Guide to LEED Certification for Commercial Businesses
If you've ever wondered what is the criteria to receive a green building certification, you've probably come across the term LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. As of 2019, over 69,000 U.S. projects have registered for LEED certification. Since LEED is one of the most well-regarded certifications for environmentally-friendly buildings, its evaluation criteria are rigorous. In this guide, we'll discuss what LEED is and how you can pursue a LEED certification for your project.
What Is LEED Certification?
LEED certification is a private-sector certification to recognize buildings designed and built using sustainable and energy-efficient practices. LEED is the most widely-used system of standards for green buildings with international recognition. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) awards LEED certifications, and the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI) administers the technical review and verification process.
LEED is a framework for developing healthy, energy-efficient and cost-saving buildings and one of the highest levels of recognition of achievement in sustainability. Certifications are available for commercial buildings, neighborhood developments, cities, communities and housing. You can achieve LEED certification for almost any type of project, including core and shell, operations and maintenance, new construction and interior fit-outs.
Why Should You Get LEED Certified?
There are many reasons to consider getting LEED certification for your building. For projects under development, it can be enticing for investors and future occupants. LEED certification can potentially lead to more efficient procedures for operational management, along with cost savings. Some of the most significant benefits of receiving LEED certification are:
- Cost benefits: LEED-certified buildings see fantastic cost savings across the board. Between 2015 and 2018, LEED-certified buildings saw $1.2 billion in energy savings. They also saved $149.5 million on water, $715.3 million on maintenance and $52.2 million on waste. Environmentally-friendly buildings are attractive for renters and LEED-certified buildings have lease-up rates 20% above average. They also see 4% fewer vacancies than other properties.
- Health benefits: Having healthy employees or tenants is good for business. LEED-certified buildings translate into many critical health benefits for occupants. They often improve indoor air quality, which can reduce respiratory issues and absenteeism for employees. Come LEED-certified buildings can also provide more access to natural light which can benefit mood and eyesight. As a result, many commercial businesses see improvement in employee retention and productivity.
- Environmental benefits: By 2030, LEED-certified projects will have saved more than 540 tons of waste from ending up in landfills. On average, these buildings consume 25% less energy and 11% less water. LEED-certified buildings can also reduce their carbon footprint and lower CO2 emissions by 34%. These numbers can help companies meet their commitments to sustainable practices and improve relationships with their host communities.
Steps to Achieve LEED Certification
LEED certification has many requirements for businesses and earning a LEED certification requires deliberate planning. When you're taking on a new construction project or updating your current building, LEED certification should be one of your goals from the start. The first step is to understand LEED certification basics for businesses so you can make informed decisions throughout your project. Here is a breakdown of the steps you need to take to obtain LEED certification on a project:
- Create a business plan: You can start with a business plan that sets a LEED certification budget. Note that the registration, application, and appeals process each has associated fees. Green materials and strategies typically cost more upfront, so you should also set a budget for these improvements. Remember that many green buildings qualify for government incentives, gain positive PR and command higher prices from customers and tenants. A business plan guides both design and maintenance, so your building earns its certification and can maintain it in the long run.
- Establish goals: It's crucial to ensure the green improvements you make align with your other business objectives. Set specific goals for your project, such as which level of certification and LEED credits you want to achieve. For example, a focus on energy improvements may give you a different ROI than on sustainable materials or water efficiency.
- Gather your team: Choosing the right professionals to complete the project is key. LEED-certified architects, engineers and planners who are familiar with the standards can help you make the right decisions and earn more LEED points.
- Register your project: The USGBC recommends registering your project during the design phase to ensure an integrated approach to the entire building. Your building must meet all the requirements, so check the LEED Credit Library to find out the minimum requirements for your project.
- Submit your application: When it's time to apply, you'll have to pay a review fee and submit all the documentation needed for GBCI to review your project. You'll select which LEED credits to pursue and create a plan for achieving them within design and construction. To ensure you meet all LEED standards, you'll provide documents, calculations and analysis. Make sure you've highlighted all prerequisites and identified information related to each credit you're aiming for. Make sure all documents and attachments are labeled, and only submit the data and pages of reports that prove your project meets the requirements. You can help your application by providing a narrative of the project to give the reviewers context for your project.
