Boom Time for LEED Green Building Ratings

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The LEED green building rating system has seen unimpeded growth to this point. Will the impact of this growth, and the response of the U.S. Green Building Council, help or hurt the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program?

There have been 44,671 LEED projects registered and 6,908 certifications awarded – commercial and residential – according to a November publication by the United States Green Building Council. Interestingly, there are 133,489 LEED Accredited Professionals. Simply calculated, there are approximately three LEED APs for each currently registered project.

This analysis is admittedly skewed because LEED AP involvement is not a requirement for registration or certification, multiple LEED APs may work on a single project, and many professionals may be working with clients that are contemplating registration. However, this breakdown does suggest that there are many LEED APs with no project experience and that the rate of individuals gaining accreditation, or professional acceptance, is more prolific than the rate of project registrations, or client demand.

Regardless, LEED is currently the most comprehensive and widely recognized building certification system, and is rapidly gaining popularity and acceptance. Overall, competition will help to strengthen the industry by increasing quality of service and efficiency, compelling professionals to “sell” the program, and minimizing incompetency.

Without question, the incessant evolution and growth of the LEED program creates an interesting dynamic. Competition for professional involvement is intense, it’s hard to distinguish competent, experienced individuals from opportunists, restrictions for gaining specialty credentials have become more prohibitive, and the USGBC and Green Building Certification Institute seem to be overwhelmed.

Program Popularity and Expansion

The number of LEED accredited professionals has seen enormous growth in the last several years. It seems that no one wants to be left behind. There are many logical reasons for the large number of individuals (myself included) that recently gained accreditation under Version 2.2 prior to the launch of LEED v3.

Many participants were attempting to enter the system before the transition with the intention of becoming “legacy” members and avoiding specialty testing and more stringent requirements – not to mention that the previous test was somewhat less challenging and more straight-forward.

In addition to motivations based on testing, the economy has led many professionals to obtain accreditation in order to become more competitive and marketable. The evolution and growth of the green building movement, general environmental awareness, and government involvement has also driven the recent expansion of LEED and the increases in professional participation.

Unfortunately, the structure of the previous exams – not drastically unlike the new exam – primarily emphasized the LEED system and required minimal in-depth knowledge or participation in the green building industry. This scenario has led to many underqualified individuals making misleading assertions regarding their competence – intentionally or unintentionally. This is partially evident by the low adoption rate of the credentialing maintenance program.

Currently, 16,254 people  have obtained the LEED AP with specialty designation, approximately 12 percent of the total number of LEED APs.

The relatively low number of individuals who have decided to take a specialty exam and/or participate in the credentialing maintenance program may be a strong indication of the divide between accredited professionals who are active participants and those who are not utilizing their status. There is very little motivation to enroll in the new program, engage in continuing education, or take part in a very demanding specialty exam until it becomes a professional necessity.

There is no question that the USGBC is attempting to solve many of the problems that I have described by implementing the new version of the ratings. Continuing education will provide a way to regulate and marginally verify competence and aptitude. New testing prerequisites and harder exams will discourage ill-prepared and less dedicated individuals. However, there must be a way to discourage the inept without being generally prohibitive.

Prohibitive Requirements

I tested under V2.2 and will automatically transition to the building design and construction designation upon accepting the CMP guidelines. Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to contribute to a LEED project.

As stated by the GBCI, “to take the LEED AP exams, you must have previous experience with a LEED registered project within three years of your application submittal date.”

This statement seems somewhat counter-intuitive; I understand the logic, but it is possible to make a strong argument against this guideline. There are many legacy APs and individuals contemplating accreditation that are not able to realize their potential as a result of this restriction. In my case, and in many others, the lack of project experience does not necessarily indicate ineptness.

My primary focus is high-end residential design and I’m not particularly involved or interested in the commercial market. By obtaining the LEED for Homes designation, my ability to attract clients would significantly increase. This scenario may provide an opportunity for me, and others, to engage clients in the system, allow me to truly utilize my expertise, and ultimately benefit LEED and the environment, but under the current guidelines this does not appear to be an option.

Actually, I recently read that the legacy LEED AP status will be accepted in lieu of the project experience that is now required, but I have not been able to confirm or repute this, which leads me to my next point.

Inundated and Inaccessible

One of the most detrimental effects of the excessive growth of the USGBC and LEED is the inaccessibility of employees in relation to certifications, accreditations, and inquiries. Personally, I contacted the GBCI on October 13, 2009 regarding the aforementioned question and a resolution has still not been provided. I have also heard many individuals express frustration concerning delays in certifications, credit interpretation rulings, appeals, and other related issues.

Given the circumstances, this is understandable, but if improvements are not made the situation will undoubtedly discourage clients and professionals from participating and begin to instill a negative perception of the organization and rating program.

Moving Forward

My intention for writing this post is not to attempt to invalidate LEED or cast a negative light on the program; I am proud of my accreditation and no one can argue the impact or revolutionary success of LEED. Achieving LEED certification is currently the best way to demonstrate and substantiate sustainability and will continue to be the most widely recognized standard for the foreseeable future.

As the sustainability industry in general, and LEED specifically continue to evolve, many of the growing pains will be resolved. In all likelihood, as LEED begins to saturate the market the overall growth rate will diminish, allowing an opportunity for the organization to catch up. Overall, the newly released version, and subsequent updates, will make accreditation and certification more meaningful while drastically increasing the performance of our built environment.

photo: Wade Roush

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  • http://twitter.com/greengirlinnj greengirlinnj

    LEED -AP’s/GA on the rise but is the concept of sustainable design being practiced? http://bit.ly/9VNtj3

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • morty

    I enjoyed your opinion piece. I also find it disheartening that the main accredation focus is on the LEED pooints system v. Testing knowledge re sustainability ans sustain systems. Nevertheless, LEED is the main standard for now so I am lining up to take the leed.

    Take care. Morty

  • http://www.vankostudio.com Peter

    We have it all wrong. As a LEED 2.0 AP, it appears the USGBC is simply a cash (desiring) cow; they have carved out a perfect supply/demand niche.

    As the industry improves, they ratchet up standards…great…maintain their “only for the special/only for the few” status. But what happens when code simply reaches their standards? How about California passing standards that equal current LEED-NC standards?!?!

    It may have started innocently, but it has ended pervertedly…