OK, another long overdue episode recounted. As I mentioned, I passed the LEED GA exam last month. For those of you keeping track, there used to be a single LEED test (LEED AP), but it was recently split into two parts: the general LEED GA exam and the LEED AP specialized exam. To take the second exam you choose a topic (interiors, renovation, new construction, etc.) I would love to jump right in and take that second part, I am not allowed to do so until I can document experience working on a LEED registered project. So that’s not going to be any time soon. Drat.

But in the mean time, I am Kirsten Hively, LEED GA (time to make business cards!). Yes, that is a lot of all-cappage. LEED = Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and GA = Green Associate. It’s basically the industry standard (and yes, there’s a LOT of industry in that standard) for sustainable building.  It’s full of acronyms and circular references, but it is, as I said, the industry standard, and that kind of consensus is worth a lot. When someone says a building is LEED Silver Certified, that has a very specific meaning that anyone who has dealt with LEED understands. So while it has some serious flaws, its value as a mode of communication is undeniable.

The system recently received a major overhaul that, to give the USGBC (that’s the US Green Building Council, who oversees the LEED system) credit, addressed a lot of the concerns voiced by critics, including giving greater weight to global warming issues. The downside of the upgrade, though, is that it meant an entirely new set of materials to study and a new system of accreditation (the splitting of the test into two parts that I mentioned). So if you are planning to take the test, do NOT look at any old materials.

OK, the rest of this is probably only of interest if you’re actually planning to take the test, or if you’re the kind of armchair test-taker who relishes the voyeuristic pleasures of hearing about other people’s test taking in detail.

First of all, if you’re planning to take the test, go here:


It’s a discussion forum largely devoted to the ARE (Architectural Registration Exams), but that section I just linked to discusses the LEED exams. It’s very informal and so take the posts with a grain of salt or two, but it was helpful for me to understand the scope of the test.

The next critical place to go is the USGBC website itself. They don’t run the test (they spun that off to GBCI, the Green Building Certification Institute—I told you this was confusing—with the recent upgrade) but they invented LEED and control its evolution and dissemination. I found their website somewhat less than crystal clear, but just poke around a bit and you’ll see what’s what.

I opted to skip the official classes and guides (you can buy them from the USGBC website if you feel differently), but the free handbook


is MANDATORY. It is written in a way that makes it sound like BS, but it actually contains some very important information. In particular, pay attention to the list of primary references (I skipped the ancillary references so I don’t know if they matter much), they are key and all are available for free download, and to the ‘specifications’ section, which will give you a very good outline of what you need to learn. The small section of sample questions will also start to give you an idea what you’re in for. For me as an architect (you don’t necessarily have to be an architect to take the test—many engineers take it, as well as some developers, interior designers, etc.), I found the test a really odd mix of brute memorization and common sense. Sorting out which things I needed to memorize and which I just needed to understand took up a lot of my study time.

Next step:  register! The handbook describes the process—it’s basically 2 steps. First you get permission from the USGBC to take the test, then you schedule an appointment with a Prometric testing center (I ended up taking my exam in the same place I took my GREs lo these many years ago).

It’s $250: $50 to register and $200 for the test itself. There are additional fees for changing your exam date, for maintaining your accreditation, and just generally whatever they feel like they can get away with charging you for. If your job won’t pay for it, at least you can write it off on your taxes!

I gave myself about a month to study. I ended up being sick and unable to study for a solid week of that time, but then really studied as much as I could (pretty much work-study-sleep, repeat). I’m sure if you were somewhat familiar with the material and didn’t have a job you could learn it in a couple of weeks, maybe even one week if you crammed, but my old brain isn’t as fast as it used to be. If these topics are entirely new to you or you don’t have much free time, I’d leave a little more time.

Now your next step if you have deep pockets or work for a big company willing to lend you theirs would be to take a class. The formus I linked to above can recommend some for you—alas, my pockets are distressingly shallow, so I did not go that route.

I studied mainly with practice tests, reviewing the free material, and reading a handbook that came with my exams. The practice exams I timed, and I carefully studied not only the questions I got wrong, but also the ones I had guessed on so I could be more sure next time, and so I would have a handle on similar questions.

For me, the timing of the test was no problem. It’s 100 multiple choice questions (and, by the way, you get NO credit for multi answer questions (eg ‘which three strategies would be best for achieving…’) unless you get all the correct answers. No partial credit.). In the actual test, I reviewed my test 3 times and still finished with 45 minutes to go. The problem with so few questions, though, is that you could get unlucky and get stuck with a lot of questions from your weaker areas. There is also some secret weighting formula, so there’s no way to know how many questions you need to get right in order to pass.

The wording of the questions, however, was not so straightforward. There were several questions on the test that I knew the information cold, but still wasn’t sure what the correct answer was. So best to leave a buffer and overstudy at least a bit. But then, I’m a worrier.

The practice tests I used (set of 4) were from these guys: https://www.greenexamprep.com

The tests were online (which made it annoying to review missed questions, but I get they don’t want people stealing their content) and, as I said, came with a decent study guide. The study guide was bulked up with (to me) pointless case studies and had some small mistakes here and there, but was basically very helpful. I took the exams twice each. I also read good things about this site: http://www.everblueenergy.com/ on the forums, but did not use any of their material myself.

What I did do (as those of you who know me will expect) was make a ton of flash cards, color coded charts, and lists. Because, you know, that’s just my style.

So there you have it. General advice-wise I would say remembering the big picture—sustainable design is a good thing!—is important when you feel you’re getting gummed up with the corporate-speak and other mumbo-jumbo. It’s all for a good cause and it’s kind of a fun game if you can forget about the stress for a bit (which I obviously wasn’t the best at, hence the shingles). Good luck!

PS: I can’t give out very specific information about the test (the GBCI like NCARB is cracking down on people disseminating what they see as too much information), but if you have general questions, I will do my best to answer them.



This entry was posted on Monday, December 21st, 2009 and is filed under architecture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Bookmark and share this...



One Response to “LEEDingly”

  1. Lesley LEED AP

    Congratulations on passing the LEED Green Associate exam! It certainly sounds like you studied hard, and you are very poignant with your advice. At Everblue, we advise students to study the USGBC reference guide, as well as take our practice exam and learn the credits from our 11×17 study sheets. The ARE Forum is also a great way to communicate with others in the same boat as you. It’s really a great resource while studying for the exam. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to have you in one of our LEED GA exam prep courses. If you’re thinking about taking the LEED AP with specialty exam, or are looking to take continuing education courses, please take a moment to review our course catalog!