3 Sustainability Rating Systems for the CSE for Landscape Architects

Sustainability Rating Systems For Landscape Architects

Do you know about the many sustainability rating systems available for landscape projects today?

Sustainability is an important and evolving aspect of our profession.

More often than not, landscape architects are part of a design team that is trying to meet one or more sustainability ratings for a project.

In response to sustainability trends in landscape architecture, the Landscape Architect Technical Committee (LATC) added questions about sustainability rating systems to the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) for landscape architects.

The following rating systems are the most common for California landscape architects.

  • LEED
  • CALGreen

Lets look at each if these rating systems and look at where landscape architects fit into the process.


Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)


The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) suite of sustainability rating systems to measure the performance of green buildings and landscapes.

Originally started as an industry group in 1996, the USGBC has taken on a life of its own and continues to develop standards and improve the rating system.

Architects, developers, or landscape architects register and submit projects for review. After the USGBC reviews the application, they inform the applicant if the project achieved a LEED rating.

There are several different LEED categories to match the diversity of projects that are developed every year.


Green Building Design & Construction

  • LEED for New Construction
  • LEED for Core & Shell
  • LEED for Schools
  • LEED for Retail: New Construction and Major Renovations
  • LEED for Healthcare

Green Interior Design & Construction

  • LEED for Commercial Interiors
  • LEED for Retail: Commercial Interiors

Green Building Operations & Maintenance

  • LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance

Green Neighborhood Development

  • LEED for Neighborhood Development

 Green Home Design and Construction

  • LEED for Homes

There are several sustainable site design practices that landscape architects can contribute to a project to help improve its sustainability and earn points towards certification. For example, grading, erosion control, and storm water management can all earn points towards LEED certification.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system has four different levels of achievement. Each level must earn a certain number of points based on the sustainable credits in the particular rating system. The four levels are:

  • Platinum (80 or more points)
  • Gold (60-79 points)
  • Silver (50-59 points)
  • Certified (40 to 49 points)

All points are based on a 100 point system in this example based on the latest LEED for New Construction and Major Renovations standards. Platinum is the highest level of certification for a LEED-certified project. Few buildings are awarded the coveted Platinum certification.

CALGreen sustainable rating system is part of the California Supplemental Exam for landscape architects


CALGreen is the new California State green building code that has been adopted by municipalities across the state.

There are basic prerequisite requirements that all projects must accomplish and voluntary requirements that help a project achieve Tier 1 or Tier 2 status.

Unlike the other rating systems discussed above, CALGreen is not voluntary and all new construction must comply with the building code.

However, projects that exceed the minimum standards can meet commendable Tier 1 or Tier 2 ratings. Basically, buildings and sites that exceed the standards a little can qualify for Tier 1 status.

Exceptionally sustainable buildings and sites may qualify for the coveted Tier 2 rating. The text of the building code explains the requirements in detail.

Look for more information about CALGreen in an upcoming article.

Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) is a sustainability rating system on the California Supplemental Exam for Landscape Architects

Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)

While LEED and many other sustainable rating systems do an excellent job of rating the sustainability and performance of green buildings, they are not well-equipped to assess the sustainability of a large landscape architecture project.

To address this deficiency in the green rating system ecosystem, the American Society of Landscape Architects teamed up the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas and the US Botanic Garden to create a voluntary, interdisciplinary rating system that can better assess the sustainability of sites.

The SITES rating system has been under development for several years and has recently been released to the public in mid-2013.

SITES focuses on maintaining healthy ecosystems and ecosystem services. Areas of concentration includes:

  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • urban climate
  • controlling invasive species
  • water conservation
  • water pollution
  • yard waste
  • health and well-being of site users

SITES is just in its infancy and will become more influential on building sites in the near future.

Different Rating Systems, Same Goal

Sustainability is an emerging trend that has caught the fancy of mainstream developers and clients.

Understanding the various sustainability rating systems and their many requirements is yet another professional responsibility for landscape architects to master.

Through the use of increasingly sustainable building, landscape management, and resource use, landscape architects can help reduce the impact of our projects on the environment and serve our clients well.


For more information about the different rating systems, check out the following links:

Looking for a CSE Study Guide?

Pass the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) for Landscape Architects e-book study guideIf you are looking for a study guide to help you prepare to pass the CSE the first time, check out Pass the California Supplemental Exam for Landscape Architects study guide e-book.




John is a landscape architect who is currently preparing to take the California Supplemental Exam to become licensed in California. He is currently a licensed professional landscape architect in Georgia and Florida. John graduated from California State University, Pomona with a BSLA degree in landscape architecture in 1997 and has extensive practice experience in residential and commercial landscape design.

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