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Published: 24 May 2024
Contributors: Alice Gomstyn, Alexandra Jonker

What is LEED certification?

LEED certification, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, is the recognition that a building or community has met certain standards for sustainable design and energy efficiency. LEED certifications range from “LEED Certified,” indicating a basic level of sustainability, to “LEED Platinum,” indicating the highest level of sustainability.

Buildings and communities that meet LEED standards produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which can help mitigate the effects of climate change. They typically also have lower operational costs and provide a higher quality of life for inhabitants.

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What is the history of LEED?

LEED was created by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), a green building industry coalition founded in 1993 amid an increased cultural focus on environmental concerns. The goal was to create better buildings optimized “with people and nature in mind.”1

The USGBC developed the first LEED rating system five years later, rating 19 pilot projects against LEED standards. In March 2000, the coalition publicly launched the rating system, which focused specifically on new construction. By 2004, 100 projects had earned LEED green building certification.

Over the years, LEED certification has extended into various markets, including school construction, interior design and existing buildings. In 2008, USGBC launched Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) to provide independent oversight of LEED certification.

GBCI also grants credentials to people recognized as knowledgeable in green building practices. Individuals who demonstrate foundational competency in green building practices are awarded credentials as LEED green associates. People demonstrating expertise in green building and a LEED rating system earn credentials as LEED APs (accredited professionals) with specialty.

To date, more than 108,000 LEED projects have received certification worldwide, while more than 203,000 individuals have earned LEED credentials.2, 3

What are today’s LEED system goals?

Greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon emissions, accelerate climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, direct and indirect carbon emissions from buildings account for more than a quarter of global energy emissions.4

On its website, USGBC frames LEED-certified buildings as critical for addressing climate change and meeting environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. Building practices that meet LEED certification standards should:

  • Reduce contributions to climate change
  • Enhance human health
  • Protect and restore water resources
  • Protect and enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • Promote more sustainable and regenerative material cycles
  • Enhance community quality of life

In addition to the sustainability benefits associated with LEED buildings and built environments, LEED projects have proven to be high-performing assets for investors and building owners. They boast lower operational costs over their lifecycles than non-LEED buildings, according to USGBC. Cost savings stem in part from energy-saving and energy-efficient building practices.

What are the different LEED rating systems?

LEED certification processes cover all building types and building phases. LEED certification programs include:

Building design and construction (BD+C)

This rating system focuses on new construction or major renovations. Eligible building types include schools, retail establishments, hospitality facilities, data centers, warehouses and distribution centers and healthcare facilities.

Interior design and construction (ID+C)

This system is for the complete “fit out”—the work performed to make an interior of a building ready for occupation—of commercial interiors, including retail and hospitality locations.

Building operations and maintenance (O+M)

This system concentrates on building operations and performance in spaces that have been fully operational and occupied for at least a year.

Neighborhood development (ND)

This system is for new land development projects or redevelopment projects planned for residential uses, nonresidential uses or a combination of both.

Home or residential design and construction

This system is for new construction projects and major renovations of single-family and multi-family homes.

Cities and communities

The LEED framework for cities and communities encourages the creation of sustainable plans for factors that contribute to quality of life in urban locations, including energy use, water efficiency, waste management and transportation.

LEED rating systems are updated periodically. The latest LEED systems are LEED v4.1 and LEED v5.

What are the metrics required for LEED certification?

To be considered for LEED certification, projects must meet prerequisites related to size, boundaries and permanence—that is, the project must be a permanent structure on existing land.

Under LEED v4.1, projects can become eligible for certification by adhering to various LEED credit categories. Through these categories (delineated in the LEED credit library online), different project types can earn points. This point system is used to determine their certification levels.

Points are awarded based on category-specific criteria, with project teams encouraged to do the following actions:

Integrative process

Set goals and collaborate on analysis of two of the following aspects of the project: energy-related systems, water-related systems, risk assessments on natural hazards, social equity, and health and well-being.

Location and transportation

Factor in ways to lower environmental impact and improve human health as they plan how people travel to and from the project location. This could mean choosing locations that already have robust transportation infrastructure nearby.

Sustainable sites

Develop strategies that minimize the project’s impact on ecosystems and water resources.

Water efficiency

Optimize water efficiency through measures such as choosing plant species that require minimal irrigation, installing fixtures and appliances that use less water and by using recycled water for mechanical processes.

Energy and atmosphere

Develop strategies for better energy performance. Strategies might include the use of renewable energy, the installation of advanced energy metering and the implementation of smart lighting.

Materials and resources

Use sustainable building materials and reduce waste.


Indoor environmental quality

Provide better indoor air quality and design spaces to allow access to daylight and outdoor views.

Regional priority

Address environmental priorities that are specific to the project’s local region.


Take measures not delineated in the existing rating system to benefit human and environmental health and equity. Points are also awarded to project teams that include at least one LEED-accredited professional.

What are the four levels of LEED certification?

There are four LEED certification levels awarded to projects based on the total number of points earned:

  • LEED Certified: 40 to 49 points.
  • LEED Silver Certification: 50 to 59 points.
  • LEED Gold Certification: 60 to 79 points.
  • LEED Platinum Certification: 80 or more points.
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Resources What is environmental, social and governance?

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) refers to a set of standards used to measure an organization’s environmental and social impact.

What are ESG frameworks?

ESG reporting frameworks are used by companies for the disclosure of data related to the ESG aspects of the business.

What is net zero?

Net zero is the point at which greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are balanced by an equivalent amount removed from the atmosphere.

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to the documented global temperature increase of the Earth’s surface since the late 1800s.

What is energy management?

Energy management is the monitoring, control and optimization of energy consumption to conserve use and reduce energy costs.

The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment explained

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1 "Mission and vision" (link resides outside ibm.com), US Green Building Council, accessed 1 April 2024.

2 30 years of member accomplishments in green building” (link resides outside ibm.com), Heather Benjamin, US Green Building Council, 6 April 2023.

3 LEED credentials” (link resides outside ibm.com), US Green Building Council, accessed 15 May 2024.

4 Buildings” (link resides outside ibm.com), International Energy Agency, 11 July 2023.