The LEED Rating System explained

February 12, 2024

In this article, we provide an in-depth look into the LEED rating system, including how it works, the different rating systems available, how buildings earn a LEED certification, and why it's important for building owners. We will also delve into how LEED ratings are assessed, how long they last, and what building analytics can do to improve a commercial building's rating. Additionally, we will provide tips on how to make your commercial building more energy efficient, how to improve your building's LEED rating, and which rating system has precertification.

You can jump to a specific question by clicking on it below:

What is the LEED rating system?

How does the LEED rating system work?

What are the different LEED rating systems?

What are the LEED certification levels?

What is LEED v5?

How does a building earn a LEED rating?

Why is the LEED rating system important for building owners?

How long does a LEED rating last?

How much does LEED certification cost?

How can I improve my building's LEED rating?

How can building analytics help improve my LEED rating?

Which LEED rating system has percentification?

What is the LEED rating system?

LEED, which stands for ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’, is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to evaluate the environmental performance of buildings and measure their sustainability. The LEED system provides a framework for healthy, efficient, carbon and cost-saving green buildings. It is widely recognized as the industry standard for green building in the United States, and used in over 160 countries worldwide.

How does the LEED rating system work?

The LEED rating system is based on a point system, with buildings earning points for meeting certain criteria in categories such as energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor environmental quality. The more points a building earns, the higher its LEED rating will be. There are four levels of LEED certification: Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points) and Platinum (80+ points).

To achieve LEED certification, a building must go through a rigorous review process conducted by Green Business Certification Inc. that includes a pre-certification review, a construction review, and a post-construction review. The building must also meet certain minimum requirements in each category and earn a certain number of points.

One of the key aspects of the LEED rating system is its emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy. Buildings can earn points for using energy-efficient equipment and systems, such as high-efficiency HVAC systems, LED lighting, solar panels, and data analytics platforms. They can also earn points for using renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, wind, or hydroelectric power.

Water conservation is another important aspect of the LEED rating system. Buildings can earn points for using water-efficient fixtures and appliances, such as low-flow toilets and showerheads, or for using greywater and rainwater harvesting systems. Indoor environmental quality is also a key aspect of the LEED rating system. Buildings can earn points for providing optimal indoor air quality, natural light, and thermal comfort. They can also earn points for incorporating green cleaning and pest management practices or for providing access to green spaces.

LEED certification is becoming increasingly important for building owners and developers, as more and more companies are looking to reduce their environmental impact and meet the growing demand for green buildings. Obtaining LEED certification can also help to increase a building's value, marketability, and interest from quality investors.

What are the different LEED rating systems?

There are several different LEED rating systems, each designed for a specific type of property type or project. These rating systems include:

  • Building Design and Construction (BD+C) – designed for new construction projects or major renovations.
  • Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) – covers complete interior fit-out projects including commercial interiors, retail and hospitality.
  • Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) – certification for existing buildings undergoing improvement work or minor renovations.
  • Neighborhood Development (ND) – covers the sustainability and connectivity of communities as a whole.
  • LEED for Homes – focuses on single residential properties, including single-family homes and low-rise to mid-rise buildings.
  • Cities and Communities – evaluates entire cities and sub-sections based on energy use, waste, transportation, water consumption, and human experience.
  • LEED Zero – for projects with net-zero goals in energy, waste, water, or carbon resources.
  • LEED Recertification – for buildings that have previously achieved LEED certification, this system helps owners maintain and improve their properties over time.

What are the LEED certification levels?

The LEED certification is structured across four distinct levels, each representing a higher standard of sustainability and environmental responsibility. These levels are Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, signifying an ascending order of achievement in green building practices.

  • Certified (40-49 points): Achieving the Certified status signifies that a building project has met the baseline requirements of LEED certification, securing at least 40% of the total possible points. This level demonstrates a foundational commitment to sustainability, encompassing essential practices in energy efficiency, water conservation, and material selection. It's a recognition of the project's initial steps toward minimizing its environmental impact.
  • Silver (50-59 points): The Silver certification level indicates that a project has surpassed the basic LEED requirements, achieving more than 50% of the available points. This level reflects a significant commitment to environmental stewardship, incorporating advanced sustainable practices that go beyond the foundational measures. Projects at this level often feature enhanced energy management systems, water efficiency strategies, and sustainable building materials, contributing to a reduced carbon footprint and improved indoor environmental quality.
  • Gold (60-79 points): Attaining Gold certification denotes that a building has excelled in its sustainable design and operation, securing over 60% of the LEED points. This prestigious level is indicative of a project's comprehensive adoption of best practices in sustainability. Gold-certified buildings are distinguished by their innovative approaches to energy conservation, water use reduction, and enhanced indoor air quality, among other environmental achievements. These buildings serve as exemplary models of sustainability, showcasing the potential for significant environmental impact reduction through thoughtful design and operation.
  • Platinum (80+ points): The Platinum certification represents the pinnacle of LEED achievement, awarded to projects that earn more than 80% of the available points. This highest level of certification is reserved for buildings that demonstrate leadership in sustainability and have implemented cutting-edge green building technologies and strategies. Platinum-certified projects are characterized by their exceptional energy efficiency, minimal water usage, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and a commitment to improving occupant health and well-being. These buildings not only significantly lower their environmental impact but also set new standards for sustainable design and construction, inspiring others to pursue excellence in green building.

