources while simultaneously reducing waste generation and carbon emissions associated with traditional manufacturing processes.

Additionally, utilizing materials that store CO2, such as carbon-sequestering materials, further enhances the sustainability of buildings. These materials actively remove carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change while providing a greener and healthier built environment.

Equality

Building thriving communities is essential for sustainable development. Projects should prioritise shared benefits, education, and accessibility to support communities equitably. By fostering collaboration and inclusivity, buildings become catalysts for positive social change, promoting resilience and a better quality of life.

What are the benefits of LEED initiatives?

The array of benefits associated with LEED certification is as multifaceted as the criteria themselves. Obtaining a LEED rating can offer building owners a wide range of economic, health, and environmental advantages, making it a valuable investment. The comprehensive value provided by LEED certification encompasses various benefits that contribute to the overall sustainability and success of new buildings.

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Economic benefits

Cost savings - LEED certification frequently leads to reduced operational costs for buildings. According to data from certified projects between 2015 and 2018, significant savings were achieved, including approximately $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, $715.3 million in maintenance savings, and $54.2 million in waste savings. Although the initial registration fee may appear daunting, the long-term financial benefits make it a wise investment decision.

ROI - Studies indicate that green buildings hold higher value compared to comparable non-green buildings. One study revealed an average premium of 11% in the sale price of LEED-certified office buildings, while another study observed that LEED buildings tend to command rental rates 15 to 18% higher than comparable buildings. These findings highlight the financial benefits and increased market appeal associated with green building practices.

Occupancy - In addition to commanding higher-than-average rents, LEED certified buildings also enjoy a notable advantage with 4% lower vacancy rates. This demonstrates that sustainable building design not only enhances environmental performance but also provides significant financial benefits for new construction sites and LEED buildings seeking accreditation through the rating systems. Embracing sustainable practices can lead to increased tenant demand and occupancy rates, solidifying the economic advantages of pursuing LEED certification.

Building management - LEED projects benefit from robust support that extends throughout the entire life cycle of a building, covering key stages such as design, construction, and ongoing operations. The support provided encompasses a wide range of aspects, including guidance, resources, and expertise to facilitate the implementation of green systems. 

From the initial planning and design phases to the construction process and subsequent operations, LEED offers valuable assistance to ensure that sustainable practices are effectively integrated and maintained. This comprehensive support system empowers project teams to navigate the complexities of sustainable building practices with confidence, ultimately contributing to the long-term success and sustainability of LEED-certified projects.

ESG - A certified LEED project provides tangible evidence of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance for ESG investors. Within the realm of ESG, real estate holds significant potential for improvement, and businesses can readily implement sustainable practices in this sector. 

By achieving LEED certification, businesses can showcase their commitment to ESG principles and demonstrate measurable progress in environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and strong governance practices. This enables them to attract ESG-focused investors and align their real estate endeavors with the broader goals of sustainable development.

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Health benefits

Employees - LEED certified spaces, such as LEED-certified buildings, have demonstrated a positive association with enhanced worker productivity. The emphasis on creating healthy and sustainable environments, including factors like improved air quality and access to natural light, contributes to a more conducive and inspiring work atmosphere. 

Additionally, businesses that prioritize certified spaces often experience higher rates of employee recruitment and retention, as these spaces are seen as desirable workplaces that promote employee well-being and satisfaction. The commitment to certification reflects a forward-thinking approach that attracts top talent and fosters a positive work culture.

Indoor air quality - Maintaining good indoor air quality within buildings can significantly reduce the risk of asthma, allergies, mood disorders, and stress. By ensuring proper ventilation, controlling pollutants, and utilizing sustainable materials, buildings can create healthier indoor environments that promote the well-being of occupants.

Outdoor air quality - Focusing on outdoor air quality can contribute to reducing smog levels in communities. By implementing sustainable practices that minimize emissions and pollutants from buildings and operations, we can help improve the air quality in the surrounding environment.

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Environmental benefits

The study titled "Re-Assessing Green Building Performance" provides compelling figures that highlight the impact of LEED-certified buildings across various sustainability metrics. Here are some key findings from the study, which evaluated 22 buildings:

CO2 emission reduction - On average, certified buildings exhibit a remarkable 34% lower CO2 emissions compared to standard buildings. This translates to an impressive avoidance of approximately 78 million tons of CO2 emissions.

Energy efficiency - LEED-certified projects showcase a 25% reduction in energy consumption. Moreover, these projects attain an average ENERGY STAR score of 89 out of 100, indicating high energy efficiency performance.

Water consumption - Sustainable building design and construction practices contribute to an 11% reduction in water consumption, ensuring more efficient use of this vital resource.

