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LEED Certified or Certifiable? Architects Make the Case for Earning the Plaque

Got clients that want LEED-certifiable projects but don't want to commit to certification? Join the club, and hear some tips and lessons learned.
July 25, 2012

“Anyone else finding a trend of clients wanting LEED-certifiable projects but not wanting to commit to certification? I have three projects just this week toying with going this route.”

That was the opening salvo in a recent email discussion I was involved in among a group of architects. With the permission of those involved, I’ve anonymously synthesized some of the key takeaways here. I’d also like to hear from you: please post your experiences on LEED certified vs. certifiable projects below.

It’s about the cost, stupid

The following comment summed up some of the objections out there to pursuing LEED: “We are seeing a little green fatigue as well internally and externally; somehow making a project ‘certifiable’ instead of certified seems less onerous and costly.”

Another architect states, “It is important to know what the motivation is behind not pursuing [LEED] certification. Nine times out of ten for my clients it was the cost of certification. I typically respond to them by explaining that the vast majority of the incremental cost is doing the documentation, modeling, etc., which would be necessary to verify goals are being met regardless of LEED. Once the building owners have spent the fee to document performance, perform modeling, etc., the added cost to pay GBCI simply gives them external validation.”

Another architect agrees on where the cost comes from: “In my experience, documentation is not the largest cost of LEED certification; it's meetings and coordination. These costs would likely be incurred for a certifiable project as well.”

While there was consensus in the group about the marginal cost of actual certification, another person noted one of the counterarguments they hear: “Isn't this just good design? Why do we need to pay extra?” Those questions also arise internally, as an architect reports: “I'm also having to convince our teams.  They feel like they don't need it to validate what they are doing.”

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The perception of unnecessary spending also came up: “We've seen a client refuse to pursue LEED on their corporate headquarters because they felt it sent the wrong message to their employees. The project would have come out in the high LEED Gold to Platinum range with 30%–35% energy savings, excellent daylighting, aggressive water reduction, good landscaping and stormwater swales, and even a big third-party funded PV system. They were committed to a high-performance building but they felt a plaque was a frivolous gesture.”

Quality control… delivered with a plaque

For most of the architects in this discussion, the cost of LEED was inextricably linked with the quality control it delivers. “I usually talk with [clients] about what costs are involved, being careful to point out that fees to the USGBC are very minor in comparison to the cost of actually implementing sustainable design solutions.

“I then let them know that if they are serious about building green, LEED actually helps them ensure that their project teams deliver. There are so many ways to get off track and not achieve the project goals. By holding the team’s feet to the fire with LEED, I feel we are far more likely to actually achieve these goals. The idea that LEED provides a check for them seems to be eye-opening to most clients with the question.”

“Earning the certification ensures that the goals set in the design are achieved in construction,” says another architect.

“One argument we like to make on the value of LEED certification,” another chimes in, “is that you simply won’t get the same results without the third-party audit—like auditing a class instead of doing the papers and taking the final. The natural tendency will be to let things get lost, not have the same degree of follow-through and rigor. That sometimes works!”

Do we need LEED? A consensus view, voiced by one architect, was that we do: “I’d feel better about not pursuing LEED if I felt there were a true commitment and we had other ways to prove the overall sustainability of the project. But in most cases, I feel if the project loses LEED, they'll lose any hope of a more sustainable project.”

The difference between certified and certifiable

“How do you lose a green building?”, one architect quips. “One VE [value engineering] at a time...."

He explained: “We've had a client who was required by a local agency to pursue LEED as a condition of some public incentive dollars. The client asked if LEED ‘equivalent’ would be acceptable, and was told yes. Later, the agency came back and reversed its earlier position, requiring certification after all.

“In the scramble to document the project after the fact, we learned that low-flush toilets had not been installed, VOC limits were not observed, landscaped area was downsized and would no longer comply.... The list goes on.

Another architect cuts to the quick: “I still love to simply point out that, the whole point of LEED is you are either really doing it or you are not, right?  To me there is no such thing as ‘LEED Certifiable.’”

Talking to the client: The Three Questions

How do you talk to clients who have doubts about LEED?

“Where we have had some success,” says one person, “is getting clients to back up a bit before they want to jump into making decisions about LEED. They might say, ‘I want a green building.’ Their natural tendency is to want to then jump to a LEED checklist.” Where we have had more success is that we get them to look at things more philosophically before jumping into some checklist. We call it the Three Questions.

  • Who are you? Focus on their organizational Vision, Mission and Culture. People will make and keep decisions based upon their values. I even got a CFO [Chief Financial Officer] to admit that a budget is a value-based tool.
  • What are you? An investigation into current practices, that is, institutional knowledge. Not just how their current facilities are built, used, and operated, but how are people trained using their buildings.
  • Where do you want to go? Once there is clarity about their values and knowledge, one can then look at means to moving forward. You can set sustainable goals and then show the long-term benefits of using LEED as a tool to guide decision-making and as a means to indicate compliance to their staff and customers.”