What is LEED v5?

LEED v5, represents an update and evolution of the LEED. This newest iteration of the LEED green building certification program marks a significant step in aligning the built environment with the ambitious targets set by the Paris Climate Accord for 2030 and 2050. LEED v5 focuses on critical issues such as equity, health, ecosystems, and resilience, showcasing an evolved approach to sustainable building practices​​.

Key aspects and goals of LEED v5 include:

  1. Increased Flexibility: LEED v5 offers more adaptable paths and options for projects to achieve certification, acknowledging the diverse nature of green building projects and the need for a more customizable approach.
  2. Performance-Based Outcomes: There's a greater emphasis on measuring actual performance in areas like energy and water use, indoor environmental quality, and material resources. This shift encourages ongoing accountability and improvement beyond the initial certification.
  3. Integration of the Latest Technology and Standards: LEED v5 incorporates the latest in sustainable technology and aligns with current environmental standards and best practices. This includes advancements in energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, and materials sustainability.
  4. Global Applicability: While LEED has always had a global reach, LEED v5 aims to be even more applicable worldwide, with considerations for different climates, cultures, and construction practices. This includes metrics and standards relevant to international projects.
  5. Expanded Scope and Categories: LEED v5 broadens the scope of what can be certified, including more building types and interior spaces. It also revises and expands the categories under which projects can earn points, such as Location & Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority Credits.
  6. Enhanced User Experience: The certification process and tools for LEED v5 are designed to be more user-friendly, with digital platforms and resources to aid in the certification process.
  7. Commitment to Health and Well-being: There's an increased emphasis on strategies that contribute to the health and well-being of occupants, recognizing the critical role that buildings play in the health of individuals and communities.
  8. Sustainability throughout the Building Lifecycle: LEED v5 stresses the importance of considering sustainability at all stages of a building's lifecycle, from design and construction to operation and end-of-life, encouraging a holistic approach to green building.

While the specifics of LEED v5 focus on the continuation and enhancement of the LEED program's goals to promote sustainable, healthful, and efficient buildings, it's important to note that LEED versioning can be subject to change and updates. The U.S. Green Building Council's website and official documentation should be consulted for the most current information and detailed requirements of LEED certification.

How does a building earn a LEED rating?

Earning a LEED rating for a building is a process that involves meeting specific requirements in various categories, such as energy efficiency, water conservation, and indoor environmental quality. The LEED rating system is divided into different categories, and buildings can earn points by meeting the requirements in each category.

The first step in earning a LEED rating is to choose the appropriate rating system for the building. The LEED rating system includes several different categories, see above. Each rating system has different requirements, so it's important to choose the one that best fits the building.

Once the appropriate rating system has been chosen, the building's design and construction team must register the project with the USGBC. This process involves providing information about the project's location, size, and proposed green building strategies.

The next step is for the building to be designed and constructed in accordance with the LEED requirements. This includes incorporating sustainable materials and technologies, such as energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems, and promoting water conservation. The building must also be designed to promote indoor environmental quality and the well-being of the building's occupants.

After the building is completed, it must be independently verified by a LEED-accredited professional. This process involves a thorough review of the building's design and construction, as well as on-site inspections to ensure that the building meets the LEED requirements.

Once the building has been verified, it can be submitted for certification. The building will be awarded points based on how well it meets the LEED requirements, and it will be assigned a certification level of Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

Why is the LEED rating system important for building owners?

The LEED rating system is a widely recognized benchmark for the environmental performance of buildings, and it is considered to be one of the most important tools for building owners to measure the sustainability of their buildings. The LEED rating system is designed to promote the design and construction of high-performance buildings that are energy-efficient, water-efficient, and healthy for occupants.

One of the most significant benefits of the LEED rating system for building owners is the potential for cost savings. Buildings that are designed and constructed to meet the LEED requirements can significantly reduce their energy and water consumption, which can lead to lower operating costs. 

LEED also helps to promote healthy indoor environments by requiring buildings to meet certain standards for indoor air quality, lighting, and acoustics. This can help to improve the well-being of building occupants, which can lead to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and improved tenant retention, all of which can help to increase the value of the building and the return on investment.

LEED certification is also becoming increasingly important for building owners as regulations and requirements for sustainable buildings are becoming more prevalent. Many cities and states now require new buildings to meet certain energy efficiency standards, and LEED certification can help building owners meet these requirements.

