LEED is the Worst, Part IV: its Authorities Aren’t

November 12, 2010 § 3 Comments

Winston Churchill“…democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” 1 ~ Winston Churchill

Change a few words and the Prime Minister’s commentary on democracy could easily be applied to LEED. The USGBC’s system is barely ten years old, yet it has been has been remarkably successful in transforming the public’s view of architecture and the market for architectural goods.

But on the way to greatness the good folks at USGBC decided to anoint a massive cadre of eager but largely inexperienced green building enthusiasts as masters of the craft. And they did it in a way that, in my view, fundamentally misleads building owners.

LEED creates false experts.

For years the USGBC has claimed that “LEED Accredited Professionals are experienced building industry practitioners who have demonstrated their knowledge of integrated design…”  and are individuals  “…holding a firm understanding of green building practices and principles…”7 Yet until recently, there there were no prerequisites for taking the test that vaulted one into this esteemed club: the LEED AP exam. None.8 For the 2005 exam, answering just 39 of the 73 questions correctly made you a winner. That’s right, 53% was a passing score. In every high school in the nation, 53% is an F. Not for the USGBC.

Things have improved somewhat. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has taken over professional accreditation management. There are now five different AP credentials. Continuing education is required. The minimum passing test score has gone up a whopping eight points to 61%9 (a D by high school standards). Oh, and there is now a prerequisite for sitting for the AP exam — applicants must demonstrate involvement on a LEED project. That’s a step in the right direction, but what about the 120,000+ folks6 that already wear the LEED AP badge? There are only about 4,700 LEED-certified buildings in the world5. How many existing LEED APs have actually played a significant role in a LEED project let alone seeing one through to the end?

Today, many RFPs require LEED APs. Clients accept the credential as a genuine indication of experience and knowledge. The GBCI still claims that (emphasis added):

A LEED Professional Credential provides employers, policymakers, and other stakeholders with assurances of an individual’s level of competence and is the mark of the most qualified, educated, and influential green building professionals in the marketplace.10

This is a serious claim. GBCI seems to be saying that they can promise that LEED APs are not just competent, but the most qualified individuals to practice integrated design of green buildings. …most qualified to practice design… So the architectural licensing board is no longer needed? I have a hard time believing the lawyers signed off on that one.

In reality, for the vast majority of current LEED APs, accreditation means they have passed a test to show they can remember key aspects of a 500 page manual on administering the LEED documentation process – in effect, that they can read and interpret a complicated phone book. Until very recently the majority of exam content areas addressed administration of the LEED system with no substantive content addressing sustainability or design. The four tested areas were:

  1. Knowledge of LEED Credit Intents and Requirements
  2. Coordinate Project and Team
  3. Implement LEED Process
  4. Verify, Participate In, and Perform Technical Analyses Required for LEED Credits

This does not mean LEED Accreditation is useless or pointless for the individuals pursuing it. It’s a way to join the club, to participate in the excitement, and to learn a great deal about green building. If you can read, absorb, and understand all the referenced standards in the LEED Reference Guide you will be a walking encyclopedia of green building, even if you can’t tell a VAV box from a catch basin. I endorse accreditation. Everyone should be a LEED AP. And to its credit, GBCI has added substantive sustainable design components to the exam, expanded the range of accreditation options, and even begun to acknowledge, with the launch of the LEED Fellow program, that experience actually matters.

But with all this, many if not most owners are still being misled. Being a LEED AP is a good thing for the individual, it may help projects achieve certification more easily, but it does not substitute for knowledge, experience, or true credentials. And it doesn’t make you an expert in anything.

What do you think?

Kevin Pierce, AIA, LEED AP, CEM

note: this post is the fourth of a multi-part critique of LEED. Look for future posts in the coming weeks.

Part III <

Kevin is Managing Director of Shaw Sustainable Design Solutions of Illinois, LLC, — an integrated firm providing comprehensive sustainable design services.  He is involved in projects nation-wide in energy efficiency, green infrastructure, clean energy, and green building. Kevin is Chairman of the Resource Center,  a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on urban agriculture and extreme recycling, adjunct associate professor at a the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a board member of American Institute of Architects, Illinois.

1. The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), 11 November 1947, vol. 444, cc. 206–07. (via WikiQuote)

2. p.ES-8,  Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008, Executive Summary (PDF), USEPA, April 2010

3. LEED 2009 for New Construction and Major Renovation Checklist. Four credits reward reduced driving: Sustainable Sites credit 2, 4.1, 4.2, and 4.4. for a total of 14 potential points. Twelve credits relate to energy reduction: WE prerequisite 1, credits 1, 3;  EA prerequisite 1, 2, credits 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; EQ credits 6.1 and 8.1. for a total of 43 potential points.