Waste diversion - Thanks to LEED buildings, a staggering 80 million tons of waste have been diverted from landfills, emphasizing the significant role of sustainable practices in waste management and recycling.

👉 In addition to these noteworthy figures, there are several other categories worth mentioning to further illustrate the impact of LEED certification:

Transportation - LEED certified projects and buildings play a significant role in reducing vehicle travel, collectively avoiding approximately 4 billion miles through strategic site selection and improved transportation efficiency.

Materials - LEED certified designs actively promote the utilization of green building materials, resulting in a substantial investment of approximately $100 billion in this sector. By prioritizing sustainable materials that are environmentally responsible, resource-efficient, and socially beneficial, LEED projects drive market demand and foster the growth of the green building materials industry.

Sustainability improvements - LEED-certified buildings drive sustainability improvements and educate stakeholders, pushing for transformative change in the market. They serve as beacons of sustainability, inspiring industry-wide adoption of best practices and shaping a more environmentally conscious future.

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.

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

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What types of projects can be accredited?

LEED certification is available for five distinct building project types, and it can also be obtained for larger areas such as neighborhoods and communities.

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

The Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) category focuses on renovation, interior design updates, and fit-out projects specifically tailored for commercial interiors, as well as the retail and hospitality sectors. ID+C provides a framework to implement sustainable practices and design principles in enhancing the environmental performance of interior spaces.

The Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) category focuses on sustainability upgrades for existing buildings, requiring minimal construction. It encompasses sectors such as schools, retail, hospitality, data centers, warehouses, and maintenance facilities. In essence, the O+M category enables a project team to achieve LEED certification by implementing targeted modifications to enhance the sustainability of existing sites.

The Neighbourhood Development (ND) category pertains to development projects encompassing residential, non-residential, or mixed-use settings. These projects have the opportunity to achieve certification at any stage of their development, including planning or construction. ND certification extends to both planned and built projects.

The Homes category encompasses single-family homes, low-rise multi-family homes (1-3 stories), and mid-rise multi-family homes (4+ families). For buildings taller than 4 stories, the Building Design and Construction (BD+C) category is applicable.

The Cities and Communities category is specifically designed for sections of cities or entire municipalities to effectively manage their environmental resources and enhance overall quality of life.

LEED Recertification provides buildings with the opportunity to maintain their LEED credentials and uphold their sustainable performance over time. It allows buildings to demonstrate ongoing commitment to environmental sustainability, ensuring that they continue to meet the rigorous standards set by the LEED certification program.

LEED Zero provides support to projects striving for net zero goals in areas such as carbon emissions and other critical resources.

‍❗️Please note that projects have minimum size requirements based on square footage. For more detailed information, please refer to the specific guidelines provided.

👉To learn how your company can transition to net zero, why not read our article.

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6 steps to get the LEED certification

Achieving LEED Certification requires careful planning and specific action items. By following these key steps, you can excel in the LEED Certification rating system for your green building project:

  • Set a clear goal: Define the desired LEED certification rating you aim to achieve, enabling you to plan and implement the necessary strategies to attain it.
  • Determine your project type: Some projects may fall into multiple categories, so it's crucial to select the most beneficial type for your accreditation goals. Use the "40/60" rule to guide your decision: Choose a rating system that applies to 60% or more of your floor plan area, but not one that applies to 40% or less. For projects with around 50% coverage, evaluate and select the most applicable rating system based on your assessment.
  • Initiate your LEED project: Whether you're undertaking upgrades, developing a new project, or seeking re-certification, start making the necessary changes to align with your target rating requirements.
  • Register and pay the registration fee: To pursue LEED certification, it is necessary to register your project officially and pay the corresponding registration fee, which typically ranges from $900 to $5000. The specific amount is influenced by factors such as the project's size and desired certification level. It's important to note that while there is a registration fee, it should not discourage those interested in obtaining a LEED rating. The benefits of a LEED-certified building extend beyond the immediate cost, as it brings advantages to various sectors of the business and contributes to environmental preservation. Investing in a LEED building not only demonstrates environmental responsibility but also provides long-term benefits for both the organization and the planet.
  • Compile and submit project data: LEED relies on voluntary data provided by building project managers, so it's essential to gather and submit the necessary information accurately and comprehensively.
  • Review period: The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) typically takes around 20-25 days to assess a project's sustainability and determine its eligibility for LEED Certification.
By following these steps and adhering to the LEED Certification process, you can successfully navigate the path towards obtaining LEED recognition for your green building project.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required.

If you’d like to learn more about a specific industry, Greenly can help by providing an in-depth industry study, created by our climate scientists.

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