- Get reviewed and receive your decision: The review process can include up to three phases. Part one (the preliminary review) is the first, which every submitted project goes through. You will receive your initial results which may highlight some credits as pending more information. If you're satisfied with these results, you can accept them as final. In part two, you can submit any information requested by GBCI and amend your original submission. You can accept these results or enter part three, a supplemental or appeal review. This part is subject to another fee and allows you to add new credits and include more information.
How Do You Achieve LEED Certification for Your Business?
There are many types of LEED certifications for commercial businesses, neighborhood developers, houses, cities and communities. Each type may have variations in the scoring categories.
What are the different LEED certifications for businesses? There are several types your commercial project might qualify for, including:
- LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C)
- LEED for Interior Design and Construction (ID+C)
- LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M)
Depending on the certification you apply for will affect the prerequisites and credits you will need to achieve. The BD+C LEED certification has nine categories that contribute to a green, healthy and efficient building. Each category has particular prerequisites depending on the type of project. To gain certification, you need to earn a certain number of points out of a total of 100 possible points. You can score points by achieving credits in each category.
You can use our commercial guide to LEED certification as a starting point to learn more about each of the evaluation categories. Here are the nine categories of LEED v4.1, the latest version of the LEED certification guidelines for businesses:
1. Integrative Process
To qualify for integrative process credits, yo wi'll need to begin your LEED certification strategy from the pre-design phase. LEED O+M projects, which apply to operations, cannot achieve any integrative process credits. The idea is to create synergy between disciplines and energy and water systems through an early analysis of their interrelationships.
There is only one credit associated with the integrative process category. For BD+C projects, the integrative process credit is worth one point. For ID+C projects, it is worth up to two points.
For example, a new construction project should have a holistic approach to energy efficiency. It should include an assessment of outdoor site conditions, such as shade. It will also look at how the energy envelope, lighting, plug and process load needs, thermal comfort levels and operational parameters can contribute to energy efficiency. Likewise, it should take an integrated approach to how the building can reduce potable water demands. It should look at indoor, outdoor and process water demand, as well as supply sources.
2. Location and Transportation
The location and transportation category rewards a thoughtful approach. For example, if a new construction project is built close to public transportation, it can reduce pollution from cars.
BD+C projects can aim for eight different credits, each ranging from one to 16 points. ID+C projects qualify for five credits, with the most valuable credit worth up to 18 points. O+M projects have one credit, Transportation Performance, and it is a prerequisite for earning the O+M LEED certification.
A BD+C project that needs permanent bicycle facilities, changing rooms, storage, and shower areas for a certain percentage of building occupants or residents to earn this credit. Bicycle storage facilities are a type of O+M project which could earn a total of one point in the v4.1 LEED requirements.VPS, the leader in innovative hail and UV sun/protection, provides commercial protection not just for vehicles, but assets and storage as well.
VPS commercial hail protection solutions could potentially earn a point through the reduced parking footprint credit by designing innovative coverings for parking spots. VPS covered parking structures could be used to dedicate car-share parking spots or increase the value of your parking, allowing you to provide it as an unbundled service. Either of these measures could be considered for earning the one point allotted to this credit.
3. Water Efficiency
Water efficiency is one of the critical areas that drive green building solutions. BD+C, ID+C and O+M all have at least one prerequisite in the water efficiency category. The ID+C certification requires you to meet minimum indoor water use reduction standards and allows you to earn up to 12 points by taking additional water reduction efforts. The BD+C certification enables you to receive up to six points through indoor water use reduction.
For the BD+C certification, you can earn more points by reducing outdoor water usage, meeting standards for your water cooling tower, and installing meters for at least two water subsystems. This type of certification can earn up to nine points in the water efficiency category.
4. Indoor Environmental Quality
Improving the environmental quality within your building creates happier occupants, reduces health issues and improves mental well-being. This category includes air quality, thermal comfort, interior lighting, tobacco smoke control, daylight, views and acoustics.
The BD+C, ID+C and O+M certifications each have several prerequisites and credit opportunities in this category.
