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The Benefits of Pursuing LEED Certification as an Architect

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The Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas is the largest hotel in the world with a LEED gold rating.

As an architect, you are likely familiar with LEED building practices and may even be thinking about becoming LEED certified.

For so many years, the earth seemed like a bottomless well of natural resources. We had all the water we could drink, all the trees we needed for lumber and all the fossil fuels we wanted for powering our vehicles and home systems. Sometimes we even wasted many of our natural resources, never dreaming that there could be a shortage.

But it’s come to light — especially in the last 10 to 20 years — that our natural resources are not infinite after all.

Toxic Materials

More recently, we have come to learn as well that some of the materials we have been using to build our homes can threaten our health. Lead and asbestos are no longer commonly used as building materials, but many older homes still have lead pipes, lead paint, and asbestos ceiling or floor tiles.

PCBs — once used in paint, electrical systems and light ballasts — can do harm to your immune and neurological systems and potentially cause cancer. PVC, a type of plastic used in pipes, flooring, window frames, gutters and more, is also a carcinogen.

Over the years, homeowners and developers have become a lot more conscious of what construction materials are made of and whether they may be doing harm. For this reason, many are choosing to use “green” building practices.

What Makes a Building Green?

“Green” itself is an unspecific term — it simply means environmentally friendly. To gain a LEED certification, however, a building must adhere to certain specifications.

For instance, the U.S. Green Building Council has an extensive checklist that includes particulars about site location, irrigation and water usage, use of environmentally friendly products, and waste management plans. The document is many pages and is far-reaching in its dictates on how to create a sustainable home or structure.

What Is LEED?

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system used to determine how environmentally friendly a building is. And it’s not used just in the U.S. — it’s used all over the world.

When a building is being reviewed and evaluated for a LEED designation, points are awarded based on how well the criteria are met. There are four designations:

  • LEED Certified (40-49 points)
  • LEED Silver (50-59 points)
  • LEED Gold (60-79 points)
  • LEED Platinum (80-plus points)

Before you embark on designing a building with the intention of gaining LEED certification, you must register your plans and pay a fee. A review board will look at your plans to make sure they meet the minimum requirements.

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Architects are paying more attention to clients’ demands for green buildings.

If you are unfamiliar with the minimum requirements, they are not as difficult as you might imagine. Some include “comply with environmental laws” and “be a complete, permanent building.”

In fact, the application process itself may be considered more arduous than meeting the minimum requirements.

It is not possible to achieve all points for all projects by merely making an effort. For instance, some LEED points are awarded if your building is close to public transit. That isn’t anything an architect usually has control over.

Some points are easy to get. You automatically get one if someone on your team is LEED certified. You get another if you follow the parameters for growing food onsite.

At your project’s completion, you must submit an application for your building to be reviewed and pay another fee.

Are LEED Architects in Demand?

A Natural Resources Defense Council report says that the number of LEED-certified buildings has continued to grow since 2005 — more than ten percentage points in Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Jose.

According to a report by Dodge Data & Analytics, half of the builders who responded to a survey expect that 60 percent of their projects will be green by 2020. Green remodeling was less strong, at about a third, but also growing.

Everyone wants to make money — builders, developers, owners, business people. Years ago, when some building materials such as lead fell out of favor, property owners didn’t stop using them right away. Their attitude was that many people had lived in homes with these materials, so they must not be that dangerous. No one wanted to pay more for the paint without lead that took longer to dry and didn’t last.

But green products have come a long way over the years. And green buildings that save energy save money, and that’s one reason they are growing in popularity.

Builders Want What Clients Want

The bottom line is more green buildings are being built because that’s what people want. They’re smart and safe.

Many architectural firms are fielding requests from clients for green design. Green design is a broad concept, and while any architect can use sustainable design principles, not everyone is LEED certified. Your firm can win a LEED certification for a building without being LEED-certified architects. But that’s why the designation is so critical.

If the other architectural firms in your city have LEED-certified architects and yours doesn’t, you’ll appear to be behind the times, you won’t be able to compete as well, and you’ll lose contracts. The LEED-certified designation brings you — and the firm — much-need credibility.

Further, if you don’t own your own firm, a LEED certification makes you a much more desirable prospective employee. Even better if you have designed buildings that have won LEED silver, gold or platinum designations. You could set yourself up as an expert in the field.

Additionally, many government projects that go out to bid today require LEED certification. So while LEED certification can be nice to have and look professional, in some cases, it’s a necessity. Your firm may not even be eligible to bid on certain contracts if it doesn’t have a LEED-certified architect on staff. And you can only expect that type of stipulation to become more common as time goes on.

