What is the most important thing to an architect? A plum commission? Peer recognition? Design awards? Fellow status from the AIA? All of these are certainly revered and desired, but the thing that most architects value above all is professional registration.
Architects must endure and conquer between four to eight years of college, two to three years working as an architectural intern, and a difficult multi-part, multi-day examination in pursuit of a professional registration. It is the carrot at the end of the stick for many of us. It’s what gets us through the all-nighters in college slaving away at our creations, running blue-prints for hours as hourly paid interns, hours of study and practice tests taken in preparation for the Architect’s Registration Exam. For me, the ARE was the most difficult of all exams, and the one I studied the hardest for. When I took the test there were nine parts, the last and most grueling a 12-hour long marathon that required the complete design of a building with hand-drawn plans, elevations and sections.
I whooped and hollered and jumped around for several minutes when I received notice that I had passed. Becoming a registered architect is still one of my most gratifying accomplishments. My professional registration is something I will always hold and prize.
THE LEED ACCREDITED PROFESSIONAL
After passing the ARE, I had no intention of taking another professional exam. I was happy with my career choice and with a professional registration didn’t need anything else. Or so I thought.
When I got involved with green building in the late ’90s, LEED was just beginning to catch on. At this time, the USGBC also offered an exam to become a LEED Accredited Professional. As one of the green gurus of the firm, I knew that a date with this new exam was not far into the future. Ugh! Just what I did not want to have to do. I reasoned that if I could pass the ARE, how hard could this thing be? Not hard at all, it turns out. A weekend reading the Reference Guide, a trip to the testing location, and two hours later, I was a LEED AP. Not only was the exam fairly easy to pass but anyone was allowed to sit for it. Administrative assistants, journalists, elementary school teachers, bookkeepers, beekeepers, etc. My newly acquired “credential” had very little value. Acquiring a LEED AP does not make one an expert at designing better, greener buildings. A beekeeper with a LEED AP is no more able to design a green building than without. The LEED AP quickly came to be regarded as a sham credential among design professionals. I saw it referred to as a Monkey Diploma in a popular LEED blog.
TOWARD A MORE CREDIBLE CREDENTIAL
Along with making improvements to the LEED rating system from Version 1.0 to Version 2.0, the USGBC also set out to make improvements to the LEED AP exam, and by extension its credibility. Not only was the USGBC taking criticism for the relative ease in passing the exam, but that the exam itself was poorly written and contained lots of mistakes. The first LEED AP exam was written in a mad rush by USGBC staffers in order to just get something out there for people to take, and to pay for. The staffers had no particular expertise in the subject matter for questions written, or exam question writing experience. Many of the questions were poorly written and could not be easily defended by the USGBC were they challenged.
To make the exam better, the USGBC realized that it must follow established rules in the creation of a standardized, professional accreditation exam. The organization that arguably knows more about this than any other is Educational Testing Service. ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually including the TOEFL and TOEIC tests, the GRE General and Subject Tests. It was with guidance and adherence to rules and procedures similar to those used in the development of ETS exams that the USGBC developed a new LEED AP exam. Subject Matter Experts were enlisted, a professional exam question writer was hired as a consultant, and a committee was formed to oversee the development of the new exam.
My involvement with this began when I was asked to serve as a SME for the Materials and Resources exam questions. After a careful evaluation of the existing exam questions against the new exam question rules, 80 percent of the exam questions were thrown out. The 20 percent that were kept required lots of massaging to get them into proper shape. Writing the new questions was laborious and difficult. The main difficulty facing the SMEs was the lack of significant content to draw from. The rules required questions to be written based on a finite source, in this case the LEED Reference Guide. I learned that in writing proper standardized exam questions, the accuracy of the information of the source material does not matter, but the way the questions are written does. There are a very limited number of ways to write a question about how many miles away a material must be harvested to count toward MRc5, the meaning of Rapidly Renewable, or what FSC stands for. But the improvement over the first exam was colossal, nonetheless.
THE LEED AP BANDWAGON
Having a LEED AP quickly became a highly sought after “credential” within the building design community. Firms began encouraging staff to become LEED APs. Many firms paid for or subsidized the cost of the exam. Some even provided additional incentives for those that passed. Firms began to tally the percentage of staff that had LEED AP certification and set minimum goals for such and such a month or year whereby X percent would be certified. The firms with the highest percentages of LEED APs earned gloating privileges among competing firms, which spurred on even more participation. Study groups were formed, classes were provided and the LEED APs began to accumulate at a breakneck pace.
When news got out that the USGBC was going to change the exam, a panic erupted among design professionals that hadn’t yet passed the exam. People assumed that a new exam would be more difficult. How could it not be? Once the cut-off date to sit for the old exam was announced, a horde of people registered for the easier test. The USGBC made a lot of money in a very short amount of time. The LEED AP exam, along with sales of the LEED Reference Guides, became the biggest income source for the USGBC. There are more than 65,000 active LEED APs today, each of them having paid $250 to sit for the exam, for a total of more than $16 million in revenue.
MORE EXAMS+MORE MONEY= BETTER CREDENTIAL?
It’s déjà vu all over again with the USGBC and the LEED AP exam. As of May 2009, the former LEED AP exam is no more. It has been replaced with newer versions-yes that is plural-and a completely new credentialing system. Those 65,000 LEED APs are now called Legacy LEED APs. To retain LEED AP status, Legacy LEED APs will be required to sign a USGBC disciplinary policy agreement, meet the continuing education requirements, and pay a biannual “maintenance” fee.
For newcomers, the new exams and credentialing standard will apply. There are now three LEED credential tiers. The first is called LEED Green Associate and is designed for individuals that want to have some recognition of expertise in green building but not assume a lead role with a project team. This credential is aimed at product manufacturers, marketers, real estate advisors, students, etc.
The second tier is called LEED AP+, requires passing the Green Associate exam as well as one of a number of additionally available exams that include Interior Design + Construction, Homes, Operations & Maintenance, Neighborhood Development, or Building Design + Construction. The second tier credential is aimed at professionals that can demonstrate that they’ve worked on a LEED project within the last two to three years.
The third tier credential is called LEED Fellow and will be reserved for “an elite class of leading professionals who are distinguished by their years of experience.” No requirements for this credential have been established yet. All of these credential tiers will cost money, the higher the tier, the more money required.
Not to be outdone by the USGBC, the GBI, in anticipation of its new Green Globes rating system, is also working on a green building credentialing program complete with exams and different types of credentials. Unlike LEED, however, the Green Globes top-level credential will require a background in the building industry in the form of a professional registration, degree, or equivalent experience. A beekeeper may still be able to be a LEED AP+, but will not qualify as a top level Green Globes professional.
The idea behind professional accreditation is to ensure a minimum level of competency among professionals of a given profession. The newly formed LEED AP credentialing body, the GBCI, states on its Web site that: “A LEED credential provides employers, policymakers, and other stakeholders with assurances of an individual’s current level of competence and is the mark of the most qualified, educated, and influential green building professionals in the marketplace.”
Under what circumstance could a secretary, a retired school teacher or a journalist with a LEED AP possibly be considered as “the most qualified, educated, and influential green building professional”? What is a LEED AP’s competency? Building design? Absolutely not. To tell an architect that LEED points are available for on-site renewable electricity generation, recycled content materials use, and applying low VOC coatings? Perhaps. Green building credentialing programs seem to me to be more about marketing and making money than fulfilling a genuine need. While I applaud the improvements being made to green building “credentials,” I continue to question what value they really offer. W&C