This week BREEAM turns 25, and it has been a great quarter century of setting the standard for sustainability globally, with well over half a million buildings now certified in 70 countries and a robust and comprehensive assessment system. The question is whether enough people know it is much more than just a tick-box standard, and is in fact a realistic way of galvanising a whole project team and building users towards sustainability goals.
BRE has just launched a new all-singing and all-dancing website to coincide with its birthday breeam.com, and it features a nifty ticker counting the buildings currently covered. At the time of writing, it’s an impressive 531,644 certificates issued which is a lot of buildings worldwide, which are demonstrably better on sustainability across nine criteria, whether the emphasis is on health and wellbeing of occupants, responsibly sourced materials or robust project management of sustainability. Perhaps the most important and effective part about BREEAM is the way it can drive the focus on reaching the targets throughout a project team and in the client to help everyone push towards the same goal; this also fosters substantial pride among users in their buildings post-completion.
With 2.2 million buildings in total registered to be assessed, there is a lot to come, making this truly a global movement and one in which we are key UK players as sustainable building assessors regularly using BREEAM. BRE has made a very strong case that high quality buildings don’t have to be prohibitively more expensive, showing that it is possible to get a Good rating with no extra cost, whatever the site, and Excellent adds only an extra 2.5% to the capital cost. Making BREEAM realistic in this way has helped to broaden sustainable building across many areas of the UK. Even the higher level Outstanding schemes which add more to the capital cost only have a payback of a few years in lower energy and water bills, so investing in BREEAM makes financial sense, especially when you look at the higher value placed on such buildings for example by commercial tenants.
BREEAM is also about to fully launch The Home Quality Mark as national standard for new homes, pared down slightly from the previous version after its industry consultation. This could, if embraced by both homeowners and as a result the housebuilding sector, be a worthy and more all-encompassing successor to the Code for Sustainable Homes.
However, it’s not all good news, despite the many schemes which have become part of the BREEAM family, there are many non-believers out there, who believe that BREEAM is too bureaucratic, too inflexible, or focuses on a tick-box approach to achieving credits which might not take a truly holistic view of a building or the design solutions being proposed. These beliefs are probably the result of a lack of awareness of what BREEAM is or how it currently works, and an indication that there is a lot more to do to engage with the wider construction community to clearly explain what it is all about.
Complaints have been aired that BREEAM can focus too much on prescribed elements within a building to obtain credits, and it’s arguable that BRE could be more transparent on the calculation methods it uses in order to help reassure people and bust some of the myths. It could also disseminate more widely how the ‘innovation credits’ which BRE introduced can enable project teams to produce solutions which may not be in the prescribed list, but which can still gain credits because of their fitness for purpose, meaning they don’t in fact have to ‘tick all of the boxes.’
BRE needs also to do more to simply advertise the benefits of BREEAM to the construction industry, to ensure that it is not simply seen as a technical standard for the sustainability community, but is for everyone and has particular benefits for building occupiers whether they are major corporates or homeowners. BRE knows that property owners are able to rent their commercial space out faster if they have a BREEAM certificate, and this story needs to be told to back up the case for investing in the certification. It also needs to communicate the fact that it has a developed a crucial Refurbishment and Fit-Out version of BREEAM, which will reward good sustainability for performance for the many existing buildings we need to address.
Despite the fantastic achievements of BREEAM there are a great many people out there in the industry who do not yet understand it or the benefits it can bring. For example, under the GLA’s London Plan all boroughs are required to BREEAM assess all new developments, and many individuals tasked with doing so will be on a steep learning curve to a full understanding of the benefits as well as the broad scope of the assessment.
I wish BREEAM a very happy 25th birthday and remain a strong supporter. Maybe as part of the ongoing celebrations BRE could focus on disseminating the value proposition which BREEAM offers as widely as possible in the UK to bring everyone into the party.