Taking the LEED AP BD+C Exam
November 27, 2016
Last weekend I took the LEED AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) exam, and, mercifully, passed. (Something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving!) I have two purposes in this post: first, to describe my study process for anyone else who’s interested, and second, to reflect on the exam at a higher level, to consider whether it’s a worthwhile use of one’s time.
I passed the LEED Green Associate exam back in 2013, at the end of graduate school, and have been maintaining my credential since then through continuing ed and actual project experience. I recently completed the LEED certification process for two projects at my office and am working on a third. Overall, I felt that I had a solid foundation of understanding coming in to the exam prep. I gave myself two months to prepare and used two different study guides: Gang Chen’s “LEED v4 BD+C Exam Guide,” plus his sample test book, and Fulya Kocak Gin’s “LEED AP BD+C Exam Preparation Guide.” I also read all of the reference materials listed in the Candidate Handbook from GBCI, but skimmed the actual LEED BD+C Reference Guide rather than reading it thoroughly.
It took me forever to get through Gin’s book - but I think without it, I would not have gotten much from Chen’s book. The Chen book is sparse, likely because he intends it to be used as a reference manual after the exam and not simply as a study guide; it doesn’t contain any exercises or quizzes to help you retain the information. However, it does helpfully condense the amount of material you’re trying to memorize. Ultimately, I created my own study sheets that condensed the information even further, to help me memorize just the essentials. I can’t say that I recommend either book over the other; it’s probably useful to have both, as I did. The Gin book is full of “fluff” (photos, useless charts, etc) but does have quizzes and other information that can help with memorization.
I thought both books had terrible sample exams. They both have significant numbers of choose-all-that-apply questions (where you have to choose multiple answers in order to answer the question correctly), but my experience with the actual exam was that it did not have a lot of those type of questions. The calculation questions in Gin’s book were much too complex. I scored quite low on both the sample exams, but scored relatively high on the actual exam. So I wouldn’t put too much stock in their sample exams, but unfortunately, I don’t have any other questions to recommend.
The actual exam did involve a lot of rote memorization questions based on the LEED application process, as expected, and the rest were analytical or problem-solving questions related to the same. I thought about 10% of questions were very unclear or difficult. I received a score of 193 out of 200 (170 is the minimum to pass, 125 is the exam minimum), with scores of 75% or higher in each category - so I think my study strategy was effective. Basically I read through both books, took all the sample exams, and then the week before the exam, I created my study guide and read all the reference materials.
Reflections on the Exam
I had a difficult time motivating myself to study for this exam. The exam tests only your memorization and understanding of the LEED certification process – nothing more. This process is, of course, described in excruciating detail in the LEED Reference Guides, so there is absolutely no reason to memorize it. At all. Ever. So why is there this whole exam and credential system around it? As far as I can tell, it’s purely about money, about a system that supports the continued existence of USGBC / GBCI and that, occasionally, results in better pay for the individuals who have gone through the system and earned the credential. You will gain nothing more concrete from the exam preparation process than that.
Earning the credential is also, however, a signal that you think LEED, and by extension, sustainable design / green building, is important. It indicates that you have dedicated your time and money to learning about and pursuing design strategies that fight climate change. Even if the primary force behind the credential is money for USGBC / GBCI, the mission of those organizations is to safeguard the planet by changing the way we build and operate buildings. So what kept me going through the snore-inducing pages of point calculations and percent-savings on energy was the thought that getting my LEED credential was an act, however small, of resistance. Since the status quo in our country is apparently climate change denial and business-as-usual, this is one way of joining the opposition movement. While living in California, where we have better-than-average laws and codes to combat global warming, I’ve sometimes forgotten that the rest of the country isn’t following our lead. The whole purpose of LEED is to provide a national, even international, standard for building design and construction that minimizes the impacts of our work on the environment. Having spent a lot of time memorizing what the requirements are, I can attest that the principles at play in LEED are actually good ones – a lot of emphasis is placed on choosing appropriate sites and other factors that have a much bigger impact on a building’s energy use than what kind of air handling equipment it has.
I can’t say that I learned anything useful from the LEED AP exam. I also can’t say that it was easy, or that studying for it was entertaining, or that now I feel more empowered to work for green buildings, or that I am now more capable of persuading clients on why to build better buildings. I will probably forget everything that I memorized in short order, because I won’t be using the information regularly, and because the numbers change every few months when new LEED Addenda get released. But I have made a public commitment of my time, energy, and money toward fighting climate change, and I will keep it up until being a LEED AP is no longer a signifier of something unique, and something better comes along to signify my commitment.