What Is LEED Certification? (+Requirements, Benefits, Cost)

What Is LEED Certification? (+Requirements, Benefits, Cost)
January 12, 2021 Levi Olmstead

Every year, we learn more and more how crucial it is to make use of environmentally responsible practices in just about every facet of life. This is especially true when it comes to developing, maintaining, and operating new and existing buildings.

What Is a LEED Certification?

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a rating program for green buildings that was created in 1994 by the U.S. Green Building Council (or USGBC) to motivate building developers and owners to incorporate sustainable design into their projects. This green building ratings certification program is based on a point system, awarding points in different categories of sustainability. LEED certifications are also tiered, so a project will receive a certification at the level of basic, silver, gold, or platinum, depending on the number of points accumulated.


This program has grown tremendously since its inception and is now bolstered by many federal agencies, states, and local governments in the United States.

LEED Certification vs. LEED Accreditation

The LEED Rating System doesn’t only rate building-related projects, USGBC also accredits professionals who show expertise in the LEED rating system through its Green Business Certification Inc., or GBCI. These accreditations vary based on the level of expertise and include LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP), LEED Green Associate, and LEED Fellows.

In short, LEED certification is awarded to buildings while LEED accreditation is awarded to individuals.


What Are the LEED Rating System Categories for Buildings?

Different types of projects fall under different categories within the overarching LEED rating system. As of 2019, LEED has several rating systems across six main categories:
  • BD+C: Building Design and Construction
  • ID+C: Interior Design and Construction
  • O+M: Building Operations and Maintenance
  • ND: Neighborhood Development
  • Homes
  • Cities & Communities

1. BD+C: Building Design and Construction

LEED for Building Design and Construction includes new construction, core & shell projects, schools, retail buildings, and healthcare facilities. This system provides a framework that addresses design and construction initiatives for new buildings and significant renovations and rehabilitations.

2. ID+C: Interior Design and Construction

The Interior Design and Construction category covers projects related to commercial interiors like office buildings or hospitality projects, where the designing teams wouldn’t necessarily have a hand in building operations. This category includes a specific system for rating commercial interior projects related to retail.

3. O+M: Building Operations and Maintenance

This rating system focuses on overhauling and improving sustainability efforts in existing buildings of just about any kind, including retail, schools, data centers, warehouses, and hospitality buildings. This category is especially important because it is much more efficient to improve a building that already exists than to demolish and construct a new one.

4. ND: Neighborhood Development

LEED for Neighborhood Development is designed to inspire sustainable neighborhood projects like bike paths, parks, and green spaces. These guidelines apply to new land development and redevelopment projects from conception to construction and include a number of different uses.

5. Homes

The Homes category of LEED is focused on green, clean, and safe hoes that use less energy and water. This category covers building design and construction for single-family homes, one to three-story multifamily buildings, and mid-rise multifamily buildings taller than three stories.

6. Cities & Communities

In 2019, USGBC launched its LEED v4.1 initiative for new, developing, and existing cities and communities. The aim of this category is to help local leaders improve the quality of life for their constituents and community members by providing social, economic, and environmental guidelines for creating sustainable and responsible plans for their cities and communities.

LEED Recertification

As of 2018, USGBC offers recertification to all occupied and in-use projects that have received a LEED certification. In order to recertify previously certified LEED projects, managers need to submit the 12 months of data for review by GBCI and earn at least 40 points. Projects then need to enter data annually to ensure high performance and maintain their certification, which is valid for a period of three years. 


USGBC’s LEED Zero program serves as a complement to LEED Certifications that verify achievement of net-zero sustainability goals in the categories of operations, energy, or water. This program is available to LEED projects certified under BD+C rating systems or registered in pursuit of an O+M certification and requires projects to provide 12 months of data for GBCI review.

How Does the LEED Rating System Work?

LEED certifications are granted by a third-party system, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). The GBCI completes a third-party verification of a project’s adherence to the LEED certification they are pursuing. This process has two parts – first, an application to qualify based on the project’s design, and second, one based on the construction or execution of the project. These applications can be found on LEED Online. Upon submission of these applications, the applicants are required to register the project and submit a fee based on the building area.

