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.


LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) certification has brought green building into the mainstream. It is the most widely recognized building sustainability credential 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 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. 

Berkebile and his team founded the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which has overseen the LEED Certification program since it began in 1993. 

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

  • Over 100,000 commercial buildings are LEED Certified 
  • 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 recognized 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, building projects are granted a rating, which their owners can use to demonstrate the verified sustainability of their property. 

The Leed rating system 💯

Each project is granted points for the sustainable systems and design elements used in the building. Building projects are awarded up to a total of 110 points. 

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

The four different ratings are: 

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

Every LEED Certification shows distinction for achieving certain prerequisites regarding CO2 emissions reduction, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and materials sustainability. 

How does Leed certification work? 🤔

Almost any building project type can earn a LEED Certification rating. This includes commercial 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)
  • Neighborhood Development
  • Homes

Each project type has a number of prerequisites. After those are met, projects can be awarded additional credits. LEED certification criteria include: CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, water use, waste systems, transportation, materials, health, and indoor environmental quality. 

Once a project receives certification, investors, building tenants, and other users of the spaces can be assured that the building checks the boxes of the highest degree of building sustainability. LEED certification also gives your project climate credentials to show its footprint is reduced. 

Leed certification’s requirements 📝

The different criteria used to assess buildings are a good starting point to consider. Applicants for a LEED certification are required to provide documentation for detailed standards in the following areas: 

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

Private homes have a wider range of considerations based on the following additional areas: 

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

Keep in mind that once your building passes the prerequisites of certification, the points it earns reflect the additional sustainable design elements of a building project. 

🎯 What are the goals of the Leed certification?

LEED certification applies the complicated lens of sustainability to all aspects of buildings. Oftentimes, sustainability improvements are mutually beneficial. An improvement made for climate change could also help improve human health. 

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

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

As you can see, LEED certification looks at building projects holistically. The goals of LEED certification 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. 

Here are some of the ways buildings can achieve these goals: 

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. 

Apart from these major swaps, buildings can be designed for energy efficiency through the use of either technology or design considerations like LEDs, insulation, and double paned windows to prevent heat loss. Smart thermostats can help building owners operate their buildings efficiently. 

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. By avoiding these materials or other sources of indoor air pollution, buildings improve human health.  

Freshwater resources are increasingly scarce, 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. 

Biodiversity loss is driven in part by human development, so buildings and project developments can minimize 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 minimize 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 have shared benefits that equitably support communities through education, access, and more. 

👍 What are the benefits of the Leed certification?

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

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 - LEED certification often results in lowering the cost of operating a building. LEED certified projects from 2015-2018 achieved roughly $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, $715.3 million in maintenance savings, and $54.2 in waste savings. 

ROI - As many as 61% of executives believe that sustainability improves financial performance. 

Occupancy - LEED certified buildings bring higher rents and 4% lower vacancy rates. Lease-up rates are around 20% above average. 

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

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

Health benefits 🩺

Employees: LEED 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: LEED 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: LEED-ceritifed 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. 

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 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 total into this sector. 

Sustainability improvements: Buildings with LEED-certification help educate on ways to perform even better than the baseline over time.

🔎 What are the types of projects that can be accredited? 

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

Building Design and Construction (BD+C) covers new construction, the core and shell of building designs, and commercial and civic sites such as schools, retail, hospitality, data centers, warehouses, distribution centers, and health care facilities. 

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 in existing buildings, and sectors like schools, retail, hospitality, data centers, and warehouses & maintenance. 

Neighborhood 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 lowrise homes (1-3 stories), and multifamily mdirise 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. 

✅ 6 steps to get the Leed certification

LEED Certification requires some careful planning and key action items. These actions will support a strong LEED Certification rating 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 recertify, make the changes to put you within range for your target rating. 

Register and pay the certification 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.

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 specializes 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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