For architects, LEED AP Certification opens the gate to greener opportunities

With LEED AP Certification, architects can demonstrate a commitment to green building—opening doors to career opportunities and lifelong learning.

Female architect in green shirt looks at building plans

Taz Khatri

January 22, 2021

min read
  • For architects, a LEED AP (Accredited Professionals) designation can open doors to business opportunities and continuing education.

  • There are two levels: LEED Green Associate and LEED AP With Specialty, in which candidates demonstrate expertise in one of five categories.

  • Green building has proved more than just a trend—certification shows that designers understand how to achieve LEED status on a project.

Understanding LEED certification is one path to joining the green-building movement—which is becoming critical for today’s architects. Architects earn the LEED Accredited Professionals (AP) designation, certifying their knowledge of how to usher a project through LEED certification. But is LEED AP just another set of letters architects can tack onto their names to appear more credible, or does it really mean something? In a world increasingly concerned about the impact of the built environment, getting a LEED accreditation can bolster your resume and give you a deeper understanding of green building—knowledge you can use to fight climate change.

What is LEED? 

Businesswoman in wheelchair leading group discussion in creative office
Architects can parlay LEED AP certification into leadership roles in green building.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. According to the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the parent organization of LEED, it is the most widely recognized and used green-building rating system around the globe. It examines major design questions (such as how a building site is positioned), as well as minute design details (such as what the carpet fibers in the lobby are made of).

To become LEED-certified, building projects must follow rigorous requirements and documentation for different levels of LEED v4.1 certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. A building with a LEED plaque on it tells occupants and passersby that it’s healthier and more environmentally friendly.

What is a LEED AP? 

LEED accreditation is conferred to people who are experts in the LEED rating system; LEED AP stands for LEED Accredited Professional. This designation ensures that professionals have the knowledge they need to take a project through LEED certification and are well-versed in all aspects of green building.

In 2009, LEED accreditation requirements for professionals became much more rigorous. In his article “Major Changes Ahead for LEED APs” in National Real Estate Investor, Keith McGlamery wrote that before 2009, all you had to do to get a LEED AP designation was take a two-hour, multiple-choice exam on one of two LEED certification systems: LEED for New Construction or LEED for Commercial Interiors. If you passed the exam, you were awarded the title of LEED AP with no requirements for continuing education.

Post-2009, getting and keeping that credential became more difficult, which gave LEED accreditation more credibility in the marketplace. The accreditation has since been divided into two categories. The first is LEED Green Associate, which shows “general knowledge of LEED certification systems but does not require technical involvement or expertise,” according to McGlamery. The other is LEED AP+ or LEED AP With Specialty; this accreditation is for those who can demonstrate advanced knowledge of LEED and technical expertise in one of five categories:

  • Building Design + Construction (BD+C)

  • Operations + Maintenance (O+M)

  • Interior Design + Construction (ID+C)

  • LEED AP Neighborhood Development (ND)

  • LEED AP Homes

How to become a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) 

Six people sit around a conference table in a LEED workshop
A LEED workshop in Russia (Kelly Gearhart is third from the left). Image courtesy of Triple Green Building Group.

Kelly Gearhart—a green-building consultant, educator, and principal at Triple Green Building Group—breaks the process of gaining a LEED accreditation into three steps:

1. Prepare for, schedule, and take the LEED Green Associate exam

“You can obtain study materials from the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which publishes a handbook for each of the LEED exams,” Gearhart says. Read through the materials on your own, join or form a study group, or take a course on the material. Exams are administered through a proctoring company called Prometric, which has testing centers in all major cities around the world.

According to the LEED Green Associate Candidate Handbook, to be eligible to take the Green Associate exam, an individual must be 18 years or older and agree to the Disciplinary and Exam Appeals Policy and the credential maintenance requirements. The USGBC recommends that before taking this exam, it’s useful to gain exposure to LEED and green-building concepts through educational courses, volunteering, or work experience.

To take the exam, a candidate must register and pay for the test by logging into his or her USGBC user account. After completing the registration, the candidate has 12 months to schedule and take the exam. If this period expires, the individual has to reregister and pay again for the exam. The current fees for the LEED Green Associate exam are $200 for a USGBC member, $250 for a nonmember, and $100 for a student.

According to the LEED AP With Specialty Candidate Handbook, a professional must hold a LEED Green Associate credential to be eligible to take the LEED AP With Specialty exam. Prior experience working on a LEED-certified project is highly recommended before taking the LEED AP With Specialty exam. The registration process for the LEED AP With Specialty exam is the same as for the LEED Green Associate Exam. The current fees for the exam are $250 for a USGBC member, $350 for a nonmember, and no cost for veterans.

