The Guide to LEED Certification Basics

The LEED Certification or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Certification is a program developed by the US Green Building Council to provide guidance to architects and building owners regarding innovative green building practices. The goal of the program is to provide both practical and measurable means of implementing green building practices into all phases of the building project including design, construction and daily operations and maintenance. Since the program launched in 1998, it has seen the completion of over 7,000 projects in the United States and thirty other countries.

The History of LEED

Though the LEED programs official start date is recorded as 1998, its development began years earlier. In 1994, Robert Watson, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, organized an exploratory group that comprised NPOs, government agencies, building products manufacturers, architects, engineers, builders, and developers. The original committee was modest in size. It consisted of only 6 members.

  • Robert Watson- Senior Scientist at the NDRC
  • Mike Italiano- Co-founder of the United States Green Building Council
  • Bill Reed- Architect
  • Sandy Mendler- Architect
  • Gerard Heiber- Builder
  • Richard Bourne- Engineer

The purpose of this group was to define and lay the groundwork for what the LEED program would be and what it would become in the future. They began by first defining what “green building” was and developing a metric by which to measure green projects. At that time, the committee began to consider how to promote whole-building design practices rather than piecemeal implementation. In order to do this, they needed to determine a way to recognize industry leaders and encourage competition in the green building industry. Finally, they set the goal to raise not only industry awareness but also consumer awareness. All of these practices combined would lead to their ultimate goal. That goal was to transform the building industry into a green building industry.

In 1998, the LEED Pilot Program launched. The intention of the program was essentially to shake out the program, and the program’s leadership encouraged participants to analyze every facet of the program. Over the next two years, extensive revisions were made to the original plan, and in March 2000, LEED 2.0 was launched.

2000 saw the introduction of the LEED rating system for New Construction. This is credited with starting the green building movement within the United States. This voluntary rating system provided a metric by which sustainable buildings across the country could be measured. Under the system, new construction was measured on a point-based system. Points were awarded based on innovations in green development, water usage and savings, overall energy efficiency, use of green materials in construction, and overall indoor environmental quality.

In 2001, LEED took a massive step forward. The LEED professional accreditation program was introduced. This program is designed to train building professionals in the LEED certification process and recognize those who have a thorough understanding of the complete process. These accredited professionals are tasked with stewarding the certification process.

2003 saw the Canadian government launch a similar program known as LEED CI. While not under the auspice of the USGBC, this program follows a similar program and has done much to encourage green building practices throughout North America.

Throughout the remainder of the decade, the LEED program continued to grow and expand its scope. Rather than simply focusing on new construction, LEED incorporated all phases of construction and operation under its umbrella.

  • Renovations
  • Core and Shell Buildings
  • Commercial Interiors
  • Tenant Improvements
  • Schools
  • Operation and Maintenance of Existing Buildings

The year 2009 saw a large change to the Accredited Professionals certification program. Rather than the two tests that were previously given, each test was divided into two parts. A Green Associates exam is given to determine general knowledge regarding green building practices. The second section involves the chosen specialization. Accredited Professionals can choose to obtain either a LEED Building Design and Construction or a LEED for Interior Design and Construction designation.

LEED Certified Buildings

LEED certified buildings are buildings that have been designed, constructed, operated, and/or maintained to more efficiently use resources when compared to buildings built to code standards. LEED certified buildings meet the point requirements for their particular building rating system. Minimum point requirements are 40+ for certification, 50+ for silver, 60+ for gold, and 80+ for platinum.

It is possible to achieve up to 100 total points on any of the seven rating systems. The five key areas that are evaluated include sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, materials & resources, and indoor environmental quality. The points possible in each area vary with the type of rating system. An additional 10 bonus points are available on every rating system for innovation in design, and regional priority. LEED for homes adds two categories to the standard seven, locations & linkages and awareness & education. Each of these nine categories encompasses a variety of components.

The sustainable sites category is about site selection and development. LEED standards in this category encourage the use of previously developed land, minimal impact on the ecosystem, landscaping for the region, smart transportation options, and the control of storm water runoff. It also promotes the reduction of light and construction pollution, heat island effect, and erosion.

The water efficiency category covers interior and exterior water usage. Exteriors with low water usage landscaping are highly encouraged. The use of water efficient appliances, fixtures, and fittings are suggested for interior use.