Remember when we said everyone wants to make more money? Well, that includes architects too, and LEED-certified architects can bill more per hour. Two architects could design the same building and win the same LEED certification, but the one who is LEED certified will earn more.

Are LEED Buildings Too Expensive?

The perception is that building green costs more green.

Whenever a governing body institutes new rules, grumbling ensues. But in time, many of these rules become accepted and eventually it’s hard to believe we lived without them. Years ago, few people wore seatbelts. Smoking tobacco was seen as a harmless pastime. Some states still make wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle optional. Outlet covers in homes with babies are not considered a waste of money — they’re now considered conventional.

So some expenses that used to be considered silly are now being thought of as par for the building course.

But green buildings are not necessarily prohibitively expensive.

It’s close to impossible to do an accurate comparison between a green building and a regular building because there are so many variables.

No one can say for sure how much more — if at all — it costs to build a green building versus a “regular” building because each client has their own individual budget and preferences. Laws now prohibit such money-saving tactics as dumping waste in the river and building factories without windows; the choices we have left don’t often make a huge monetary difference.

When building homes, some upfront costs such as Energy Star appliances and a solar power system can add tens of thousands of dollars to the house’s price tag, but the savings these choices provide more than make up for the initial investment.

Going the extra mile to get a higher LEED rating for commercial buildings might cost a little more. But a developer would do well to weigh it against the health, safety, and comfort of those who work in the building since their happiness and the consumer perception of the building can also translate into dollars — gained or lost.

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Clients want a LEED rating.  Can you deliver?

What Does LEED Certification Mean to Architects?

Many of the requirements listed on a LEED checklist might sound like common sense to an architect: natural light, windows that open, proper drainage, and waste disposal.

For this reason, many architects — newbies and seasoned professionals — pooh-pooh the LEED designation. They say many of the so-called requirements are simply sensible design concepts.

Even if this is true, the appeal of the LEED designation is not just an achievement within the field, but more of a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for current and prospective clients.

The general public knows little to nothing about architecture, building, and standard practices. Developers and contractors know more, but they aren’t familiar with all aspects of architecture. It can seem mysterious.

As an architect, you can chuckle and say you were going to design the building with optimal ventilation regardless of LEED requirements, but the certification is validation by an independent third party that you have done so.

In the way that building laws protect occupants from unsafe conditions, LEED certification gives architects and builders a stamp of approval, confirming that the job meets requirements. Even if you thought of it as little more than a public relations vehicle, it’s one that carries a lot of weight.

What Do Consumers Think of LEED Designations?

According to a Psychology & Marketing study, consumer concern for green building practices is high. Respondents expressed a willingness to pay more for materials and products that were environmentally friendly and safer. Using renewable energy and recycled products got high marks.

However, the survey found that, although consumer concern was high, knowledge was low. Consumers want green homes and sustainable architecture, but they don’t know what these are.

This lack of knowledge makes the field of green building ripe for fraud and misrepresentation. A builder could tell a client they are using X green material when they are really using Y. They could say X material is super green when it is actually dangerous. The developers, landowners, and homeowners almost assuredly wouldn’t know.

A LEED certification given by a respected third-party review board — Green Business Certification Inc. — bestows important credibility on your product. Even if you think it’s redundant or the process is a lot of jumping through hoops, you can see the value that it brings.

How Do Architects Become LEED-Certified?

As an architect, you are likely familiar with a lot of these practices, but becoming LEED certified is a serious and exacting undertaking.

Many architects agree that obtaining LEED certification is an effort that those who achieve it can be proud of. It’s not like regular continuing education courses — it’s challenging, and it teaches you important concepts you might have only had vague notions of previously.

There are two levels of certification you can obtain — associate and accredited professional.

PDH Academy offers three courses on LEED certification that all meet the AIA continuing education requirement:

Energy Performance of LEED for New Construction Buildings teaches you about how — and whether — LEED building practices achieve energy efficiency targets. For years the techniques were considered pioneering, but now they are established enough to measure with some degree of certainty.

LEED for New Construction Application for Multi-Building Campuses teaches how to apply LEED concepts to new buildings and renovations at compounds with several buildings, such as college campuses and government installations.

LEED for Existing Buildings: Recertification Guidance (2013) teaches architects how to ensure that buildings once certified as LEED-compliant are in line to gain recertification.

Regardless of whether architects are excited about green building practices or LEED certification, they are unarguably the wave of the future. Don’t be left on the shore. Get started today with our AIA continuing education-approved courses for architects.

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