Leave the LEED light on

“I tell them that we need to still track and document the project, and LEED Online is the best tool for that, especially regarding the contractor submittals,” says one LEED proponent. “We can then at least start taking them through the process and leave the option open to push the ‘Submit’ button later on in the process. My strategy is to try to leave the LEED door open for as long as possible.”

Along similar lines: “Sometimes if we feel they are just not ready to deal with the added level of complexity of LEED at the initial negotiation phase simply because they don’t want to deal with it, we defer the discussion.  Sometime early on within the concept phase we’ll mock up a checklist, show them what they are doing in  LEED terms and suggest that if they’re doing all this anyway, why not get it certified?”

Trying to convince them to get the plaque?

Here are a few points that can also support the pro-plaque position:

  • Having more experience with LEED certification can give general contractors, subs, and vendors a competitive advantage when they are bidding on future projects.
  • Some LEED credits lend themselves to being “LEED equivalent” whether you document it or not (there's a green/ white roof or there’s not; rainwater harvesting or not...), but quite a few credits where the design team may not be sure you are “certifiable” without actually doing the documentation tasks: Is the exterior light power density low enough? How much better is the stormwater management? What percentage of your materials really was purchased locally? Is all the paint really low-VOC?
  • True, a big part of the cost is documentation, but that can still add value:
    • LEED ‘may’ help with quality-assurance/quality-control during bidding and buyout, as there is great scrutiny on what's actually going into the building.
    • The attention paid during commissioning and IAQ management may set a higher bar for attention to detail.
    • Having LEED criteria may reduce the chances of VE'ing out important items that have a higher first cost but have long-term life-cycle benefits or user-comfort benefits.

What are your experiences in weighing LEED vs. “LEED equivalent”? Please comment below!

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September 9, 2017 - 2:02 pm

When one choses to Construct a LEED certified structure, one has to make a clear choice. The choice is good press or a committment to do a better building.  Doing a better building is a committment that should not be taken lightly.  When we made the choice, we changed many of our ownership tasks.  The entire campus community benefited from the decesion.  Things such as grounds management, storm water management, cleaning, energy management, etc. migrated through the campuses.  After nearly a million square feet of LEED certified space, the committment has transformed the University.

April 19, 2017 - 4:21 am

I have a slightly different question in regarding to certifiable projects. One of our clients is keen to get a project in Iran LEED certified, however for political reasons it is not currently possible to either register or certify the project with GBCI. We are therefore planning to 'LEED future proof' the project by designing and constructing it to v4 with the hope to be able to obtain formal certification sometime in the future.
I'd like to hear from anyone who's tried to retrospectively secure certification outside the US.
Also, does GBCI/USGBC allow the terminology 'LEED certifiable' to be used by projects?

August 10, 2017 - 4:04 pm

Definitely not—the term LEED certifiable, by its nature, has no specific or credible definition, and I'm sure GBCI and USGBC would do anything within their power (which may not be much in many cases) to prevent it from being used.

This retrospective certifiation sounds laudable but really difficult to do. I'd also love to hear input on anyone who's done it.

August 8, 2012 - 4:24 pm

If an owner/design team is making the claim that they are building to "LEED certifiable", we must take them at their word that they are doing the modeling, commissioning, and specifying associated with a highly energy efficient building with good IAQ. So the only premium for LEED would be documentation and fees.

But if you want to know (much less tell the story to others) that you have a LEED "certifiable" building, you'd need documentation in any case, and LEED online provides a more efficient means of doing so with its templates rather than creating them from scratch. So, effectively, no premium there either.

So the only premium is for the GBCI fees themselves. And for anyone who says that "you're just paying for a plaque," I counter that that's like saying the only reason you spend $100,000+ for college is to get a diploma. Clearly, one is paying for the process, not the plaque. But if you're going to successfully complete the process, why not have a plaque that lets everyone know?

To conclude, it's fine not to go through the LEED certification process for every high performance green building, but it's disingenuous to say a building is "LEED certifiable" unless you've actually submitted it for certification.

August 8, 2012 - 2:30 pm

It's all too easy for an Owner/Designer/Builder team to say, "We are following LEED without getting certified." When it then turns out the building actually will be going for certification, many aspects of the project will need to be revised. The statements about the VE process sabotaging true LEED compliance are also accurate. My experience is similar to these quoted in your article.

“I then let them know that if they are serious about building green, LEED actually helps them ensure that their project teams deliver. There are so many ways to get off track and not achieve the project goals. By holding the team’s feet to the fire with LEED, I feel we are far more likely to actually achieve these goals. The idea that LEED provides a check for them seems to be eye-opening to most clients with the question.”

“One argument we like to make on the value of LEED certification,” another chimes in, “is that you simply won’t get the same results without the third-party audit—like auditing a class instead of doing the papers and taking the final. The natural tendency will be to let things get lost, not have the same degree of follow-through and rigor."