In addition, LEED-certified buildings are more marketable, demanding higher rental yields and better quality investment. CBRE studied approximately 2,800 LEED-certified office buildings and 17,700 non-LEED-comparable office buildings in the U.S. It was estimated that LEED-certified office buildings offer an average annual rent premium of 31% or $38 per square foot compared with $29 for non-LEED certified buildings.1

How long does a LEED rating last?

The LEED rating for a building lasts for a period of five years, after which the building must go through a recertification process to maintain its LEED status. The recertification process is similar to the initial certification process and requires the building team to submit an application and documentation demonstrating that the building continues to meet the requirements of the system.

The recertification process is important, as it ensures that buildings continue to perform at a high level of sustainability over time. It also allows for buildings to adapt to new technologies and best practices in sustainable design and construction, and to earn additional credits in the categories of energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design.

The recertification process is an opportunity for building owners to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to sustainability and to improve the environmental performance of their buildings. By going through the recertification process, building owners can ensure that their building continues to be recognized as a leader in sustainable design and construction and demonstrate to their tenants, customers and the public that their building is committed to reducing its environmental impact.

How much does LEED certification cost?

The overall fees for obtaining LEED certification are based on a project’s rating system and size, and are calculated and paid when the project team submits documentation for review in LEED Online.

However, there are standard fees for registration and a flat fee per building that must be paid in order to get certified.

For Silver, Gold and Platinum level USGBC members, the registration fee is $1,350 and the flat, per-building fee is $4,500. For organizational level members or nonmembers, the registration fee is $1,700 and the flat, per-building fee is $5,600. 

Visit the USGBC's website for a more in-depth look at fees.

How can I improve my building’s LEED rating?

Improving a building's LEED rating can be achieved through a variety of strategies and approaches. Some of the most effective ways to improve a building's LEED rating include:

  • Energy Efficiency: Building owners can improve their building's energy efficiency by implementing energy-efficient lighting systems, upgrading HVAC systems, and installing energy-efficient appliances. 
  • Water Efficiency: Building owners can reduce water consumption by installing low-flow fixtures, rainwater harvesting systems, and xeriscaping.
  • Indoor Environment Quality: Building owners can improve indoor environment quality by providing natural daylight, improving ventilation, and implementing effective temperature and humidity control.
  • Materials and Resources: Building owners can also improve their building's LEED rating by using sustainable and environmentally friendly building materials. This includes using materials that have been harvested, extracted, and manufactured responsibly, and choosing materials that have a low environmental impact throughout their lifecycle.
  • Innovative Design: Building owners can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by incorporating innovative design elements into their building. This can include green roofs, solar panels, and other design features that promote sustainability and improve the building's LEED rating.
  • Use of Building Analytics: Building analytics can provide real-time data on building performance and can help building owners identify areas for improvement, this can help in identifying the areas where the building is not performing per the LEED framework and take corrective actions.

Improvements in one rating system can also results in gains for other systems. Raising your LEED rating can also results in efficiency gains for commercial energy performance certificates (EPC) and BREEAM ratings.

How can building analytics help improve my building's LEED rating?

Building analytics tools can provide real-time data on building performance and identify areas for operational improvement. These systems gather data on various aspects of building performance, such as energy consumption, HVAC systems, lighting, and water usage, and use this data to create actionable insights for building owners and managers. Similar to building energy management systems (BEMS), building analytics tools go provide a far more comprehensive view of building performance versus a traditional BMS.

One of the key areas where building analytics can help improve a commercial building's LEED rating is energy efficiency. By providing real-time data on energy consumption, building analytics can help building owners identify opportunities for energy savings, such as identification of untuned equipment, or highlighting areas of the building that are driving energy drift. This data can also be used to optimize building systems, such as HVAC, lighting, and controls, to reduce energy consumption and improve energy efficiency.

Building analytics can also play a role in improving indoor environment quality, which is another key area that is assessed in the LEED rating system. Building analytics systems can provide real-time data on indoor air quality, temperature, and humidity, and identify areas where quality can be improved. For example, it can detect if certain areas of the building have poor ventilation, or if the temperature or humidity is too high or low, and provide actionable insights to address these issues.

Which LEED rating system has precertification?

LEED precertification stands as a forward-thinking approach within the LEED rating system, specifically tailored for new construction projects under the LEED for Core & Shell (LEED-CS) development. This proactive step allows project teams to evaluate and demonstrate their commitment to sustainable design and construction practices even before the building is completed. By embracing LEED precertification, developers and building owners can effectively market their projects' green attributes to potential tenants and financiers, showcasing a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Precertification requires a comprehensive submission of the project's intended sustainable strategies and design elements to the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). The GBCI evaluates the submission against LEED-CS standards, offering feedback and recommendations that help steer the project toward successful LEED certification.

In embracing LEED precertification, developers and building owners take a significant step towards sustainability, setting a precedent for future construction projects.


  1.  Green Is Good: The Enduring Rent Premium of LEED-Certified U.S. Office Buildings
Cillian Casey
February 12, 2024