Business Tips

What is LEED®? A guide to green building certification

by Kelsey Bergan


Whether you’re a plumber, HVAC contractor, commercial builder or work in any facet of the trades, you have likely heard LEED at some point on the job. But what is LEED and what does it have to do with green building? In short, LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a global rating system for building green structures. LEED was established by the U.S. Green Building Council, or USBGC®, after the organization formed over 25 years ago. Today, LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

LEED has two different components: professional accreditation and project certification. Accreditation is awarded to an individual in the form of LEED Green Associate, LEED Accredited Professional or LEED AP, and LEED Fellow. With the ever rising demand for green buildings, having a LEED accreditation can be beneficial for any trade professional.

LEED certification rating systems

Whereas accreditations are awarded to people, the LEED certification system rates building and building projects in terms of energy efficiency. LEED refines and updates the rating standards over time, and is currently on LEED vs4.1. LEED also has ratings for the finished structure and the operations within the building after construction is complete. There are many LEED rating systems available, and the rating is selected based on the building or building project. The LEED rating systems include:

  1. Building Design and Construction, or BD+C. This rating is selected for buildings that are new construction or going through a large renovation
  2. Interior Design and Construction, or ID+C. This rating is selected when a full interior update is completed.
  3. Residential BD+C. This rating addresses residential buildings that are new construction or undergo major renovation.
  4. Cities and Communities. This rating is selected for new cities or communities in the planning/design phase or existing communities.
  5. Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M). This rating system is for buildings that are fully operations and occupied.

LEED certification addresses a wide range of industries, including schools, retail, data centers, warehouse and distribution centers, hospitality and healthcare. It can also be used for single family homes or multifamily homes from a residential perspective.

How buildings and building projects earn LEED ratings

Each LEED rating system has requirements that need to be met prior to beginning the certification process. Each rating system has a scorecard that outlines the number of points that can be earned for a given requirement. Points are then earned based on what has been implemented as part of the building project. LEED maintains a credit library to make it easy to select the appropriate rating system and cross reference available credit categories.

For 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. A building earns points depending on whether or not it meets the requirements outlined in the scorecard with the highest possible score being 110. If you obtain 40-49 points the building earns a ranking of Certified, 50-59 points earns Silver, 60-79 earns Gold, and 80 or more is awarded Platinum. The USGBC provides detailed criteria on how to earn points in the O+M LEED Reference Guide, which is available for purchase through the USGBC.

How much does LEED certification cost?

As with any service, there is a cost, and with all LEED projects submitted there are registration and certification fees. The fees vary based on the certification rating, and Silver, Gold and Platinum level members of the USGBC are charged less for certification fees than non-members. Depending on the certification rating, other factors that may affect the fee structure include square footage of the building, acreage of the property, or the number of buildings submitted for certification.

For example, the O+M registration is a flat fee of $1,500 for non-members. The certification fee depends on the building’s square footage, and ranges from $0.0216 to $0.0274 per square foot. LEED provides a price estimate tool to make it easy to calculate the potential cost of certifying your project. Additionally, LEED offers expedited review and an appeals process, both as extra charges.

How contractors benefit from LEED certification ratings

While there is a cost to obtain a LEED certification for a building, the cost can be viewed as an investment yielding a number of benefits for building owners, occupants and contractors alike. In terms of cumulative savings, the U.S. Green Building Council reports an estimated $1.2 billion in energy savings, $149.5 million in water savings, and $715.3 million in maintenance savings for LEED-certified buildings surveyed between 2015 – 2018. Additionally, client demand accounted for 34% of the drive for future green building activity according to a 2018 survey published by the USGBC. These stats point to the conclusion that contractors who build according to the LEED rating systems are uniquely positioned to be in higher demand over contractors who do not.

Get more tips to help you understand the importance of energy efficiency in the trades by checking out Green Ideas, and shop our offering of environmentally preferred products online or at a Ferguson location near you.

Kelsey Bergan

As Ferguson’s Director of Sustainability, Kelsey is a LEED Green Associate with over 12 years of experience in the sustainability industry.