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LEED Certification for ESCs

Getting With the Program

November 2011 By Martha Brooke

Electricity has been a standard feature in the American home for 80 years. It's almost hard to believe that it was once a sellable feature. The same goes for seatbelts. A standard feature in the American car for almost 50 years, those too were once an upgrade. Items that were once a "luxury" become a standard pretty quickly when they make sense. And once they do, their marketability as a distinguishing feature is gone. You will never see a car manufacturer advertising the fact that their latest model has seatbelts. Of course it does. They all do.

Like electricity and seatbelts, the marketability of a company being "green" is only going to be an option for a limited period of time. Being "green" makes sense and in the not-so-distant future it will be as common as electricity in the home. For electronic systems contractors (ESC), it is important to jump on this opportunity to distinguish youself now, and you can do this by obtaining certification in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program and following its mandates. For some people, the designation is important to them because they think it makes them an expert, helps them sell more, gives them credibility, is marketable, or unique. And they are right. However, what is not measured cannot be proven. Today, LEED is the most recognized green certification system. For ESCs, LEED certification is proof that they can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

In order for the custom installation industry to be taken seriously when we are talking about "green" or energy efficiency, ESCs must prove to consumers-their trusting customers—that they are the experts who will lead the way. That proof comes in the form of nationally recognized certification from organizations like the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), who administers the LEED program.

What is LEED?

The first step to LEED certification is having an understanding of what it actually is. According to the USGBC, "LEED provides building owners and operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions." Basically, it is a certification system for green-building practices.

Buildings achieve certification through points earned in a number of categories. These include neighborhood development; retail, school and healthcare facilities; homes; the core and shell of a building; new construction; commercial interiors; and existing buildings. Each category has its own set of criteria based on five subcategories: sustainable site development, water savings, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and, most importantly for the ESC, energy efficiency. These subcategories are assigned a maximum number of points that can be achieved by meeting the different criteria for each. The total number of points determines the building's certification level: certified, silver, gold or platinum.

There are also different levels of LEED certification for individuals. A Green Associate (GA) is educated and knowledgeable about green building practices in non-technical fields of practice. An LEED Accredited Professional (AP) will have green-building expertise and will specialize in a particular LEED category, such as homes or building design and construction. At the highest level, a LEED Fellow would be someone who actually contributes to the standards and body of knowledge of the LEED.

Getting Certified

So how do you go about getting LEED certification? The process itself is actually pretty simple, but it is by no means easy. So let's start with the simple part.

To become a certified LEED GA, you must take a two-hour, 100-question, computer-based exam. There are eligibility requirements to sit for the exam, but as an ESC you should have no problem meeting them. They include working on a project certified for LEED, employment in a sustainable field of work or participation in an education program that addresses green-building practices. And of course, no exam would be complete without a fee. Between the application and exam fees, non-USGBC members can expect to pay $250, while members and full-time students will pay $200.

To become a certified LEED AP, you must take the GA exam in addition to any one of the five specialty exams, which are also two hours long with 100 questions. To qualify to sit on the specialty exam, you need to have prior experience on an LEED project. The costs for the specialty exam are the same as for the GA exam.

Before scheduling your actual exam appointment, you'll need to first submit an application to the Green Building Certification Institute to show that you meet the requirements. Once approved, you can schedule your exam online for a local testing center, of which there are hundreds across the country.

All of the above brings you to the hard part, which is actually passing the exam. You will need to learn a lot to pass this test, and may be studying for months before you feel confident in taking it. To help you prepare, there are practice exams, classes and other resources at your disposal. If green-building practices never changed, this would be the end of your LEED journey. However, the body of knowledge continues to expand. New technologies and practices are introduced and new standards developed. You will need to keep up with it to maintain your certification. Every two years you will pay a $50 renewal fee, and will have completed 15 hours of continuing education (CE) hours for GAs and 30 hours for LEED APs in that period.

The Pay Off

The rewards of LEED certification are many. According to the market research company Pike Research, green retrofits for commercial properties "represent a $400 billion market opportunity." And while AV is just a piece of that $400 billion pie, it is a large piece. And if contractors are going to hire an ESC to work on a LEED-certified retrofit, they aren't going to hire anyone who doesn't at least have an LEED-qualified person on staff, and who knows how to account for points and look for materials that will qualify for points. This gives LEED-certified integrators a huge leg up on those who don't have the designation.

This is a real market and a real opportunity; ESCs must get with the LEED program to access it. And they should get with the program now, because in 15 years everyone in the industry will have the designation, and you won't be able to use it to distinguish yourself from the pack. CR


Martha Brooke is currently the eastern regional sales manager for Panamax/Furman. LEED-certified, she was previously the owner and president of Keep the Green, LLC, a business dedicated to saving businesses and homeowners' money, while lowering their environmental footprint, by providing energy audits and recommending energy-saving measures.


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