7 Credit Categories of LEED Certification Standards

The criteria for points awarded to a LEED-certified project vary across certification types, but broadly fall into seven categories:

  • Integrative Process: This category can earn a project only one point out of one hundred possible, but it is still an important one. To earn this point, a project must, “achieve synergies across disciplines and building systems,” which can include energy-related systems, water-related systems, social equity, and health & well-being (USGBC.)
  • Location & Transportation: The Location & Transportation category focuses on rewarding a project for its location choice or proximity to sustainable transportation choices. Points are awarded for either being located within a specific qualifying LEED Neighborhood Development area, or for other details such as being located in a previously developed site, in priority zoning locations, or providing bicycle facilities. 
  • Sustainable Sites: This category of LEED is also somewhat location-based. Sustainable Sites credits focus on rewarding projects that prioritize things like protecting natural ecosystems, providing open space, incorporating rainwater management systems, and reducing light pollution. 
  • Water Efficiency: The Water Efficiency category includes credits for reducing water use. These points are awarded for reduction of indoor and outdoor water use, providing building-level water metering, and for sustainable use of water for cooling towers. 
  • Energy & Atmosphere: Energy and Atmosphere credits are aimed at improving energy efficiency. Many of its criteria are required in order to qualify for LEED certification. Points are given for items like fundamental commissioning like design review, development of efficiency maintenance plans, meeting minimum energy performance standards, or purchasing Green-e certified green power or RECs.
  • Materials & Resources: This category has to do with the sustainability of materials utilized for a LEED qualifying project and also contains required criteria like providing space for recycling and development of a waste management plan. Other Materials & Resources points are given for meeting recycling targets or using materials from manufacturers that have publicly disclosed information about the sourcing, sustainability, or chemical content of their materials.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality: The Indoor Environmental Quality category centers on ensuring fresh air for a project’s occupants and using materials without chemicals that can affect air quality. Points under this category are awarded for things like meeting ventilation standards, prohibiting smoking in and near the building, and using materials with low VOC content (volatile organic compounds.)

4 Tiers of LEED Rating Tiers

Projects earning at least 40 points are awarded one of four LEED rating levels:

  • Certified: 40-49 Points  
  • Silver: 50-59 Points
  • Gold: 60-69 Points
  • Platinum: 80 Points

What Are the Minimum Requirements for LEED Certification?

There are seven minimum program requirements for eligibility for LEED certification which can vary between LEED rating systems:
  • Comply with Environmental Laws
  • Be a Complete, Permanent Building or Space
  • Use a Reasonable Site Boundary
  • Comply with Minimum Floor Area Requirements
  • Comply with Minimum Occupancy Rates
  • Commit to Sharing Whole-Building Energy and Water Usage Data
  • Comply with a Minimum Building Area to Site Area Ratio

What Is the Cost of LEED Certification?

There are a few fees associated with LEED certification and most are dependent on the type of certification being applied for and the size of the project. Registering a project runs between $150 and $5,000.  A flat certification fee dependent upon project size and type is then charged when a project team submits data for review.If a project needs expedited review, appeals, or formal inquiries, additional fees apply. USGBC members can receive discounts as owners or project administrators of a project up for LEED certification. You can find the current fee schedule for LEED registration and certification fees here.
The Treehouse - Memorial City - Houston, TX

What Are the Benefits of LEED Certification for Buildings?

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:

1. Sustainability

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:

2. Healthier Working & Living Conditions

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:

3. Lower Reoccurring & Operational Costs

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:

4. Positive PR & Brand Image

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:

5. Government Tax Incentive Programs

While there may be fees and extra first-time costs involved with becoming LEED certified, there are many benefits – including financial ones – of getting your building LEED certified, including:


When Is the LEED Certification Registration Deadline?

Registration and certification for LEED v4 projects are currently open. Many previous versions of the LEED certification are currently closed for registration, but open for certification with programs “sunsetting” and closing for both registration and certification on June 30th, 2022. You can find the current deadline schedule here.

How Do I Apply My Building for LEED Certification?

LEED certifications requires planning and project management. Here are 5 steps to applying for LEED certification for your building:

1. Register Your Building for LEED Certification

Once you are certain your planned project meets the minimum program requirements for LEED certification under the appropriate LEED rating system, head to USGBC’s online portal at LEED Online. There, you can access helpful tools and resources, download required applications, submit your application, and submit payment for registration.

2. Put Together a LEED Project Team

Now it’s time to assemble a team to begin your project and gather all required documentation required for verification. Depending on the needs of your specific project, you will want to enlist a project manager, a developer or owner, a sustainability consultant, an energy modeler, a general contractor, an architect or landscape architect, engineers, and a commissioning authority.

Additionally, appointing marketing and finance consultants, and other contractors and players involved in project operations would be helpful at this time.

