Education @USGBC is giving green building professionals wider and faster access to courses that help them expand their knowledge and maintain their LEED credentials.
WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) constantly encourages design and building teams to adopt an integrative process that brings stakeholders together early on to improve outcomes down the line.


So when the organization wanted to revamp its educational programming several years ago, it followed its own advice. Rather than simply picking a path and plowing forward, USGBC sought input from more than 250 users of the organization’s educational offerings, along with other firms that it thought could benefit from the programs, and people and groups involved with green building education in other capacities.


“We talked to all types of folks who were already touching the education that we did, or those that weren’t touching it, and we thought should be,” says Melanie Share, project manager for education platforms. “We stumbled upon the pretty clear trend that people didn’t necessarily expect USGBC to be the one creating all of the education related to green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), but people did view USGBC as the convener in this area. That idea was really transformational for us, because it kind of clicked—the idea that our role should be to bring like-minded individuals together and provide that space for interaction.”


Melanie Share, project manager for education platforms, at her computer with USGBC staff members.  Photo: Ana Ka’ahanui3

Melanie Share, project manager for education platforms, at her computer with USGBC staff members. Photo: Ana Ka’ahanui

Thus began Education @USGBC, an online “one-stop shop,” in Share’s words, that gathers hundreds of courses developed by USGBC education partners, and even member companies. After a soft launch in late 2013, the platform kicked off in earnest in January of 2014, and since that time, more than 30,000 users have taken online courses, helping them to maintain their LEED credentials and to keep growing their green building knowledge.


Previously, USGBC had offered a subscription webinar service, along with many in-person trainings. “We would coordinate pretty much every aspect of the event,” Share says. “We felt like we were trying to be all things to all people, and it wasn’t necessarily scalable.” In the new model, USGBC brought together organizations that were previously seen as competitors and fostered a spirit of collaboration.


Along with curating educational content from a number of different groups, one of the big ideas to emerge from the brainstorming around the revamp was the implementation of a peer rating system. “We were thinking of it like an Amazon marketplace of green building education,” Share says. “The attitude we had was, how can we collectively leverage the work that is being done for the greater good of the movement? And we knew that an important component of that was having a peer feedback–driven experience.”


The result, Share says, is a combination of quantity and quality. The large volume of partner-provided content gives users a wide range of choices, and the peer feedback system ensures that they see the highest-quality courses first.


The most obvious benefit of Education @USGBC is that it provides green building professionals with flexibility and control in obtaining the educational content they need to maintain their LEED credentials. But Share hopes that credential maintenance is only one of the things users are walking away with.


“There are people out there taking way more than their 30 hours of required maintenance [every two years],” Share says. “We know those individuals aren’t looking to just check a box, but to learn more. One of the ways we seek to support them is by having such a large pool of courses to pick from. They can choose the courses that are right for them, and expand their knowledge of green building.”


Many USGBC member companies are embracing Education @USGBC in innovative ways. Whether they are contributing new courses or leveraging existing offerings for the benefit of thousands of employees worldwide, organizations are connecting with the education content to deliver better buildings. Here are four examples of companies making the most of the platform.

Perkins + Will team collaboration. Photo: Eduard Hueber/Arch.

Paula McEvoy, co-director of sustainable  design at design firm Perkins + Will.

Paula McEvoy, co-director of sustainable design at design firm Perkins + Will.

Increasing Flexibility

Before the advent of Education @USGBC, the global architecture and design firm, and USGBC Platinum member, Perkins + Will had to create and deliver much of its LEED-related educational content in-house.


“We did a lot of lunch-and-learns for LEED specifically,” says Paula McEvoy, co-director of sustainable design for the company. “We have almost 900 LEED APs who need continuing education, and we were having to develop courses to [help them] study for the exam, and then find a way to deliver the courses across our 25 different offices across the globe.”


Ann Peters, learning and development manager for the firm, had to scour different departments for people who were both experts on a specific topic and able to devote the time to creating a course and presenting it. Even when all of those pieces came together, it still proved challenging to simply deliver the content to everyone who needed it.


“It sounds easy to do a lunch presentation,” McEvoy says. “But we had to hit time zones, from all the way across the U.S., to Brazil, China, and the Middle East. So we were finding ourselves developing these courses, presenting them at least twice during the day, and then still missing some of our offices.”


