Designing buildings with sustainability in mind is a must in today’s world. Not only do these buildings have higher performance, but they have lower operational costs and are more desirable for tenants.


One effective approach is obtaining third-party building certifications to demonstrate meeting performance goals. Architects, owners' reps, and design-build companies can greatly benefit by fully understanding the available tools and resources to support owners' success. Why is this important? Simply put: the bottom line. Clearly defined performance metrics are crucial for securing: 

  • Federal, state, and local funding incentives 
  • Residential mortgage underwriting 
  • Foundation grants 
  • Socially-conscious equity investments 


Luckily, a wealth of green building certifications are available for developers to choose from. These range from fully encompassing certifications like LEED to more specific certifications like Zero Energy. Understanding what options are available and which is best suited for your goals is a core component of capturing the benefits of a sustainable building.  



Below is a list of several of the most prominent and accepted green building certifications currently available. While this list is nowhere near exhaustive, it provides a good base.


If you’re interested in other green building certifications or a more detailed discussion of the certifications listed below, check out our Building Certification Directory. 



1. LEED 

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is an international certification that gives a framework for healthy, efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. To date, it is the most widely used green building certification, with over 197,000 LEED-certified projects in 186 countries. 


LEED certification is based on a points system where points are awarded based on different green building criteria. The total number of points achieved dictates the certification level: certified, silver, gold, or platinum.  


LEED certification is broken into categories based on the type of building and stage of development: 


LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C) 

  • Certification for new construction and major renovation of an entire building 
  • The most common LEED certification 
  • An all-encompassing certification that touches on factors ranging from design to construction activities 


LEED For Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) 

  • Certification for projects that develop the interior of a building but do not have control over a building’s entire operations. 
  • It can be applied to new interior buildouts or major renovations. 
  • A common use case is for a company that leases a floor of a building and plans to renovate it to meet LEED standards but does not control the operations of the rest of the building. 


LEED For Operations And Maintenance (O+M) 

  • Certification for existing buildings and leased spaces that have been operational for at least one year. 
  • It centers on ongoing building operations and maintenance. 
  • The primary focus is on building efficiency of resource use, like water and energy. 


LEED For Cities And Communities 

  • It is commonly used by governments, private sector planners, universities, and developers. 
  • It targets social, economic, and environmental factors in the city and community design. 



  • A set of certifications that verify buildings meet their stated net-zero goals. 
  • Certifications for carbon emissions, energy use, water use, and waste generation are available for buildings first LEED Certified under a different version of the rating system (i.e. ID+C, BD+C, O+M)


Enterprise Green Communities2. Enterprise Green Communities

Enterprise Green Communities certification sets standards for creating healthy, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly affordable housing. It is the most widely used certification criteria for affordable housing, with 230,000 certified housing units in 32 U.S. states. 


It focuses on sustainable development practices, improving residents' quality of life, and reducing environmental impacts. The certification encompasses design, construction, and operational strategies, promoting long-term sustainability and resilience in low-income communities. 


NGBS3. The National Green Building Standard (NGBS)

NGBS certification sets standards for sustainable residential construction, ranging from new builds to renovations and land development. It focuses on creating healthy homes, lowering operating costs, and promoting a sustainable lifestyle.


This is done with benchmark criteria for energy efficiency, water conservation, resource efficiency, indoor environmental quality, operations & maintenance, and lot development. Existing buildings undergoing renovations are also eligible for the certification. 


Energy Star4. Energy Star 

Energy Star is an EPA rating system that targets building energy use and efficiency. It is used to evaluate energy performance for an entire building, to reflect actual metered energy consumption, to account for different energy sources, to normalize building activity, and to provide a peer group comparison. 


Energy Star New Homes  

  • Certification for newly constructed homes 
  • It utilizes a point system (1 to 100) to express how a building performs in relation to other buildings. A score of 75 or higher qualifies for Energy Star. 


Energy Star Multi-Family New Construction (MFNC) 

  • Certification for newly constructed residential buildings with more than one residential unit (not townhomes) and residential portions of mixed-use structures 
  • It has several pathways to certification, such as using energy modeling or implementing a set of predetermined energy-saving measures developed by the EPA. 


Energy Star Existing Buildings 

  • Certification for existing commercial structures  
  • It utilizes a point system (1 to 100) to express how a building performs in relation to other buildings. A score of 75 or higher qualifies for Energy Star. 


Fitwel5. Fitwel 

Fitwel certification promotes health and well-being within buildings and was developed by the Center for Active Design. It examines how a project's design, operations, and behavior can be optimized for humans. Core components include categories like indoor air quality, access to physical activity, and occupant safety.  



The Well Building Standard examines how a project's design, operations, and behavior can be optimized for human health and well-being. It addresses factors like air, water, natural light, fitness, comfort, and mental well-being. It expires and requires re-certification after three years. 


BREEAM7. Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) 

BREEAM is an international certification that evaluates the sustainability of buildings through environmental, social, and economic sustainability performance. While initially based in the UK, it now covers 535,000 buildings in 74 countries. It offers certification for new and existing buildings, communities, and infrastructure projects. 


PHIUS8. Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)

PHIUS certification promotes energy-efficient passive buildings with rigorous standards for energy use, air tightness, and thermal comfort. The certification’s mission is to create high-performance passive buildings based on the Department of Energy’s research on climate and market conditions. This standard seeks to balance investment and payback by considering variables such as climate zone, source energy, and costs. 



SITES is a certification framework that promotes sustainable land development and management practices for outdoor spaces. It primarily focuses on balancing urbanization and natural spaces by evaluating categories like site design, water management, and soil conservation. Ultimately, it aims for designs that protect the natural environment and enhance the benefits they provide to communities. SITES embraces the unique conditions of each project and encourages flexibility in design. 


Green Globes10. Green Globes 

Green Globes is a certification system for green building design and operation management for all types of commercial real estate. It focuses on building environmental sustainability, health & wellness, and resilience. It is designed to be flexible, allowing building owners to choose which sustainable practices are most impactful for an individual building. 


Living Building Challenge11. Living Building Challenge (LBC)

LBC is an international performance standard that seeks to create projects and spaces that give more than they take. These projects are meant to positively impact both humans and natural systems with which they interact. To achieve LBC certification, all requirements have to be met. Existing buildings without renovations will have difficulty meeting all the requirements. 


True Certification12. Total Resource Use and Efficiency (True)

TRUE certification focuses on achieving zero waste in businesses and facilities. Rather than solely focusing on waste diversion, it evaluates and promotes waste reduction and upstream prevention policies. Just like LEED certification, TRUE uses a point system that gives certification levels ranging from certified to platinum. It can be applied to individual, campus, and regional group projects. 


Bonus Certification: Zero Energy

Zero Energy certification is offered by the Living Building Institute and recognizes buildings that produce as much onsite renewable energy as the total energy they consume annually. It does not allow for fossil fuel combustion energy use. This is achieved through a combination of onsite renewable energy development and energy efficiency measures. Furthermore, projects must verify their net-zero renewable energy performance with measured energy performance rather than modeling.  


Navigating Your Path to Sustainable Certification 

Selecting the right certification system isn't easy, but it is an essential step on your journey to a sustainable project. Certifications provide the backbone for sustainable design and give a trusted way to show that your project is sustainable. This helps reduce claims of greenwashing, command higher rents, receive better access to capital, and reduce operational costs. 


Our experts at Emerald Built Environments are knowledgeable about all of the certifications discussed in this article and are happy to answer any questions. Reach out to learn how we can help you choose and achieve the best certification for your project. 

Check Out Our Certification Directory to See Which is Right for You!