July 27, 2012 - 12:16 pm

Fantastic recap and excellent points on these "real time" issues. I was just having this very discussion with a prominent, and very green, infill developer. Many of their projects are certifiiable, but they did not opt for LEED. One question I would add for anyone engaged in "to LEED or not to LEED" is "Who is your target customer?" If you are a residential builder it's the consumer, and the value add may/may not be as critical compared to a commercial developer that wants to attract LEED tenants, green financing or green investors. There are federal, state, city, and corporate policies to lease or invest ONLY in LEED properties. Many institional and private equity lenders are looking at the value proposition of LEED vs non-LEED as well. That is a HUGE factor when advising a client as to whether or not LEED Certification should be considered. Excluding LEED investors and tenants will cost an owner a lot more than the plaque on the wall - "frivolous" or not.

August 11, 2012 - 2:46 am

LEED Certifiable is the grass root reality. It is a dangerous trend but when almost all builders come from a mindset which leans more towards the high carbon, only for profit motive, it is to be expected. Some time back I had written an article which may find resonance with many LEED practitioners who chose this because they love this planet and people before profit. wp.me/p1xbzq-pI Green Buildings – How most of them are really made, the inside story.

August 8, 2012 - 8:44 pm

My experience leads me to agree with most of the sentiments expressed by Tristan and others above. From a longtime LEED user's standpoint, I can identify with Michelle R.'s comments above regarding a certain loss of faith: "...our sense that we can rely on our understanding of LEED requirements and their interpretation throughout the duration of any given construction project." But, on the other hand, I also think we might all benefit by more of Michele S.'s thinking in her comments above, focused on (1) the 'benefits' of LEED, rather than, or in relation to the [up front] 'costs' and (2), in the case of commercial developers, the costs of NOT moving towards LEED certification.

On that note, does anyone have any recent (post '07-'10) economic downturn) hard or anecdotal data ($/s.f. or % premuim or the like) on the leasing premium for LEED Silver vs. Gold vs. Platinum, with or without Green Leases,or similar financial benefits/ROI for LEED Certified Class A office space? Many thanks for sharing.

August 8, 2012 - 4:41 pm

Good points on a topic I hear about all the time.

From my perspective, LEED Certifiable, without actually certifying, is the worst of all possible worlds for the owner. They have almost all the expense of LEED certification but without the 3rd party assurance that certification provides to ensure they are actually achieving their goals and getting their money's worth, and without the brand recognition that comes with certification.

August 8, 2012 - 4:00 pm

We find our most successful project teams (financially, environmentally and socially) are the ones who just commit to building LEED certification in their processes of design, development and construction. They say they simply build above code and can prove it through LEED certification. There is no discussion over this cost line item and then there is a lot less headaches and time is not wasted when that commitment is finally made and not burdened on the project or homeowners.

We work entirely with LEED for Homes and you have to remember that 3rd party verification is much more valuable than on the commercial side. On commercial you do not have a 3rd party green rater actually visiting and auditing the project as you do on Homes. With Homes you really have to prove it.

The Midrise cap on LEED for Homes has been removed and potentially all projects below 10 stories with residential square footage 50% or more may to comply with HOMES if seeking LEED.

What does this mean? Better 3rd party verification and value as well as improved indoor air quality for occupants as LEED NC nor EBOM do not go as far to ensure IEQ for living units.

August 8, 2012 - 2:59 pm

Tristan's case and all the comments are well taken. But please note this is not a new phenomenon. We have been making this case for years since the inception of LEED. What is disturbing to us is that the need to do so seems to be increasing with knowledge and understanding of LEED rather than decreasing.

We are beginning to get push back from long established clients who have been through the LEED process enough to know that ever changing requirements and inconsistent review comments have significant cost impacts and are frankly demoralizing to all concerned.

It's very difficult to counter a loss in faith. And it's not just their faith that is at stake. We now find ourselves having to tell project teams that it may not matter whether they did the right thing for their occupants and the environment if they can't prove it to a reviewer's satisfaction. That's new for us and leaves a bitter taste.

Rather than focus on the certified vs. certifiable arguments that really haven't changed substantially over the years, we'd rather see a focus on what has changed - our sense that we can rely on our understanding of LEED requirements and their interpretation throughout the duration of any given construction project.

It is our confidence in LEED certification and what it means that lies at the hear of a successful defense of the process.

August 8, 2012 - 2:17 pm


Very well written. I continually run into the issue of "We are designing and building to LEED Standards" What it really means is we are not modeling, we are not commissioning, we are not verifying, we are not xy and z'ing. While I will not discount the fact that GBCI needs to really find a way to simplify the documentation, the additional "cost" for LEED certification is around 5 cents a square foot. This is such a miniscule amount of the design and construction budget as to be laughable.