2. Specialize in LEED AP by project type

If you have experience working on LEED projects, you may want to pursue the LEED AP With Specialty credential. Once you’ve taken the LEED Green Associate Exam, you can take the AP With Specialty exam, which is tailored to a specific LEED rating system.

“The type of work you do as an architect will dictate the kind of AP credential you should get,” Gearhart says. “And if you do multiple kinds of work, such as both building design and neighborhood master planning, you can get both the BD+C and ND credentials.”

The LEED rating systems or specialties are:

  • Building Design + Construction (BD+C): This specialty is for individuals who focus on design and construction of buildings in the commercial, residential, education, and healthcare sectors.

  • LEED AP Operations + Maintenance (LEED AP O+M): This specialty is for those whose work focuses on the operations and maintenance of buildings; it applies to all existing buildings.

  • LEED AP Interior Design + Construction (LEED AP ID+C): This designation is for individuals who specialize in the design, construction, and improvement of commercial interiors and tenant spaces.

  • LEED AP Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND): This specialty is tailored for individuals who work in the planning, design, and development of neighborhoods and communities.

  • LEED AP Homes: This specialty is for individuals involved in the design and construction of buildings in the residential sector.

An alternate approach

Instead of first getting a LEED Green Associate accreditation and then taking a separate test for a LEED AP With Specialty accreditation, an individual can choose to take a combined test. This exam is four hours long. If a candidate passes the Green Associate portion of the exam but fails the LEED AP With Specialty portion, they will be awarded the Green Associate accreditation but not the LEED AP With Specialty credential.

In this case, the candidate can take the LEED AP With Specialty exam separately to gain the credential. If the candidate fails the Green Associate portion of the exam but passes the LEED AP With Specialty portion, he or she will not qualify for either credential and will have to retest with the Green Associate exam.

man in construction industry
The LEED rating systems or specialties include construction.

3. Maintain LEED accreditation with continuing education

After passing the exam, professionals aren’t done with the work it takes to keep their credentials. The USGBC states that “all LEED professionals are required to maintain and renew their credential every two years by earning and reporting continuing-education hours within their two-year cycle or reporting period.”

A LEED Green Associate must earn and report 15 continuing-education (CE) hours during each two-year reporting period, with at least 12 General CE hours and 3 Rating System–specific CE hours. LEED APs With Specialty must earn and report 30 CE hours during each two-year reporting period, with at least 24 General CE hours and 6 Rating System–specific CE hours relevant to his or her specialty.

Continuing-education hours can be earned through: education; project experience; authorship; and volunteering related to green building, health, wellness, resiliency, and the circular economy.

The why and why not for LEED AP 

A woman and two men look at building plans
Vessela Valtcheva-McGee (left) in a client meeting. Image courtesy of Triple Green Building Group.

In an age when green building has gone from being a catchphrase used by environmentalists to a mainstream practice in architecture, having the LEED AP credential could mean the difference between landing a project or getting passed up. “More and more organizations require or prefer teams to include a LEED AP when applying for requests for proposals, in the private or public sector,” Gearhart says.

Vessela Valtcheva-McGee—an architect, green building consultant, educator, and managing partner of Triple Green Building Group—says that LEED AP is an attractive credential for job seekers. “LEED has a really good market uptake both in the US and internationally,” she says. “So to have a LEED AP credential is definitely a plus for people looking to do work in emerging markets like China, India, and the Middle East, as well as here in the US.”

Both Gearhart and Valtcheva-McGee agree that LEED AP is only the beginning of an ongoing learning process. “Getting the accreditation serves as a catalyst for many architects,” Valtcheva-McGee says. It gives them a broad overview of various aspects of green buildings and often motivates architects to go deeper into one aspect of green design.

“There are many resources available to architects who want to learn more about a specific area of green building beyond obtaining and maintaining their LEED AP credential,” adds Gearhart, who has worked closely with GBCI. Other credentials include the Living Building Challenge, PEER, WELL, and SITES.

So what does it mean to have LEED AP next to your name? At the very least, it reveals that you know the basics about environmental and energy design. But it’s up to you to accept its invitation to leadership and take your knowledge of green building further in your practice.

This article has been updated. It was originally published in July 2015.

Taz Khatri

About Taz Khatri

Taz Khatri is a licensed architect and she has her own firm, Taz Khatri Studios. The firm specializes in small multifamily, historic preservation, and small commercial work. Taz is passionate about equity, urban design, and sustainability. She lives and works in Phoenix, AZ.

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