BD+C and IC+C construction projects can gain the most points through Daylight and Low-Emitting Materials credits, which are both worth up to three points. You can score points if you achieve certain levels of daylight illuminance in a percentage of your occupied floor space. You can also earn points by using low-emitting materials in paints and coatings, adhesives and sealants, flooring, wall panels, ceilings, insulation, furniture or composite wood. The more product categories you can achieve this status in, the more points you may earn.
Those seeking O+M certification can earn two points for implementing green cleaning policies and using integrated pest management to reduce pest problems and exposure to pesticides.
Sustainable design strategies and operational procedures are always evolving. When new research and technologies influence your project, you make your building better. This category rewards innovation with up to six points for BD+C and ID+C projects and up to one point for O+M certifications.
You can earn these points by achieving measurable improvements using a strategy not already defined by the LEED system. These innovations can include collecting pilot credits from among the ones listed in the LEED Pilot Credit Library or developing an original strategy.
You can also earn a point by working with at least one LEED Accredited Professional on the project team.
6. Regional Priority
Those seeking LEED BD+C certification can earn up to four points by focusing on local needs. You'll have to meet credits your region's USGBC chapter has identified as being of increased importance. Regional priority credits allow you to earn extra points from other credits.
For example, the Light Pollution Reduction credit from the Sustainable Sites category might have regional priority in areas that see increased light pollution. It's a credit worth one point, and you can earn another point by meeting it if it's a regional priority.
You can look for Regional Priority Credits that might apply to your area on the USGBC website.
7. Sustainable Sites
The Sustainable Sites category credits projects that maintain positive relationships between buildings and their surrounding ecosystem. BD+C and O+M applicants can earn points through rainwater management, heat island reduction and light pollution reduction. BD+C qualifiers must meet the prerequisite for construction activity pollution prevention. They can also score points by building in an open space and completing a comprehensive site assessment. Those seeking an O+M certification can earn another point through sustainable site management.
8. Materials and Resources
With sustainable waste management practices and responsibly sourced raw materials, you can earn credits in the Materials and Resources category. These credits ensure designers and builders consider the overall lifecycle of the building. It also encourages facility managers to make smart decisions on purchasing, maintenance and waste management. It rewards using materials that will leave minimal impact on the environment over the building's lifetime.
9. Energy and Atmosphere
Energy and Atmosphere is the credit category where BD+C applicants have the most opportunities to gain points. A project can earn up to 18 points by optimizing energy performance — the higher the percentage of improvements, the more points.
The project can also earn up to five points by using renewable energy. Generating renewable energy on-site, through means such as solar panels, is ideal. You can also gain points by using off-site renewable energy, although you'll need to source a higher percentage of your energy this way to earn points. You can score the full five points if 40% of your building's energy comes from on-site renewable sources.
VPS solar integrated covered parking structures can help you meet your goal of producing on-site renewable energy. They provide a service for occupants by offering shaded parking in conjunction with reducing the heat island effect. Our solar parking structures can potentially contribute to LEED certification and bring down energy costs.
What Are the Different Levels of LEED Certification?
Now that you know how to earn points toward your company's LEED certification, you can decide how many points you would like to obtain. There are four levels of LEED certification. All have the same prerequisites, and you are free to pursue any of the credits to earn any level of certification. The more points you earn, the higher your certification.
For example, the LEED Gold standard requirements for businesses are no different from the other tier's requirements. The difference is the Gold certification needs more points than Certified or Silver.
Here are the four levels of LEED certification available to commercial projects:
- LEED Certified™: To get LEED Certified, you need at least 40 points. To earn a higher distinction, you need more than 49 points.
- LEED Silver®: The LEED Silver certification is a step above Certified, and it requires 50 to 59 points.
- LEED Gold®: The LEED Gold certification is the second-highest honor, and to meet its criteria, you need between 60 and 79 points.
- LEED Platinum®: The Platinum level is the highest LEED certification your project can earn. You need 80 or more points out of a possible 100 to achieve this distinction.
