top of page

What is LEED and What Does it Mean to Build Sustainably?

While there are many factors that impact today’s environment, buildings have a significant impact on the construction, maintenance, and operations of the spaces we design and construct. Sustainability, by definition, means the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. One of the most widely referenced programs for architectural design and sustainability is LEED. However, there are other programs and practices that have also laid the groundwork in helping us to design more sustainable and regionally appropriate spaces.

History of LEED

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design. LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It was founded in 1993 to create a coalition and a green building rating system spanning the entire construction industry. The credentialling continues to change and we are currently on version LEED v4.1.

LEED certification provides independent verification of a building or a neighborhood’s green features, allowing for the design, construction, operations, and maintenance to be resource-efficient, high-performing, healthy, and cost-effective.

Based on the number of points achieved, a project earns one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. LEED provides a roadmap for developing sustainable buildings to reduce environmental impact.

Individuals can become accredited in specific areas of LEED. They are:

  • Building Design + Construction

  • Operations + Maintenance

  • Interior Design + Construction

  • Neighborhood Development

  • Homes and Cities

  • Communities

Cost of LEED

The costs for LEED certifications can range significantly depending on the size of the building, type of construction, and the level of certification. As a point of reference, a new 500,000 square foot ground-up building could cost upwards of $30,000 while a small tenant fit-out could be certified for as little as $3,000. There are also additional costs for the administrative tasks that surround the certification process as well.

Sustainability in the Built Environment without LEED

Many of the sustainable practices executed in the built environment are nothing new. The earliest civilizations used passive cooling, strategically positioned buildings to harness the sun's energy, and utilized rainwater, to name a few. While there have certainly been technological advancements with materials since ancient times, many of these design strategies can be implemented as a standard of practice, creating more efficient and environmentally friendly buildings. Many clients may choose to simply design sustainably and celebrate the features of their buildings.

At many universities, there are dormitories with live energy consumption dashboards that allow students to see how their facilities compare to other similar buildings and how their individual actions can impact the metrics. Corporations may choose to highlight features such as LED lighting or bottle filling stations and share the reduced consumption or water usage savings through signage. While these may seem like small steps, collectively they start to make a significant impact even without certifications.

Other Environmentally Focused Programs

Along with LEED, there are several sustainable programs that surround design and construction. LEED certification often references GreenGurard and Energy Star as other certifications that may be required. The WELL Building Standard focuses on measuring the features of the built environment that impact human health and wellness.

Acting sustainably does not have to be financially burdensome nor does it need to be restricted to only the design and construction process. There are organizations to help you decrease your environmental impact locally.

For example, Zero Landfill is a beneficial reuse program that assists the architectural and interior design community in identifying and diverting from landfills and repurposing thousands of pounds of samples back into the community.

GreenSpot, which is local to Columbus, Ohio, educates and inspires households, businesses, and community groups that adopt green practices. GreenSpot has saved more than $13 million, reduced CO2 emissions by 41 million pounds, reduced water consumption by 145+ million gallons, and recycled 32 million pounds.

Our Final Thought

As designers and constructors, we can influence how we build. It’s our responsibility to develop sustainable buildings that can reduce environmental impact.


bottom of page