Why and How to Become a LEED Certified Architect

By Taz Loomans

Is LEED AP just another set of letters that architects tack onto their names to appear more credible, or does it really mean something? In a world that is increasingly concerned about the impact of the built environment on the planet, does the credential make a difference for your career and credibility, or is it a waste of time and money?

The What and the How. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. According to the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the parent organization of LEED, it is the most widely recognized and widely used green-building rating system in the world. It examines big things such as the way a building site is positioned, as well as minute details like what the carpet fibers in the lobby are made of.

In terms of how to become LEED certified, building projects must follow rigorous requirements and documentation for different levels of LEED v4 certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. A building with a LEED plaque on it tells occupants and passersby that it’s a healthier and more environmentally friendly building than others.

LEED v4 credits for vegetation on a building site
Monte Carlo city buildings. There are two possible credits in LEED v4 for using 30 percent vegetation on a building site (including the building footprint).

Monte Carlo city buildings. There are two possible credits in LEED v4 for using 30 percent vegetation on a building site (including the building footprint).

Meanwhile, LEED accreditation is associated with the LEED rating system. It ensures that professionals have the knowledge they need to take a project through LEED certification and are well versed in the many aspects of green building.

You have two options for LEED credentialing: LEED Green Associate and LEED Accredited Professional (AP). Kelly Gearhart—a green building consultant, educator, and principal at Triple Green Building Group—breaks it down into three steps.

1. Prepare for, schedule, and take the LEED Green Associate exam. “You can obtain study materials from the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which publishes a handbook for each of the LEED exams,” Gearhart says. Then, read through the materials on your own, join or form a study group, or take a course on the material. Exams are administered through a proctoring company called Prometric, which has testing centers in all major cities around the world.

LEED credentials workshop
A LEED workshop in Russia (Kelly Gearhart is third from the left). Courtesy Triple Green Building Group.

2. Specialize in AP by project type. If you have experience working on LEED projects, you may want to take the next step to LEED AP. Once you’ve taken the LEED Green Associate Exam, you can take the AP exam, which is tailored to a specific LEED rating system. The rating systems include LEED for Building Construction and Design (BD+C), Operations and Management (O+M), Interior Design and Construction (ID+C), Neighborhood Design (ND), and Homes.

“The type of work you do as an architect will dictate the kind of AP credential you should get,” Gearhart says. “And if you do multiple kinds of work, such as both building design and neighborhood master planning, you can get both the BD+C and ND credentials.”

There is no time span required between taking the LEED Green Associate Exam and the AP exams, as long as you keep your Green Associate credential active and current; you can schedule them back-to-back if you prefer. But you are required to pass both the LEED Green Associate Exam and the AP exam to obtain the LEED AP credential.

warfield office building leed certified
The Warfield Office Building in San Francisco; LEED-CS (Core and Shell) certified. Courtesy Kevin J. Short.

3. Maintain accreditation with continuing education. To maintain your LEED Green Associate credential, you are required to get 15 continuing education (CE) hours every two years, three of which must be LEED specific. To maintain your AP credential, you must get 30 CE hours every two years, six of which must be LEED specific. LEED-specific hours must pertain to topics having to do with LEED certification, through education, project experience, authorship, and volunteering.

The Why and the Why Not. In an age when green building has gone from being a catchphrase used by environmentalists to being more of a mainstream practice in architecture, having the LEED AP credential could mean the difference between landing a project or getting passed up. “More and more organizations require or prefer teams to include a LEED AP when applying for requests for proposals, whether it be in the private or public sector,” Gearhart says.

Vessela Valtcheva-McGee—an architect, green building consultant, educator, and managing partner of Triple Green Building Group—says that LEED AP is an attractive credential for job seekers. “LEED has a really good market uptake both in the U.S. and internationally,” she says. “So to have a LEED AP credential is definitely a plus for people looking to do work in emerging markets like China, India, and the Middle East, as well as here in the U.S.”

LEED certification client meeting
Vessela Valtcheva-McGee (far left) in a client meeting. Courtesy Triple Green Building Group.

But getting the full LEED AP accreditation can cost between $400 and $550, so is it worth the money and ongoing time commitment? “At best, these green buildings perform no better and no worse on primary energy savings, making government policies requiring their construction a questionable mandate and raising questions about effective methods to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” says John H. Scofield, professor of Physics at Oberlin College and contributor to Brink News.

Meanwhile, architect and ArchDaily contributor Steve Mouzon says that LEED allows people to game the system (racking up easy points for the total LEED score), so a LEED-certified building may not be so green after all: “For example, you can score almost as many points by installing a bike rack as you can by preserving an entire historic building.”

Both Gearhart and Valtcheva-McGee agree that LEED AP is only the beginning of an ongoing learning process. “Getting the accreditation serves as a catalyst for many architects,” Valtcheva-McGee says. It gives them a broad overview of various aspects of green buildings and often motivates architects to go deeper into one aspect or another.

siena youth center leed certified
Siena Youth Center in Redwood City, California; LEED-NC (New Construction) Platinum certified. Courtesy W.L. Butler Construction, Inc.

“There are many resources available to architects who want to learn more about a specific area of green building beyond obtaining and maintaining their LEED AP credential,” says Gearhart, who has worked closely with the GBCI. Other credentials include theLiving Building Challenge, PEER, WELL, SITES, and GRESB.

So what does it mean to have LEED AP next to your name? At the very least, it reveals you know the basics about environmental and energy design. But it’s up to you to accept its invitation to leadership and take your knowledge of green building further in your practice.

This article originally appeared on Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space, a site dedicated to inspiring designers and creators.

About the Author

Taz Loomans is a licensed, LEED-accredited architect at Communitecture Architecture, Planning, and Design in Portland, Oregon. She also writes about architecture on her Blooming Rock blog and for other publications.



Caron Beesley