green building certification leed building certification breeam certification breeam well building standard sustainable architects

All You Need to Know About Sustainability Certifications for Your Architecture Firm

7 min read

LEED, BREEAM, and WELL Building Standard certifications serve as benchmarks for ecological and health-centric design. They are also celebrated symbols of expertise in sustainable architecture. These certifications not only provide a structured framework to guide architects in integrating best practices for environmental stewardship, energy efficiency, and occupant well-being into their designs. They also effectively communicate a building’s sustainability credentials to clients and stakeholders. For architects targeting a clientele that values sustainability, achieving these certifications can enhance their professional reputation, showcase their commitment to sustainable design, and attract clients seeking demonstrable green building performance. This post will cover the significance of certifications like LEED, BREEAM, and WELL Building Standard for sustainable architects. We’ll also explore the benefits, the certification process, and how these credentials can distinguish your firm as a leader in eco-friendly design and construction. 

The Architect’s Vital Role in Advancing Sustainability in Building Design, Construction, and Use

Architects stand at the forefront of the movement towards a more sustainable built environment. Their pivotal role lies in infusing sustainable design principles and practices into every facet of their projects. They achieve this by embracing a holistic perspective that encompasses the entire lifecycle of a building—from its initial construction, through its operational phase, and ultimately to its eventual demolition.

Central to their mission is the conscientious evaluation of the environmental impact of building materials and design choices over the building’s entire lifespan. Architects meticulously select eco-friendly materials, explore energy-efficient systems, and maximize natural resources like daylight and ventilation to reduce the building’s carbon footprint.

Moreover, architects pioneer innovative approaches, such as green roofs, rainwater harvesting, and passive design techniques—all aimed at reducing energy consumption and minimizing environmental disruption. Their commitment to sustainable architecture extends beyond aesthetics—it’s a commitment to shaping a future where buildings harmonize with the environment—fostering a healthier, more sustainable world.

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Types of Sustainability Certifications for Architects and Architecture Firms

There are several noteworthy sustainability certifications that architects and architecture firms can pursue to underscore their commitment to eco-conscious design and construction.

LEED Certification

LEED—or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is a globally recognized sustainability certification. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) grants the LEED certification. LEED covers various building types—from residential to commercial buildings—and evaluates structures based on categories like energy efficiency, water usage, and indoor environmental quality. Architects can qualify for LEED by designing buildings that meet specific criteria related to energy efficiency, water conservation, sustainable materials, indoor environmental quality, reduced carbon emissions, and site sustainability. 

Buildings seeking LEED certification undergo rigorous assessment—with credits awarded for satisfying specified green building criteria. The number of credits determines the level of certification a project achieves: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

Within the LEED rating system, different adaptations cater to the varied facets of the built environment—encompassing Building Design and Construction (BD+C), Interior Design and Construction (ID+C), Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M), Neighborhood Development (ND), and Homes. Each category emphasizes specific strategies and criteria relevant to the project type.

For instance, while BD+C might emphasize sustainable site development and material selection, O+M would prioritize the efficient operation of building systems and ongoing performance. This modular approach ensures that LEED remains both holistic in its perspective and adaptive to the diversity of architectural and construction endeavors.

BREEAM Certification

BREEAM—or Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method—is a sustainability certification widely used in the United Kingdom and internationally. Building Research Establishment (BRE) grants the BREEAM certification.

To earn the prestigious BREEAM certification, architects embark on a journey that delves deep into the multifaceted landscape of environmental and sustainability considerations. Their mission is to craft buildings that not only meet but exceed various benchmarks in these crucial areas.

The BREEAM assessment casts a wide net—encompassing vital categories like energy, materials, water, health, and management. Architects are tasked with optimizing these aspects, ensuring that their BREEAM-rated buildings harmonize with the environment and promote the well-being of occupants. 

What sets BREEAM apart is its rigorous evaluation process—which subjects buildings to a thorough examination of their environmental performance. Ratings are awarded on a scale that spans from “Pass” to the pinnacle of sustainable achievement—”Outstanding.”

Architects who embrace BREEAM certification are not merely creating buildings—they are forging a path toward a more sustainable future. Their designs become a testament to innovation and a commitment to environmental responsibility—setting a global standard for excellence in sustainable architecture.

WELL Building Standard

A building in Seattle

The WELL Building Standard places the health and well-being of building occupants at its core. For architects, it represents a transformative approach to design—where buildings become not just shelters but guardians of human wellness. 

