Green Certifications for Your Non-Building Projects

Written by Watershed Staff

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Does LEED certification just not fit your project or reward the innovative work you are proposing? LEED certification was designed for buildings and large developments, so you could find yourself in this scenario if you are proposing a lot of restoration for your site, or if you have an infrastructure-intense project or a road project, to name a few. 

Have no fear: Sustainable SitesEnvisionGreenroadsSalmon-Safe and Living Building Challenge are here!  These green rating systems and certifications were developed to represent sustainable projects that didn’t quite fit in LEED. Whether you are in the private sector or the public sector, there is a rating system right for you and your project.

At The Watershed Company, we are here to help guide you through your decision-making process and assist with the certification process. Read on to learn which LEED alternative is a good fit for your sustainable project.


Sustainable Sites (SITES)

The Sustainable Sites Initiative, commonly referred to as SITES, is undergoing its pilot phase and will be open for public enrollment mid-2013. SITES is an interdisciplinary effort to create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices.  Sustainable Sites rewards green building practices related to project sites, not buildings, so it’s perfect for a park, plaza, or projects with extensive landscape design – including those with large restoration components. Currently there are six projects throughout the Puget Sound up for pilot Sustainable Sites certification.  We’ll be revisiting SITES on the blog in more detail soon, so check back to learn about gaining SITES credits with your landscape.

Key difference between LEED and SITES certification

Most of LEED emphasizes architectural elements, while SITES reflects the broader site, which may or may not include buildings.  While LEED for Neighborhood Development can certify sites, it addresses projects like neighborhoods or campuses with extensive planning processes and is therefore not applicable to many types of landscape projects.  SITES provides no credits for buildings as it was designed not only as a stand-alone rating system, but also so that portions of it could be incorporated into future versions of LEED.

Is SITES the right green certification for your project?

If your project seeks to preserve and/or restore natural systems, while employing green-building construction techniques and innovative operations and maintenance procedures, SITES may be the rating system for you.



Envision is a sustainable infrastructure rating system that provides a holistic framework for evaluating and rating the community, environmental, and economic benefits of infrastructure projects. In contrast with SITES, Envision primarily looks at protection of resources and the natural world as opposed to the physical components that comprise the landscape or promoting voluntary restoration of the environment.  Envision gives recognition to infrastructure projects that assess sustainability over the course of the project's life.  It forces project proponents and designers to ask, “Are we doing the right project?" and, "Are we doing the project right?"  It takes into consideration community needs including mobility and access and long term environmental risks. Envision can inform decisions about the investment of limited resources. 

Key difference between LEED and Envision certification

Envision is designed for infrastructure projects such as roads and lighting.  It does not reward or address buildings.

Is Envision the right green certification for your project?

If you have an infrastructure project that is looking to be built sustainably and for long-term durability, Envision may be the right alternative to LEED for your project.



Greenroads is a sustainability rating system for roadway design and construction. It is applicable to all roadway projects, including new, reconstruction and rehabilitation (even overlays), bridges, you name it. If there is a road involved, you can use it.  The certification looks at all facets of design and construction.  Greenroads was created because the large amounts of energy consumed to build our transportation networks need to be addressed.  Like Envision, Greenroads forces the question of “are we doing the right project,” but whereas Envision is a broad certification system designed to address many kinds of infrastructure projects, Greenroads gets down to the detail of roadway design and construction.  Like Envision, Greenroads addresses environmental protection, but unlike Envision does provide some credits for habitat restoration and ecological connectivity across roadways.  Greenroads has certified nineteen projects in Washington.

What's the difference between LEED and Greenroads certification?

LEED for Neighborhood Development addresses mostly the design of neighborhoods and campuses.  It does not address the specifics of roadway design and associated construction.

Is Greenroads the right green certification for your project?

If you are seeking to design and construct a sustainable road project, Green Roads may be the rating system for you.



Salmon-Safe offers a series of peer-reviewed certification programs linking land management practices with the protection of agricultural and urban watersheds. Whether the site is an organic farm in northern California, an orchard in the Skagit Valley, a Walla Walla vineyard, or a Seattle-area corporate campus, certification requires management practices that protect water quality and restore habitat. Salmon-Safe has certified over 60,000 acres of farms, but also certifies parks, golf courses, residential developments, and construction management practices.  Soon it will certify green infrastructure projects, too.

Key difference between LEED and Salmon-Safe Certification

The Salmon-Safe program has been designed specifically to protect water quality for salmonids, therefore more credits are available for green landscape practices that protect and restore the environment as well as management strategies to prevent the use of products or methods that contribute to water quality contamination.

Is Salmon-Safe the right green certification for your project?

If you are an environmentally-concerned landowner or corporation interested in innovative ways to protect your local watershed and salmon, Salmon-Safe may be the right program for you.


The Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge is a rigorous green certification system that can be used to address both building and landscape projects. The Challenge is comprised of seven performance areas, or ‘Petals’: Site, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty. Petals are subdivided into a total of twenty Imperatives, each of which focuses on a specific sphere of influence. Projects that achieve living building certification are quite often considered the greenest around. The Living Building Challenge, however, was designed to promote urban density and to protect pristine sites. Thus, unlike SITES, it cannot be used for projects with sensitive ecological habitat, including those where there is opportunity for restoration.

Key Difference between LEED and Living Building Challenge Certification

Today, many projects are easily achieving LEED Platinum status. Though LEED v4 seeks to raise the bar for platinum level certification, it does not truly differentiate projects that desire to be self-contained or seek ideal, rather than attainable, green solutions.

Is Living Building Challenge the Right Green Certification for Your Project?

If your project is to be built on a previously developed site that does not contain sensitive ecological habitats and you desire it to be built as green as is currently possible, to be self-contained without additional water and energy inputs or waste outputs (off the grid), then the Living Building Challenge may be right for you.


Certifying Your Project

The costs to certify your project, as well as the amount of documentation required varies between the certifications; however, it is always easier to address these questions and requirements at the beginning of the design process, rather than trying to find a rating system to match your project or tally enough points for a project that’s already been designed. 

Plus, you’ll have the benefit of knowing that your project has been designed systematically to be built green every step of the way, from project initiation through construction.  Many rating systems also take it a step further, allowing you to monitor and demonstrate the performance of your project against designed parameters. 

Want to Go Green, but Don’t Want to Certify?

All of these rating systems can be used as a tool to guide design.  Whether or not you choose to certify is up to you.

Just a Homeowner Who Wants to Go Green?

Are you a homeowner interested in greening up your property yourself?  Check out Landscape for Life, which is based on the principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, but designed for individual use, whether you live on an urban lot or a large farm. If you need a hand, our landscape architecture team can help you design a sustainable garden with green features like raingardens, compost bins, rainwater harvesting, and environmentally-friendly building materials.

Here’s to the health of the planet through green-building for all projects!

This blog is part of our Green Building series. Check out the other installments in this series.


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