How LEED-Certified Buildings Benefit the Environment

Posted On 27 Apr 2024
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By: Evelyn Long

Buildings constructed based on LEED principles aim to heal the built environment’s impact with innovative technologies and design strategies that minimize each structure’s carbon footprint.

They promise to improve sustainability across six categories. The standards affect every aspect of building design, from site and material selection to finishing touches, such as roofs.

But what is a LEED-certified building, and does it live up to the hype? Spreading awareness of these innovations helps people build more sustainably, and understanding why these principles haven’t been widely adopted contributes to overcoming these hurdles. 

What Is a LEED-Certified Building? 

LEED is the standard for green building certification for new and existing structures. In determining whether a building meets LEED certification standards — and where it falls on their scale — inspectors examine several sustainability factors, including: 

  • Site sustainability 
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Materials and natural resources
  • Indoor environmental quality 
  • Overall carbon footprint

Confusion can arise between LEED-certified buildings with LEED accreditation. Accreditation applies to people, referring to professionals who completed their foundational knowledge and passed an exam in green building techniques. Certification applies to buildings, although one or more LEED-accredited professionals may have played a role in their construction or renovation. 

Why Aren’t LEED Buildings More Prevalent? 

LEED-certified buildings can cost more initially. The increased prices stem from hiring experts in sustainable design, investing in the right materials, and sometimes, having intricate negotiations between local planning and zoning authorities. Although LEED is the standard, governments have hesitated to implement standards across the board because of costs and other unpredictable and as-yet-unknown factors that may lead to future costs.

Do LEED-Certified Buildings Live Up to Their Promise of Benefiting the Environment? 

The real test of any program is how well it stands up under real-world conditions. One UC Berkeley study found that LEED-certified buildings contributed to 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions from water consumption, 48% fewer from solid waste and 5% fewer due to transportation.

LEED-certified buildings can demand higher resale prices, but does the appeal of appearing sustainable lead to “greenwashing” or overemphasizing the benefits? Possibly. Buildings may receive awards for new eco-friendly features and innovations that fail to consider the entire environmental impact of the structure itself. 

For example, one study by Carnegie Mellon University found that the LEED scoring on energy use led to the certification of many federal buildings. However, they suffered decreased energy efficiency in other areas, casting aspersions on the overall impact of the improvements. Furthermore, many facilities attempt to “buy” certification by taking low-effort measures with uncertain benefit levels, such as installing bike racks or special parking spaces for electric cars. 

Still, research from the United States Green Building Council found that LEED-certified buildings produce 34% fewer carbon emissions and save 80 million tons of waste from landfills. The LEED certification system is imperfect, and those administering the program continue to upgrade the standards to meet modern specifications. Any move toward greener construction reduces environmental harm, and every contribution counts. 

6 Ways LEED Buildings Benefit the Environment

LEED certification relies on a scoring system across the six areas it evaluates. The total number of points across the board determines whether or not a building wins certification. Therefore, not every LEED-certified building will contain all of the following innovations. However, here are six concrete ways in which LEED buildings benefit the environment. 

1. Reduced Reliance on Fossil Fuels 

Part of LEED certification entails improving overall energy efficiency. The more efficient the usage, the fewer fossil fuels are required to run the lights and maintain a consistent indoor temperature. 

For example, LEED-certified buildings may: 

  • Make use of passive solar
  • Use advanced insulation techniques to maintain internal temperatures
  • Use efficient LED lighting 

2. Increased Renewable Energy Use

Not all LEED-certified buildings run on renewable energy. Many use solar power, and this practice may expand as more new buildings are constructed and old ones are retrofitted with solar window panels that transform high rises into miniature power plants. Other alternatives include wind, geothermal energy and heat recapture from steam pipes in facilities like hospitals. 

3. Lower Water Consumption 

Water use also creates emissions, as it takes power to keep the taps running. Additionally, the earth’s fresh water supply is a tiny fraction of the total — and it’s as essential to life as air. LEED-certified buildings use low-flow devices to minimize water consumption and innovations such as rainwater capture and greywater recycling to put to use what may otherwise go to waste.

4. Introducing More Green Into Urban Environments 

People need nature for their health. However, many urban environments are devoid of all but the occasional tree. Some LEED-certified buildings aim to change that, with green roofs that combat the urban heat island effect while providing valuable garden space and a spot for residents to relax amid greenery.

5. Fewer Overall Carbon Emissions

Powering a building creates emissions. Improved energy efficiency decreases emissions from those that still run on fossil fuels. Buildings that adopt renewable energy may still produce emissions from waste, but their overall footprint is significantly lower. 

6. Improved Indoor Air Quality 

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the importance of indoor air quality for protecting human health. Part of LEED certification entails meeting specific air quality standards and safeguarding residents. 

LEED-Certified Buildings and the Environment

LEED has long been recognized as the leading organization for certifying green buildings. While it is far from perfect, it continues to evolve with human knowledge. Still, those evaluating the process must remain impartial and objective, avoiding greenwashing and awarding credit only for innovations that represent environmental savings. 

LEED-certified buildings benefit the environment by reducing emissions, water use, and waste, increasing energy efficiency, and improving indoor air quality. These standards continue to be a good starting point for designing buildings intended to work with, not against, the environment.


Evelyn Long is a writer and editor focused on construction and sustainability. Her work can be found on Renovated, a web resource for better building and design.

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