3. Identify the Credit and Certification to Pursue

Based on your project scope and the expertise of your project team, you can now review the LEED Credit Library to select which categories and points you aim to pursue based on the appropriate LEED rating system.

4. Assign Responsibilities and Submit Data for Review

Team members should be assigned responsibility for meeting requirements for different LEED credits and submitting documentation to LEED Online for the Project Administrator’s review. Over the course of project development and completion, these team members should be tracking progress on all of their assigned areas of responsibility. Once all necessary documentation has been uploaded and reviewed for accuracy and completion, the project can be submitted and the certification fee paid.

5. Wait Until Your LEED Application Is Reviewed

Upon project submission and fee payment, GBVI will review all provided documentation for certification. Once you receive your preliminary results, your team can accept them as final or modify your application and apply for an appeal or re-review at a cost.

4 Tips for Having Your LEED Application Approved

The LEED certification process is by no means an easy one. Here are four tips to help keep your LEED certification project on track:

1. Stay Organized

Obtaining a LEED certification involves a lot of planning right from the beginning of your project. Take the time early on to set goals, organize digital files organization, research credit requirements, and create an overall plan for success.

2. Build Your Team with LEED-Accredited Professionals & Consultants

Don’t waste time or money trying to reinvent the wheel. Include LEED-accredited team members in your project from start to finish to be sure you are spending wisely and receiving the highest certification possible.

3. Maximize Your Budget

While many LEED criteria might be built into different parts of the project’s existing budget, many will require some extra spending. Determine what kind of budget you can devote to additional sustainability measures and consult the LEED credit library to plan out how to maximize the number of points you can get without overspending.

4. Focus on Investments Over First-Time Cost

Since sustainability is the name of the game, it’s advisable to think of your project’s sustainability measures as investments that will provide value throughout the lifecycle of your project rather than providing value initially.

10 Examples of US LEED-Certified Buildings in 2021

Here are 10 examples of LEED certified buildings in the US, leading the way for sustainable and green building design and construction in 2021: 

1. Philip Merrill Environmental Center


Located in Annapolis, Maryland, the Phillip Merrill Environmental Center is owned and operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It was the first building ever to receive the LEED Platinum rating one of the “greenest” buildings ever built when it opened in 2001.

2. David L. Lawrence Convention Center

David L. Lawrence Convention Center

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania was designed to be a leader in environmental resiliency through and through. The building sits on the Allegheny River and its roof is designed with a curve that harnesses river breezes for zero-cost cooling.

3. Soldier Field


After it was renovated and reopened in 2003, Chicago’s Soldier Field took on a number of projects focused on increasing efficiency and lowering its carbon footprint. In December of 2011, it became the first existing NFL stadium to receive LEED – EB Certification. Additionally, the stadium worked with the Chicago Bears to engage in public education efforts related to sustainability.

4. Moment Chicago


Moment Chicago, a lavish, 47-story multifamily apartment building in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood has achieved a LEED Silver rating. This building was designed sustainably not only for the sake of the environment, but to align with its aims of providing its residents with a sense of wellness and mindfulness..

5. 180 North LaSalle


Originally built in 1971, this 38-story multi-tenant building is now LEED Gold rated with 79 points. 180 North LaSalle was originally designed by Harry Weese and awarded Chicago’s Best New Building by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1972.

6. 311 S Wacker


One of many LEED-Certified buildings on Wacker Drive in Chicago, this office building was originally built in 1990. In 2014, the building was acquired by Zeller Realty Group, which committed to a number of sustainability initiatives that have since earned it LEED Gold certification.

7. The Greenwich Lane


The Greenwich Lane is a group of six individual condo buildings in New York’s West Village. Each building centers on a green, private garden. This project has a uniquely sustainable parking garage design that includes plenty of bike storage in addition to electric vehicle charging stations.

8. The Hearst Tower


This building was the first in New York City to be awarded a Leed Gold rating for core, shell, and interiors and now holds a LEED Platinum rating for existing buildings. Hearst Tower has its own composting program and has been able to reduce energy consumption by over 50% since it was built.

9. One World Trade Center


One World Trade Center received LEED Gold certification in 2016. The building was designed in a way that allowed natural light into the majority of office areas inside, significantly reducing heating and lighting costs.

10. 600 W Chicago


600 West Chicago is a LEED Gold certified office building in Chicago’s Goose Island neighborhood. This building scored 68 total points, with most in the categories of Energy & Atmosphere in Indoor Environmental Quality.

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