While outside classes were an option, the high dollar figure for in-person classes, coupled with Perkins + Will’s large number of employees, made it more cost-effective for the firm to develop trainings on its own.


Then came Education @USGBC. With the online platform and the benefits available via its Platinum level membership, Perkins + Will is able to offer its employees unlimited courses, on a much wider variety of topics than the firm was able to offer previously. “It simplifies things,” says Peters. “It also provides us some much-needed flexibility in terms of learning opportunities. We’re able to reach a larger audience. And given the nature of project demands, and everything that all of our employees have going on, the ability for them to learn anytime, anywhere, is fantastic, and really, really helpful.”


The platform also gives employees more chances to explore new content, and to take control of their own learning. “Now, it’s less us telling them what they should learn,” Peters says. “They have the opportunity to go in and say, ‘Oh, this looks really interesting, I’d like to take a deeper dive there.’” Peters says that there is a “pretty wide range” of ways that Perkins + Will employees interact with the online learning platform. “I think a big portion of our usage comes from people maintaining credentials,” she says. “But we have a pretty curious audience that’s actively learning and engaged in professional development. Depending on the project that they’re working on, they’re going in and seeking additional information and expertise. They’re going in and they’re looking and exploring and finding new ideas and methods.”


“The content is continually updated,” Peters adds. “So as technology changes, and research evolves, we are able to go to the online content and see what’s been added.”


For McEvoy, that’s one of the biggest benefits of Education @USGBC: Perkins + Will employees can access it when they want, and how they want. “We get calls or emails from people saying their LEED AP accreditation is about to expire, and they need courses now, and it’s really helpful when people let stuff slip up,” she says. “It’s available in multiple formats, anytime anybody wants it, with both very specific content or very general content, depending on what they’re looking for, and in multiple languages. That flexibility, for us, was really a key.”


Net Numbers

More than 500 courses are included in the Education @USGBC subscription.


Individual courses cost $45, while an annual subscription is $175 for USGBC members and $199 for nonmembers. Subscription content is available free of charge to all employees of USGBC Platinum level member companies.


More than 31,000 individuals have completed at least one class on the online platform.


In total, more than 293,000 courses have been delivered over the platform.

Cutting-Edge Content

In 2015, the Seattle-based Callison and the Baltimore-based RTKL merged to become CallisonRTKL, a design consultancy of the Dutch firm Arcadis, a Platinum-level member of USGBC. At the time, RTKL required all of its employees—down to its receptionists—to attain at least the LEED Green Associate accreditation, while Callison did not. After the merger, the requirement extended across the entire consultancy.


This meant pushing dozens of employees toward LEED accreditation in a short amount of time. “It was a monumental task to educate that many people, but we did it,” says Amber Richane, the performance driven design lead for the firm.


To get things started, CallisonRTKL offered a series of in-person workshops. “The workshop format worked well for this as it brings people together to learn from not only the instructor, but each other. It also encourages them to work together in studying for the exam.” Richane says. Most employees were able to attend these workshops to successfully earn their LEED Green Associate credential. But for people who wanted to continue learning and pursue a LEED AP credential, the Education @USGBC platform provided a path forward.


“We have heard many people say, ‘Wow. That [workshop series] was really helpful. I now have a better understanding of green building concepts and LEED accreditation and now I’d like to get my LEED AP with specialization,’” Richane says. “That is where we see the most value in the online resources to continue the education of our people.”


USGBC Platinum members like CallisonRTKL are able to give all of their employees anytime/anywhere access to the online education platform—a benefit that Richane has not seen with other education programs. “We are a company with offices all around the globe and the Education @USGBC platform allows our entire firm to take advantage of this resource in their own time zone, as they are able,” she says. “Many of the other online resources are purchased on an individual class basis and that can be very expensive and inconsistent. Education @USGBC delivers high-quality and consistent content.”


The employees who are most deeply involved in green building work, Richane says, tend to rack up enough continuing education hours through project experience to maintain their LEED AP credentials. For the firm’s other employees, the online education platform is often the most convenient way to keep their LEED credentials up to date.

Did You Know?

You can receive one-hour continuing education on Education @USGBC in connection with each issue of USGBC+. After you finish reading this issue, visit Education @USGBC to take a short quiz and add to your CE hours.

But if some employees—accountants, for instance—will never design a solar panel installation or make decisions about how to improve natural lighting in a building, then why have them pursue and maintain LEED credentials in the first place? For CallisonRTKL, Richane says, it’s a matter of instilling a knowledge of green building concepts throughout the organization.


