If you’ve ever walked into a building and seen a circular plaque depicting three leaves, indicating a LEED Gold Certification, you may have wondered: What is LEED and what does this certification mean? Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a building design certification program that’s meant to evaluate and recognize environmentally-positive attributes in a structure’s architecture, construction, and use.


LEED was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a private, non-profit organization that promotes sustainability in various building types. The council was founded in 1993. Apart from its development of the LEED certification ranking system with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), it is known for the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo and its collaboration in founding the World Green Building Council.

A LEED certification is sought by owners and managers of all types of buildings and developments. The certification is sometimes required for zoning allowances, construction certifications and permits, tax credits, and other benefits. LEED-certified buildings can also be attractive for renters of office and retail spaces, as buildings with these certifications can sometimes command higher rents and occupancy rates.

LEED certifications apply to more than just commercial, government, and public buildings; the certification can also be applied to homes, neighborhoods, and other residential developments, as well as cities and communities.

What Does It Take To Become LEED Certified?

LEED certification requirements are based on the property or building type. LEED standards are categorized by commercial, residential, development, and community projects. The standards for each will vary. Overall, the process of becoming LEED certified requires registration with LEED, an application and service agreement, submission fees, and preliminary, final, and supplemental reviews.

Once complete, a points-based ruling and certification level is awarded—if applicable. LEED certification levels are based on the number of points a project earns during the review. A minimum score of 40 is needed to become LEED certified. A score of 50 to 59 earns a LEED Silver rating, a score of 60 to 79 earns a LEED Gold rating, and a score of 80 or higher amounts to a LEED Platinum rating.

During the LEED evaluation, a Green Business Certification Inc.-associated third-party reviewer determines whether mandatory minimums are met and surpassed in six project categories. These categories are site sustainability, architectural sustainability, water efficiency, energy use, indoor air quality, and indoor environment quality.

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Points are also awarded based on regional factors and design innovations. There are additional building performance criteria for residential properties, which include, but are not limited to, access to transportation, outdoor recreation, and educational resources. Certification criteria also vary by country, with the United States and Canada having unique requirements based on their respective national environmental laws and sustainability standards.

Environmentally-Sustainable Construction And Building Management

LEED-certified buildings can be attractive for renters, tax reduction, and property values, but the program is not without its criticism. Proponents of environmentally-friendly construction and building management have contested LEED certification requirements and subsequent effects with claims that they are insufficient or counteractive to meaningful sustainability efforts.

Some critics of the program have claimed that LEED requirements place too little emphasis on energy conservation and building performance and instead favor design choices and incentives that sometimes fail to address true energy efficiency.

Although LEED-certified buildings can gain a lot of favorable public relations and enhance a property’s potential returns, it is not the only system for improving sustainability and efficiency in buildings.

Credit: DASonnenfeld

Other green building initiatives include the 2030 Challenge, which aims to set a 2030 building standard requiring all new buildings and renovation projects to be completely carbon-neutral, and the Living Building Challenge, which certifies buildings based on their ability to enhance their build environments and meet net-zero, combustion-free energy standards.

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