The category of energy & atmosphere focuses on clean energy and energy conservation. The use of onsite or offsite renewable and clean energy is highly recommended. Commissioning, energy monitoring systems, and energy efficiency designs and constructions are some other areas of consideration. The use of energy efficient appliances, systems and lighting are energy conserving areas of consideration.

The materials & resources category not only focuses on what is being used but also what is being wasted and/or discarded. In the area of use, sustainably grown, harvested, produced, and transported materials are encouraged. In the area of waste, LEED standards encourage waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. Reduction of waste at a materials source is particularly encouraged and rewarded.

The innovation in design category is part of the 10 bonus points. This category awards points for buildings that go far beyond LEED standards or address issues that are not specifically set out in the LEED standards. It also awards points for those that use LEED accredited professionals.

The regional priority category is also part of the 10 bonus points. This category awards points to buildings that address the USBGC designated regional environmental concerns for their area. Each region of the country has different regional considerations.

The locations & linkages category is specific to the LEED for homes rating system. Building near environmentally sensitive areas and in non-developed areas is discouraged. Points are awarded to homes that are near existing infrastructure, community resources, transportation, and in areas that encourage walking, physical activity, and time outdoors.

Awareness & education is a category linked specifically to the LEED for homes rating system. This category emphasizes the importance for homeowners to understand how to use their green systems effectively.

Types of LEED Buildings

A buildings LEED certification rating system is determined by type of construction and space usage. The nine different rating systems can be broken down in to different building types.

New construction & major renovations buildings cannot principally serve the educational needs of K-12, retail, or healthcare. This building type would also apply towards buildings that are more than seven stories and residential.

School buildings can be on or off school grounds, but must have core and ancillary learning spaces. These building type and rating systems also apply towards non academic buildings that are on school campuses.

Healthcare buildings include standard medical facilities that provide inpatient and outpatient services. This building type may also include services such as dental, veterinarian, medical education, and research centers.

Retail buildings can use new construction or commercial interior rating systems depending on the type of construction. Retail buildings must sell goods and have a customer service area and preparation or storage area.

Home buildings can be defined as single family home residencies from 1-3 stories. They may also be considered multi-family residencies that are from 4-6 stories. Anything larger would fall under new construction & major renovations.

Core and shell buildings are only undergoing construction on the exterior of the building. This would also include buildings that are renovating their core mechanical, electrical, or plumbing systems.

Existing buildings are those going under renovations and improvements. These buildings will have little to no construction.


How do you determine which certification rating system to use?
Determine the construction type, and then determine the type of space usage. If more than one rating system may apply the 40%/60% method is recommended for determining the rating systems. Do not use a rating system if less than 40% of the space usage is designated to a rating system. Use a rating system if more than 60% of the space usage is designated to a rating system. If between 40% and 60%, either rating system may be chosen.

Where can I get specific information on a LEED rating system?
There is a LEED Reference Guide for each rating system available for purchase in a PDF online version or hard copy at the USGBC website,

How much does it cost to get LEED certified?
Information on fees for registration and processes can be found at the Green Building Certification Institute website, at

Where can I find more information on green materials, manufacturers, and products?
The USGBC does not endorse any products, but has a Knowledge Exchange website that can connect LEED professionals. Other LEED professionals may have the answers to any questions on green resources.

The Present and Future of LEED

Even with all the improvements to the LEED certification process, some professionals think it is needlessly complicated. This complication allows for exploitable loopholes in the system. The whole process of LEED certification and its onerous requirements lead to what many industry professionals call “LEED fatigue.” This fatigue has caused some professionals to question whether LEED certification is worth it or not. However, there is no question that LEED built buildings perform better than other buildings.

The USGBC recognizes that the process can be streamlined, and they are working hard to make that happen. As technology improves, it is their hope that the data necessary required for a LEED certification will no longer be as difficult to collect, and the burden placed on builders and developers will be lighter. To this end, LEED has introduced a new App Lab in hopes of developing third party apps aimed at increasing the efficiency of LEED projects.

LEED has its issues, but it is necessary to remember that the program is scarcely over a decade old. In that time, it has come a long way, and the next decade promises further improvements to the system and its implementation.