“The LEED Green Associate is a great first step in understanding the basics, but it is not as in-depth as the LEED AP with specialization credential,” she says. “But understanding the basic sustainability strategies and philosophies is something that can be applied in all aspects of life for our employees including practices at home. So it just seems to makes sense to educate our employees across the firm so we can practice what we preach at work and home.”


Education @USGBC has become the predominant education resource for CallisonRTKL, with employees gobbling up nearly 3,000 hours of instruction on the platform last year. Richane says that the courses provided via the platform are among the most rigorous and engaging in the industry.


“These are engaging and challenging classes with a quiz at the end that you have to have had paid attention to pass,” she says. “You can’t just check out during the webinar or podcast and expect to pass but the content is presented in an interesting manner though, so I haven’t heard people complain. The feedback we are hearing is that people are enjoying learning and engaging on the topic that they selected to learn about.”


Richane says she continually promotes the online education platform to the firm’s employees, not only as a resource for credential maintenance, but to push learning around new topics. “There are a lot of topics beyond just LEED that our people are interested in learning more about and the Education @USGBC platform has a diverse amount of topics (such as performance modeling, mass timber, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the WELL Building Standard, Living Building Challenge (LBC), etc.) that support their interests. “This keeps our employees engaged and hearing the latest thinking around a topic,” Richane says. “That’s what makes these resources so valuable for CallisonRTKL and our employees; it is a platform for in-depth learning about cutting-edge concepts so we can be at the top of our game.”

Education @USGBC Bonus: Web-based LEED Reference Guide

The web-based LEED v4 Reference Guide is fully interactive, with more than 50 multimedia modules, tutorials, and case studies to help projects succeed.


The online version of the LEED Reference Guide typically costs $99, but access is included with annual subscriptions to Education @USGBC.

Gunnar Hubbard, principal and sustainability practice leader at Thornton Tomasetti

Gunnar Hubbard, principal and sustainability practice leader at Thornton Tomasetti

Creating Content

While a large portion of the courses available on Education @USGBC are made by third-party organizations that specialize in producing sustainability education resources, some are produced by USGBC member companies like the global structural engineering consulting firm and Gold-level USGBC member Thornton Tomasetti.


Scroll through the course offerings on the online platform, and you’ll stumble upon Thornton Tomasetti courses like “Parametric Modeling: Visualizing and Calculating Sustainable Building Designs” and “Sustainability Best Practices for the Structural Engineer.” One Thornton Tomasetti course, based on lessons the firm learned during a project that was striving to achieve a LEED v4 Platinum certification, has been taken more than 1,500 times and receives nearly a perfect five-star rating from users.


“I don’t think there are a lot of firms like ours that are in the business of designing buildings and bridges and other things that are providing content,” says Amy Seif Hattan, vice president of corporate sustainability for the firm. “But we think it’s important to educate. That’s a value that we have.”


“We’re unique in that we bring a boots-on-the-ground, practitioner perspective to these courses,” says Gunnar Hubbard, principal and sustainability practice leader at Thornton Tomasetti.


Hubbard helped design and produce the firm’s Education @USGBC course on parametric modeling, a practice that allows users to simulate a number of different options—including building height, glazing, window-to-wall ratios, and shading strategies—and optimize projects for comfort and energy reduction early in the design process.


Jenna Rowe, senior vice president of energy and sustainability service, JLL

Jenna Rowe, senior vice president of energy and sustainability service, JLL

“We’re out there applying principles on projects, and learning as we go in real life,” Hubbard says. “Others that [create courses] are curriculum developers, and they don’t necessarily have the content at their fingertips. They’ve got to seek it out. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I think it just helps support and enhance the [education] program, and it’s why we’ve been sticking with it.”


While other content creators can dedicate substantial time and resources to crafting new courses, Thornton Tomasetti has to be choosy, only developing classes when employees are able to find time between projects. So far, the firm has created just four courses. Hubbard says that the firm only creates new classes when they’re seen as important to the company’s internal efforts, and that the company must maintain a “delicate balance” when deciding to take time away from project work for content creation.


“We always look for opportunities to sort of piggyback on things we’ve already done, whether it’s a conference presentation or an internal seminar,” says Hattan. “Our primary goal is not to produce online courses. Our goal is to provide education to our folks internally and externally. We often start with an internal course that was produced for our own employees, and then we turn that into an external course.”


