What is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)?

A green or eco-friendly house showing connection to energy efficient sources as part of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

California has long been a pioneer of green building and energy efficiency and is a well-known champion of robust energy codes. Yet, a non-mandatory program like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) continues to enjoy popularity here, where certification levels surpass those of any other state. If you wonder what LEED certification can do for your project, and how you can achieve it, read our guide below. 

LEED in a nutshell

LEED is a green building rating system. By adopting its strategies, interior spaces, new and existing buildings, neighborhoods, and entire cities can reduce their environmental impact, increase sustainability, and improve the health of their inhabitants. 

This program helps cities and communities develop sustainable, specific plans for natural systems, energy, water, waste, transportation and other factors that affect the quality of life of the inhabitants.

LEED can also give buildings and their developers an edge over the competition. Following the LEED framework enables design teams to create healthy, sustainable, and cost-efficient buildings, while LEED’s global recognition gives certified projects a competitive advantage on the market.  

In California, LEED certification may be easier to obtain than in other states. Thanks to our advanced energy codes, the United States Green Building Council has streamlined certification procedures for buildings that already comply with California’s CALGreen code. The statute is a green building code that, like LEED, promotes sustainable building practices in planning, design, energy, water and material efficiency, as well as environmental quality. Unlike LEED, many of CalGreen’s regulations are mandatory for new construction in the state. 

LEED certification programs

LEED has certification programs for various types of developments. These include new buildings for all functions, core & shell developments, interiors, operations and maintenance, neighborhoods, homes, cities, communities, and net-zero buildings. These are summarized below. 

BD+C – Building Design and Construction

This certification category covers new construction and major renovations of various commercial and industrial developments, including data centers, hospitals, schools, warehouses, as well as retail and hospitality establishments. 

The BD+C certification is also available for Core and Shell developments. With these projects, the developer is typically responsible for completing the structure, envelope, hard landscaping, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, and finishing the main circulation areas, while the tenant is in control of fitting out their space. 

ID+C – Interior Design and Construction

The ID+C category is designed for project teams that want to create a healthy, green interior space but lack control over the building’s operations. This certification applies to the interiors of retail, hospitality, and other commercial establishments. 

O+M – Building Operations and Maintenance

The O+M certification helps existing buildings operate with greater efficiency. The category applies to existing buildings or interior spaces of any function, as long as they’ve been operational for a year or more.  

ND – Neighborhood Development

Aimed at creating healthy, sustainable communities, LEED-ND Certification is available for neighborhood-scale projects in any phase of planning, design, and up to 75% completion, as well as to projects that were completed within the past 3 years. 


This residential certification category promotes good indoor air quality and safe construction materials for residential buildings. It is available for single-family homes and multi-family buildings up to 8 stories high. 

Cities and Communities 

This program helps cities and communities develop sustainable, specific plans for natural systems, energy, water, waste, transportation and other factors that affect the quality of life of the inhabitants. A globally consistent framework for the assessment of planning, design, measurement, and management of social, economic and environmental conditions is a key aspect of the program. 

LEED Recertification

Buildings with LEED certificates issued under the O+M program must recertify every 3 years to maintain the LEED status. Other LEED categories do not require recertification but are also eligible for the program. 

LEED Zero 

LEED Zero recognizes the achievement of a project’s net-zero goals and is available for all LEED certified developments. The program is divided into 2 subgroups: Zero Carbon and Zero Resources. 

Zero Carbon certifies buildings operating with net-zero carbon emissions from energy consumption or occupant transportation. Zero Resources is further subdivided into 3 groups: energy, water, and waste, and certifies building’s achievement of net-zero consumption/production of these items. 

The LEED Process

If you’re planning a construction project, you may already know the LEED program for which your building can qualify. Now, you should find out if your project is eligible for LEED based on the minimum program requirements. These vary based on the type of development, but typical new building projects must fall within the following constraints: 

1. Must be in a permanent location on existing land – no project designed to move at any point in its lifetime is eligible for LEED. 

2. Must use reasonable LEED boundaries – the project must include all contiguous land associated with the building and its functions. No part of the building or site may be excluded to give the project an advantage in achieving LEED credits. 

3. Must comply with project gross floor area requirements:

  • 1,000 square feet for BD+C and O&M rating systems
  • 250 square feet for ID+C rating system

  • minimum of 2 buildings on 1,500 acres or less for Neighborhood Development

  • units in the Home program must be deemed a “dwelling unit” by all applicable codes 

Having established eligibility, you should determine which LEED level your project will pursue. The 4 levels of LEED, and the number of points required for each, are: 

  • Certified – 40-49 points
  • Silver – 50-59 points
  • Gold – 60-79 points
  • Platinum – 80+ points

The points are awarded along with credits earned for the implementation of specified environmental programs. Based on LEED v4, published in 2019, these include:

  • Location and Transportation (LT), 
  • Sustainable Sites (SS), 

  • Water Efficiency (WE), 

  • Energy and Atmosphere (EA), 

  • Materials and Resources (MR), 

  • Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ),  

  • Innovation (IN), and 

  • Regional Priority (RP). 

Each program outlines measures for achieving its environmental objectives. These are summarized in the table below, along with the total number of available credits for each. Most credits also have prerequisites – standards that have to be met to qualify for the credit. For a more detailed explanation of each credit and its prerequisites, click here. 

How Design Everest can help

If you’re working towards LEED certification for your construction project, we can help. Our team of engineers will ensure that the civil, structural, and MEP design can earn the LEED credits that you choose to apply for. Contact us at (877) 892-0292 to discuss your project and receive a quote today. We can also connect you with a professional engineer or designer right away for a virtual consultation or virtual on-site!

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