Qualifying for WELL certification challenges architects to reimagine spaces with a holistic focus on the health of those who inhabit them. The criteria are multifaceted and encompass a diverse array of factors that impact well-being. Architects must prioritize elements like air quality, water quality, nourishment, lighting, fitness opportunities, and overall comfort.

Achieving WELL certification is no simple feat. Architects must not only design spaces that meet the stringent performance requirements but also facilitate a comprehensive evaluation process. This process scrutinizes every aspect of the building’s design and operations to ensure it aligns with the wellness objectives.

The WELL Building Standard distinguishes excellence in health-conscious design by offering different levels of certification—including Silver, Gold, and the prestigious Platinum rating. Architects who aspire to WELL certification are not just shaping physical spaces. They are cultivating environments that nurture the well-being and vitality of the people who live and work within them. They are on the front lines of a transformational movement—where architecture becomes a catalyst for healthier, happier lives.

Regional Certifications

Regional certifications are tailored to specific geographic areas and may have unique criteria. Architects can qualify for these certifications by adhering to the specific sustainability standards relevant to their region. These certifications often take into account local environmental factors, regulations, and cultural considerations to promote sustainable building practices.

Benefits of Sustainability Certifications for Architecture Firms

Whether you renovate existing buildings or design new energy-efficient buildings, there are many benefits to obtaining sustainability certifications beyond protecting the environment and reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Enhanced Reputation

Sustainability certifications elevate the reputation of architecture firms as industry leaders in eco-conscious design and construction. These credentials demonstrate a commitment to environmental responsibility and cutting-edge practices.

Attracting Eco-Conscious Clients

Certified projects can attract clients who prioritize sustainability, expanding a firm’s clientele. It aligns architects with like-minded individuals and organizations seeking environmentally friendly building solutions.

Financial Benefits

Sustainable design can lead to reduced operational costs for building owners through energy and water savings. Additionally, certified sustainable buildings often command higher property values—benefiting both clients and architecture firms. These financial advantages make sustainability certifications not just environmentally sound but economically prudent choices.

The Certification Process

Obtaining WELL, BREEAM or LEED certification for a building typically involves a structured process—albeit with distinct requirements and protocols for each certification system. Bear in mind that for each of these systems, continued engagement and periodic re-evaluation or recertification might be necessary to ensure buildings continue to adhere to evolving standards and best practices. Here’s how the BREEAM process compares to the LEED process and so on.

The WELL Building Certification Process

Architects begin by registering the project with the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). They then comply with the WELL Building Standard’s features, which cover various concepts like air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, and more. A third-party organization carries out performance testing to ensure the built environment meets the set standards.

IWBI reviews the submitted documentation and performance testing results. If all requirements are satisfied, the building receives its WELL certification, which comes with a level—Silver, Gold, or Platinum—based on the score.

Obtaining a BREEAM Certificate

Architects begin by engaging a licensed BREEAM Assessor—who will offer preliminary feedback and identify potential areas of achievement. They then gather evidence and documentation to show compliance with BREEAM criteria across various categories such as energy, water, materials, and health & well-being. For certain schemes, an interim assessment provides an initial score and feedback before the main assessment.

Toward the end of the process, The BREEAM Assessor reviews all documentation. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) then verifies the assessor’s findings. Once verified, BRE awards the certification at an appropriate level—ranging from Pass to Outstanding.

The LEED Certification Process

Architects first register the project on the LEED Online platform—setting the certification goal (e.g., BD+C, ID+C). They then order a feasibility study to determine potential credits the project can achieve. They will later conduct a sustainability assessment.

The architect gathers documentation and data to prove compliance with selected credits across categories such as sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, and indoor environmental quality. He or she then submits all documentation through LEED Online for review.

After receiving these documents, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), or its international equivalents, conducts a review of the documentation. In some cases, the GCBI provides feedback to the applicant. Based on feedback, teams may need to provide additional information or make changes.

Once the review confirms the project meets requirements, a certification level (Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum) is awarded based on points achieved.

Final Thoughts

Sustainability certifications are essential for architecture firms seeking to lead in eco-conscious design and construction. These credentials enhance reputation, attract like-minded clients, and offer financial benefits. 

Embrace sustainability not only as a certification but as a core principle that guides your firm’s operations and projects. By doing so, you contribute to a greener, healthier future while positioning your firm as a trailblazer in sustainable architecture.

By Armela E.