What is LEED Certification?

How-Tos and Advice

LEED is all about leadership in green thinking — it's a certification system intended to make buildings more efficient and better for the environment. You've probably seen a LEED certification on a building before, or perhaps you've seen it advertised in a new condo building that’s caught your eye.

However, as you might expect, it's a little more complex than that. Below, you'll find a quick condo-focused guide to the points that LEED considers, the process of reviewing projects, and the various levels of certifications available.

An Introduction to Green Buildings

The US Green Building Council (or USGBC) has updated its LEED certification guidelines several times to encompass new types of developments. To get certified, buildings have to earn points across nine major categories. Below you’ll find a brief explanation of each category and why it might matter to you as a residential buyer. Even though you probably won’t want to read the entire LEED report on every prospective building you’re considering, it might help to know what excellence in each of the nine categories mean.

Location and Transportation

This LEED category relates directly to the car-free lifestyle that many condo owners crave. Buildings may receive a higher LEED classification if their residents can easily walk, bike, or use public transit to get to where they need to go. This category takes amenities, such as parks and restaurants, into account. Chances are that a highly rated LEED building will give you excellent access to a variety of outdoor opportunities.

Sustainable Sites

The sustainability category is closely related to the location and transportation category. Projects get more points in this category depending on how well integrated they are into the natural environment. For you as a buyer, this could mean that higher certifications have more green spaces, better drainage, and various other quality-of-life benefits.

Indoor Environmental Quality

Are you going to be spending a lot of time in your home? The answer is probably yes. Even if you're buying an investment property, you probably want a healthy indoor environment for your potential tenants or guests. Here are some environmental quality factors that LEED considers:

  • Cleaning processes
  • Thermal comfort
  • Light quality
  • Pest management
  • Air quality

In general, this category is all about making interior spaces that are comfortable, healthy, and pleasant. Aspects like acoustics can even be taken into account. High ranking in this category would suggest an extraordinary level of attention to interior detail through the use of natural cleaning processes, natural light, and excellent air quality.


Even though it might not seem like it, Innovation can be an important point for you as a buyer. Excellence in this category often means that a forward-thinking team designed the building. Points in this category are awarded to non-standard strategies that were effectively implemented during the building’s design. For example, if new designs were responsible for significant improvements in water efficiency and environmental quality, the project might get major points for innovation.

Energy and Atmosphere

The energy and atmosphere category seeks to reward buildings that reduce dependence on non-renewable sources of energy. For example, a LEED-certified condo building might have a solar or biofuel energy source on site to supplement energy needs during peak hours.

Material and Resources

The LEED material and resources category is concerned with the materials used to build the structure and the treatment of its construction waste. If you are concerned about shopping locally, this is one of the most important categories for you because it considers where every product comes from. It also takes into account other aspects of the physical construction supplies, such as the percentage of post-consumer content in a given material.

Water Efficiency

The water efficiency category awards points for water management and waste reduction such as the use of municipal wastewater and utilizing rainfall. The general goal is to encourage builders to reduce water use, keep track of consumption, and use every drop in a mindful manner.

Regional Priority

If you are buying in Las Vegas, the concerns of building sustainably and efficiently are much different than if you're looking for a condo in Seattle. The LEED system recognizes this and offers special credits for buildings based on their location. This category will be different anywhere you go, but the point is to get developers to start thinking locally.

Integrative Process

The integrative processes category may be one of the more difficult ones to understand for those outside the architecture and construction industries. This category is almost entirely concerned with the design part of the building. It looks at how environmentally-focused thinking was deployed across categories to increase total energy efficiency.

The Rating System

Now that you know where the points come from, it will be much easier to understand how the system works. Generally, a panel of experts and leaders rate every building that applies for LEED using a 110-point system. The building then gets a certification with one of the following rankings:

  • Platinum: 80 points or more
  • Gold: 60 to 79 points
  • Silver: 50 to 59 points
  • Certified: 40 to 49 points

In addition, there are some basic prerequisites that any building looking for LEED certification has to meet before they even get the opportunity to be ranked. Unless you are extremely concerned about a specific environmental issue, even the certified level should be an indication that your potential building is a good choice for the planet.

With this in mind, don't be afraid to ask a local real estate expert about the LEED certification status of various buildings during your condo search.

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