How to Improve From One Level to the Next
Improving your LEED certification level adds prestige and can generate more cost savings and revenue. At the higher certification levels of Silver, Gold and Platinum, you can access more membership benefits from USGBC.
Once you earn the number of points for certification, it takes only a few more points to bump yourself up to the next category. The most significant jump occurs between Gold and Platinum since the point range for a Gold certification is 19 points. If you want to improve your score, here are some steps you can take:
- Consider a pre-certification review: You can submit your LEED BD+C project for a pre-certification review. Reviewers will determine which credits your project might achieve during the full review. From there, you can identify credits to gain more points and earn the next level of distinction. The USGBC Credit Library also has a LEED certification checklist you can use to calculate the points you've earned.
- Find high-impact improvements: Earning many credits worth one or two points each can bump you to the next certification level with lots of coordination. Implementing a few measures worth many points each can create a more significant impact. For example, on-site renewable energy can earn you up to five points. If you add solar panels via covered parking structures, you can make an extra point from the Heat Island Reduction credit. If renewable energy or heat island reduction has regional priority, you can earn another point, bringing the total to seven with one project.
- Amend and appeal: If you've received a preliminary certification decision, you do not have to accept those results. The reviewers may ask for more information on certain credits, so you can submit more documentation to earn more points. You can also amend your application for the final review to potentially make more points. You can also appeal and change your application after the second review and keep improving your project until you've earned the number of points you need to boost yourself to the next tier of certification.
FAQs about LEED Certification
Here are some of the most common questions that commercial developers have about LEED certification:
How Long Does It Take to Get LEED Certified?
The time it takes to get certified starts with preparing your application. The time it takes to apply can vary, depending on the size of the project and how long it takes you to gather documentation. Plan to spend plenty of time perfecting your application and double-checking everything.
Once you hit submit and GBCI receives your fee in full, your project will begin the review timeline:
- Preliminary review: You'll receive a decision within 20 to 25 business days. You can accept this as your outcome if you want.
- Optional final review: If you choose to submit more information for another review, you should do so within 25 business days of receiving the preliminary results. After you submit, you'll receive your final results within 20 to 25 business days.
- Optional supplemental review: You can appeal the final decision as many times as you would like, and GBCI will send its updated decision within 20 to 25 business days for each appeal.
- Expedited review: To receive a faster decision, you can contact GBCI five business days before you plan to submit your application and pay a fee. Each expedited review phase will then take 10 to 12 business days.
Is LEED Certification Mandatory for Commercial Businesses?
LEED certification is a private sector award. It is not usually mandatory, although some city governments require LEED certification for city-owned or city-funded projects or buildings of a specific size. Some private investors might also want LEED certification for their investments.
What Are the Prerequisite Criteria for LEED Certification?
The criteria for certification depend on the type of certification you're seeking and the version of LEED requirements you're using.
The most recent version of LEED, v4.1, has minimum requirements for businesses LEED BD+C certifications. The project must:
- Be in a permanent location on existing land.
- Use reasonable LEED boundaries.
- Comply with project size requirements.
The project should also meet prerequisites within several categories. Here is a list of the LEED certification prerequisites for businesses:
- Construction Activity Pollution Prevention
- Outdoor Water Use Reduction
- Indoor Water Use Reduction
- Building-Level Water Metering
- Fundamental Commissioning and Verification
- Minimum Energy Performance
- Building-Level Energy Metering
- Fundamental Refrigerant Management
- Storage and Collection of Recyclables
- Construction and Demolition Waste Management Planning Minimum Indoor Air Quality Performance
- Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control
You can use the USGBC LEED Credit Library to view the prerequisites for your specific project.
Get Solar Covered Parking & Hail Protection for Your LEED Project
At VPS, we're proud to offer energy-efficient products that can help your project get LEED certified. Our solar-based covered parking and hail protection structures can help you earn the on-site renewable energy credit and earn points depending on how much energy you produce. Our solution can help you qualify for the Heat Island Reduction credit by covering at least 75% of your parking spaces with renewable energy-generating covered parking.
At VPS, we offer custom and turnkey covered parking and hail protection solutions for your parking lot or the roof of your parking garage. Talk to one of our experts to see how we can help you with your LEED project.