sustainability | Mar 19, 2024 |
What designers need to know about sustainability certifications

Sustainable practices have only become mainstream educational fare in the design industry within the last few years. As a result, many designers working today may have little or no sustainable design education. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accreditation, founded in 1994, is one of the first and most widely recognized sustainability certifications available for the architecture and design industry. However, today there are several other alternatives to LEED, most of which are offered as continuing education programs.

What do you stand to gain from pursuing sustainability-related certification? The designers we spoke with reported learning a lot while studying for accreditation exams, but none believed eco credentials had changed the course of their career. Instead, they’ve used their credentials to bolster their authority and signal their interest in sustainability. For example, interior designer Leah Connolly, the founder of Studio Connolly in Sacramento, chose to pursue becoming a LEED Green Associate “to further my education and give me a little bit more of a foundation to take my business in a sustainable direction.” Plus, she felt it lent her firm authority: “When I decided to go out on my own, I wanted to have that extra credibility.”

Before pursuing a certificate, it is important for designers to define their motivation. For example, Connolly suspects LEED accreditation is most valuable for design professionals who anticipate that they will be working exclusively on projects seeking the certification, which are most often multiunit, new construction (it is rare for a single-family residence, for example). Others might pursue accreditation to deepen their knowledge of a niche. Sarah Barnard, an interior designer based in Southern California, pursued the LEED AP designation in 2007 and then went on to attain the WELL AP designation (more on that below) a decade later, as her interest in wellness in interiors deepened.

Sustainable accreditations might also offer a slight advantage to designers looking for a job. Yaiza Armbruster, founder of the architecture and interior design firm Atelier Armbruster in New York, gained LEED accreditation early in her career, but it is not something she expects her employees to have. Still, she says, it is a nice thing to see on a resume—not so much because of the skills it connotes, but because “I appreciate the effort that somebody put into taking the exams. And even more because I like that the person is interested in sustainability.”

Having weighed your options, if you decide sustainable design certification is right for you, there are a number of routes to consider, including LEED and beyond.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which administers the LEED program, more than 203,000 professionals across industries have earned a LEED credential, but they do not track how many are interior designers. There are two levels of accreditation: LEED Green Associate and LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) with specialty. For interior designers, the latter would be a LEED AP ID+C, which demonstrates expertise in interior design and construction. People often use the terms “LEED certified” and “LEED accredited” interchangeably, but buildings are “LEED certified,” while people are “LEED accredited.” When the title LEED AP was first offered, it was meant to last for the duration of a career. However, LEED now requires accredited pros to take 30 hours of continuing education every two years. Several of the designers BOH consulted said they determined it was not worth the ongoing time and expense to maintain official accreditation. However, Connolly says that so far she has not found the time or cost ($85 for Green Associate) to be onerous.

Parsons School of Design
Parsons School of Design offers a Sustainable Building Materials Certificate, which is offered as a self-paced, online course. The coursework is focused on “the impact that building materials can have on human health,” but the things that are best for human health are most often best for the planet, as well.

WELL Accreditation
If you are particularly interested in healthy environments, you might also consider WELL Accreditation. Developed in collaboration with the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL AP credential denotes advanced knowledge in human health in the built environment, and more specifically, the WELL Building Standard.

Wellness Within Your Walls
Also on the healthy buildings front, Wellness Within Your Walls (WWYW) is an education resource that offers certification for knowledge of health and wellness in living environments, and it’s slated to launch online courses this year.

The Pratt Institute
The Pratt Institute’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers a continuing education certificate in Sustainable Design with three core courses: BioDesign and Biomimicry, Introduction to Sustainable Design, and Sustainable Design Theory and Practice. The schedule is released on a term-to-term basis with classes offered in spring, fall and summer.

The New York School of Interior Design
The only degree program dedicated to sustainable interior design is offered by The New York School of Interior Design. This is a Master-level, post-graduate program that requires a professional-level degree in interior design, architecture or a closely related field. Program director David Bergman notes that students can also take the program remotely in tandem with the on-campus students via live Zoom. “We’ve had students from as far as India, Peru and the Philippines,” he adds.

Thomas Jefferson University
Thomas Jefferson University offers certificates in Sustainability Leadership, Design of Living Buildings, Resilient Communities or Green Building Operations and a Master of Science in Sustainable Design, which are available in on-campus and online formats. While the programs are not specifically geared to interior design, program director Robert Fryer says, “We do have several students with interior design degrees in the program currently, and have for many years.”


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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