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What is LEED? A guide to green building certification

Melissa Raby, a Ferguson author

by Kelly Thompson


I’d be willing to bet that at some point you have heard “LEED®” mentioned or you have seen a certified building in person. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about this LEED thing and learn how you can benefit from it, you are in luck.

A brief history of LEED

Let’s start with a condensed timeline of how LEED came to be:

1993: Three men, whose mission was to promote sustainability in the building and construction industry, founded the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC®. Shortly after, representatives from around 60 companies gathered for the first official meeting, where the need for standardized ratings for all buildings was discussed.

2000: The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system was officially unveiled.

Today: Although LEED is mostly focused on the United States, it has been leveraged in 167 countries and is the most widely used third-party verification for how green a building is.

LEED has two very different components: Accreditation and certification. Accreditation is awarded to an individual in the form of LEED Green Associate, LEED Accredited Professional which is also known as LEED AP, or LEED Fellow.

Learn about the benefits of earning a LEED accreditation >>

LEED certification rating systems

What is a LEED building, you ask? "LEED certifications, which will be the focus of the article, are earned in accordance to a rating system for the sustainability of the design, construction, maintenance and operations of a building.

The five LEED rating systems for building certification are:

  1. Building Design and Construction, or BD+C. This rating is selected for buildings that are new construction or going through a large renovation including new construction, core and shell, schools, retail, hospitality, data centers, warehouses, distribution centers and healthcare.
  2. Interior Design and Construction, or ID+C. This rating is selected when a full interior update is completed and includes commercial interior, retail and hospitality.
  3. Building Operations and Maintenance, or O+M. This rating is selected when little or no construction is taking place and the focus is on maintenance, repairs and operations. This includes existing buildings, schools, retail, hospitality, data centers, warehouses and distribution centers.
  4. Neighborhood Development, or ND. This rating is selected for new land development or redevelopment and includes plan and built projects.
  5. Homes. This rating is selected for single family or one to six story multifamily residences, including homes and multifamily low-rise and mid-rise.


Each LEED rating system has prerequisites that need to be met prior to beginning the certification process and then points are earned based on what you have implemented. Let’s take O+M as an example. The O+M LEED scorecard focuses on eight categories of products and practices, which consist of location and transportation, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and regional priority. Your building earns points depending on your answer of yes, no or maybe, with a possible total score of 110. If you get 40-49 points the building earns a ranking of Certified, 50-59 points gets Silver, 60-79 is Gold, and 80 or more is awarded Platinum.

The USGBC provides detailed criteria on how to earn points like as shown in the O+M LEED reference guide. For instance, you can receive up to 20 points based on the energy performance rating given in the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager Tool.

LEED OM scorecard

How much does LEED certification cost?

As with any service, there is a cost, and with all LEED projects submitted there is a registration and certification fee. Assuming you are not a Silver, Gold or Platinum level member of the USGBC, for O+M the registration is a flat fee of $1,500 and the certification fee is $0.036, $0.042 or $0.046 per square foot of the building. So let’s take our Market Distribution Center in Secaucus, New Jersey as an example. At 460,000 square feet, the cost would be $1,500 + $19,320 (460,000x$0.042) = $20,820 assuming we don’t need expedited review, make an appeal, or have formal inquiries, which are extra.

Why you should care

According to the USGBC, 28,582 buildings have already been certified in the United States with an average of 1.85 million square feet of building space being certified daily. Did you know that a green certified building sees on average a four percent increase in value, while consuming 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water? So if your customers haven’t asked for green products yet, there is a good chance they will in the future. Even if they are not going for LEED certification, decreasing the amount of water used with WaterSense® certified toilets or lowering the electricity consumed with energy efficient LEDs is a win-win. What better way to gain a competitive advantage than to show you can help reduce their environmental impact while saving them money on utility and maintenance costs?

USGBC Country Market Briefs
Melissa Raby, a Ferguson author
Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is LEED® Green Associate accredited, has worked in sustainability since 2011, and was a former committee Chair for the San Diego USGBC. She has published numerous articles ranging from green landscaping to conservation tips for apartment communities. Kelly has managed utility rebate and lighting audit programs, as well as participated in various environmental projects such as carbon footprinting, LEED building certification, and corporate social responsibility reporting.