4. p. 2, Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings, New Buildings Institute (for USGBC), March 2008. Note that this is a comparison with comparable existing buildings, not code. How close does the average existing building come to meeting the energy code? Are LEED buildings saving ANY energy?

5. USGBC LEED Certified Projects List as of 8/1/2010.

6. GBCI LEED Professional Directory. As of May 9, 2010, there are 123,056 LEED APs in the US.

7. p 474, LEED Reference Guide for Green Building Operations and Maintenance, 2009 Edition

8. 2003 USGBC website as archived by the Wayback Machine

9. Per the 2010  LEED AP Building Design + Construction Candidate Handbook: “All LEED Professional exams are marked according to a scale where 125 is the lowest mark attainable and 200 is the highest mark attainable. If you receive a scaled score of 170 or higher on both parts of the exam, you earn the LEED AP designation.”

10. GBCI LEED Professional Credentials web page



§ 3 Responses to LEED is the Worst, Part IV: its Authorities Aren’t

  • I would have to agree with this flaw in the LEED system. Simply having to memorize the credit guidelines and achieve a passing score on a multiple-choice test does not necessarily make someone an expert in sustainability or green design. Overall, I do think that the public is being misled to think that being a LEED AP is equated with – as you mentioned – knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, things are becoming more confusing now that GBCI has various types of specialty LEED credentials:

    LEED Green Associate
    LEED AP Homes

    I think the credibility issue can be traced to how the exams are administered. First, to be a LEED AP, one only needs to get a 61% on the exam – I’ve never passed an exam in college with a 61%. With a score like that on a multiple-choice exam, you could say it demonstrates more luck than competence. Second, the exams are divided up into categories, which seem to be somewhat arbitrary. For instance, who’s to say that an architect wouldn’t be involved with Building Design + Construction and Neighborhood Development (master planning)? I’m sure GBCI would love it if everyone paid to take multiple exams, but doesn’t it make more sense if all of these categories were included in ONE exam? Alternatively, the exam structure could be more like the ARE for architects, where you need to pass all seven exams before being eligible for licensure. There’s no reason why the LEED exams can’t also be this way – it would just take longer to become a LEED AP. On the bright side, I can appreciate that at least now the credentials require continuing education hours, which has long been an issue for me.

    Personally, I think the solution (and challenge) is to require a triangulated approach to the accreditation process (I mention ‘triangulate,’ because this is the preferred method for making credible arguments and conclusions on peer-reviewed publications). Anyway, I would propose that to become a LEED AP, one must achieve the three requirements listed below. In addition, one would need to first create an account through GBCI to manage the completion of each requirement (not unlike the NCARB record for emerging architects).

    1) The LEED AP applicant must participate in the design, construction or operation of a green building as determined by the project achieving a minimum number of LEED credits – regardless of whether or not the project achieved LEED certification (this is important to ensure flexibility and encourage the continuing development of sustainable design beyond the limitations of current LEED guidelines)

    2) The LEED AP applicant must complete a comprehensive exam covering Building Design, Building Construction, Commercial Interiors, Homes, Operations & Maintenance and Master Planning. The exam format includes multiple-choice questions, essays and drawings. A passing score is determined by the median score range for each exam testing period.

    3) The LEED AP applicant must complete a minimum number of workshop training hours in their local area of residence or practice. Workshops include local green building practices and strategies taught by local professionals who are third-party certified.

  • […] LEED is the Worst, Part IV: its Authorities Aren’t […]

  • Kevin Pierce says:

    Justin, I like the concept of triangulation. The three requirements you mention seem right and I think they are close in principle to what GBCI has recently implemented through the exam itself, its prerequisite of participation, and the credentialing process. One might ask if each of GBCI’s requirements are rigorous enough.

    The multiple AP categories based on building type seem a bit odd given the range of expertise required by building design and construction. USGBC is interested in inclusiveness – bringing everyone involved inside the tent. The AP system is really part of the grand (and effective) marketing scheme that is USGBC. Another interesting approach to AP accreditation would be to tie it to professional expertise instead. As an architect and CEM*, I work on new construction, interior renovation, residential including single-family homes, and large scale planning. I’m also involved in a number of O&M certification projects. Under the current credentialing system I need accreditation in five of the six available categories. This seems redundant and complex.

    Put another way, my experience and expertise are quite different from, say, a mid-level person working for a developer. Yet our accreditations could be identical, implying an equal level and type of knowledge and experience. I may be a great green designer, but the developer employee may be an brilliant expert at clever green financing but know little about design. These are two distinct but clearly important skills and important components of an integrated development team. Yet the accreditation system provides very little information to the consumer, i.e. the building/property owner, about the quality and skill of the professional she may be hiring. Tying credentials to actual expertise would seem to be essential, yet the current system completely ignores this. *Certified Energy Manager

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