Seif Hattan says she would encourage other firms to consider becoming USGBC Education Partners and creating their own courses for Education @USGBC. “It’s a nice route to reaching a wider audience than maybe we normally reach, and it’s a good way to develop our internal expertise in different areas,” she says. “It makes a lot of sense to participate in the platform, both to reach an audience, and to educate, which I think is important to everyone who feels that sustainability in design matters.”

Enhancing the Employee Experience

Jenna Rowe, senior vice president of energy and sustainability service in the Americas for the global real estate professional services and investment management company JLL, a USGBC Platinum level member company, sees Education @USGBC as a way for the company to give employees access to something they’re demanding more now than ever before: high-quality, ongoing professional development.


“Education is so important to people,” Rowe says. “In the past, my mom would say, ‘I just want to go to work, do my job, do well enough that I get a pay raise, and hopefully get a pension.’ It’s not like that anymore. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you sit, what you do. Education is really a big part of the benefits that you receive from a company.” Accordingly, Rowe sees USGBC’s online education platform not merely as a way for employees to accumulate a mountain of LEED continuing education credits, but as a resource that allows workers to keep growing in their professional roles. “It’s more than just LEED accreditation,” she says. “It’s more than, ‘I want to look good in front of my client.’ It’s, ‘I want to know for me.’”


The constant addition of new courses, Rowe says, allows JLL employees to stay on top of the most current practices in green building. And the sheer breadth of course offerings, she adds, allows employees to seek out content that is relevant to them.


“Think about the drought in California,” Rowe says. “If someone’s looking for water conservation information, they can go to the water efficiency section of the education site. If they are more interested in waste and recycling, they can find information about that topic as well. Where there’s increased legislation, in New York for example, you’re going to see a lot of people interested in energy audits and energy reporting. So it can vary depending on where you’re located, what your role is, or what you focus on.”

Filling Out Your Schedule

Looking for some top-notch classes to shore up LEED credentials? These four courses are among the highest-rated on the entire Education @USGBC platform, with each course receiving five out of five stars.


Course 1: The Fundamentals of Operating and Maintaining Chillers—Cooling Towers
A review of the basics of cooling tower maintenance from daily through annual maintenance, to see what is needed to maintain the efficiency and the life of the cooling tower system.


Course 2: Transportation Demand Management: Parking Strategies
A review of Transportation Demand Management strategies with a focus on those involving parking. These strategies are illustrated using examples from various organizations that have used Transportation Demand Management successfully to improve employee and patron commutes, improve the overall transportation experience, and help mitigate parking constraints.


Course 3: LEED v4: The Intersection of Collaboration, Performance and Well-being
Review the lessons learned during an office build-out/tenant improvement project that is striving to achieve LEED v4 Platinum certification.


Course 4: Cultivating Young Minds: A Net-Zero School for Tomorrow’s Leaders
Through a series of interviews with the school faculty and the design team, explore the creation of a net-zero-energy building that complements the children’s studies of the balance of nature.

In addition to expanding employees’ own green building expertise, Rowe says, the Education @USGBC platform arms those employees with the knowledge needed to make sustainability feel more relevant to their clients. “As a commercial real estate services firm, a lot of our clients have a very specific goal in mind when they come to JLL,” Rowe says. “Our clients sometimes look at us and say, [green building] doesn’t impact me. And my response has been: ‘It should.’ Sometimes, clients just want to save money. But energy costs are one of the best places to look for savings, because it’s the biggest line item cost in your operations budget. So if you understand how you, as a commercial real estate services executive, can impact and benefit from what your company is trying to achieve, from a business strategy and environmental or corporate social responsibility perspective, you’re going to be well ahead of your colleagues and your competitors.”


Rowe adds that the wide array of courses—which cover topics ranging from social equity and sustainable travel tips to daylighting strategies and the advantages of prefabricated homes—helps to reinforce the idea of sustainability as a broad area of concern that encompasses many other facets of daily life, the economy, and the built environment.


“It’s not just energy,” Rowe says. “It ties into health and well-being. It’s protecting the planet. It’s gender equality. Sustainable development goals cover the gamut of everything that we should be concerned about societally and environmentally. USGBC is demonstrating this through their curriculum. That’s amazing, and it’s critical, and it is what makes this different.”