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Green rating systems, Codes and Regulations

by Mel Starrs on May 10, 2011

in Green Building Rating

This post has been a long time brewing – my intention is to explain where green building rating systems sit within legislative and regulatory frameworks and why they exist in the first place. It’s a story of carrots and sticks and I’m afraid it gets a little muddy as the law is somewhat woolly. I’ve set the context in the UK, other countries may vary. Where I’ve got legal terminology confused, please do jump into the comments and correct me. I’ve tried to write in plain English.

First let’s think of sustainable buildings as a destination we are trying to reach, which the industry as a whole is moving closer towards (you may disagree with this statement – if so, I’m sorry the rest of this will make no sense whatsoever). So we can show the highest possible ‘level’ of sustainability on one axis, and time on the other, with the industry moving towards the ultimate goal of 100% sustainable buildings. It would help of course if we had a definition of sustainable buildings. Tricky topic – for now let’s assume in general we have a consensus of where we are moving toward (and it is likely to be resource efficient, low carbon, water efficient, affordable and probably with lots of good stuff to do with social sustainability that is as yet unmeasurable).

Most builders will ensure their building stays standing, is safe, and works as it should. And for those who don’t, we have building regulations. These are the sticks with which government beat the bottom of the market with, to ensure minimum standards are met, and those who don’t are either prevented from building or punished when it all goes wrong. Again, we can imagine regulations on the same graph, except this time instead of a smooth curve, we have a step jump, where regulations are improved at points in time eg the improvement of 25% in Part L from 2006 to 2010.

Some history on Building Regs is available in this post, where I explain what is regulation and what is merely guidance and the oldest building code known to man turns up in this post.

Somewhere between the floor of regulations and the ceiling of maximum possible sustainable buildings lie codes and green building rating systems.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to define green building rating systems as being made up of standards. Each category or credit refers to a standard which needs to be met (most green building rating systems invoke some level of minimum standards in order to reach certain levels, eg: a certain energy score to gain BREEAM Excellent). Standards can be voluntary or mandatory. Standards arise when consensus is reached and as this is generally a democratic activity, there will always be some blue sky above and beyond the standard (the gap between the top line and the next one down).

I am now going to argue that a green building rating becomes a code when it is contractually required eg: by planning or funding. Once it has ‘passed’ the test of time and become a trusted benchmark, giving confidence, reliability and repeatability across the market, it is time to become codified. Indeed, this indicates a maturing market. At this point, codes tend to become somewhat static, as they wait to become the floor (or lowest common denominator) and then eventually become obsolete. The best example of this in my opinion remains Code for Sustainable Homes which always had a shelf life until about 2016 when in theory CSH6* would become the norm.

So on our timeline we now have 4 lines. Slice through at any point in time and we have a classic diffusion of innovation curve. The innovators are ahead of any consensus and standards, breaking new ground and experimenting. A great place to be but niche (by it’s very nature). The early adopters are the highest levels of green building ratings – the CSH6*’s, BREEAM Outstanding’s and LEED Platinum’s. The early majority and late majority are mostly doing green building rating because they have to – this is where the rating system has become codified. The laggards are struggling to meet the bare minimum of Building Regulations.

Codifying standards acts to advance the mass market, but the early adopters must remain catered for. There ought to be carrots to reward innovation and encourage the front of the market to remain moving ahead.

I hope I’ve explained my thinking clearly – I have a feeling I may be referring to this post again in the near future…

  • http://twitter.com/kevincouling Kevin Couling

    Hey Mel. As I said on Twitter, I totally agree with your definition of Codes and your description of the Regs shaped stick used to beat the derrier of builders who think they’re being smacked on the elbow cause they can’t tell the difference.

    What I’m a bit less sure of is putting them both on the same graph. What I mean is, the codified standards have a direct impact on the final ‘level’ of sustainability of the building – I’m setting aside here some issues I have with BREEAM which maybe we can discuss when you do your post on that. It’s just this nagging feeling that I’ve been having for a while that whilst Building Regs should be ensuring there’s a solid back end to the curve what it actually seems to do is give designers and constrctors something to hide behind.

    The reality is that Part L, and more specifically, achieving something better than Part L (back to the old clients saying they want an EPC A / A+ and thinking that’ll get them a low carbon building) has very little to do with having a low carbon building.

    When I asked the audience at a recent Edge debate for a definition of a low carbon building, Bill Bordass kindly offered one. He said something like ‘one which uses significantly less carbon in operation than the relevant industry benchmark’. Which I agree with of course. The trouble is that’s nothing to do with Building Regs.

    So putting them both on the same graph is okay but only if you provide a secondary vertical axis to measure what Part L is doing because I’m not sure it’s doing the same as Codes for sustainable buildings.

    I’ve tried to formulate a series of Tweets to convery some of this stuff but it’s just too complex – maybe I need that blog…or I could just keep commenting on yours of course!

    Kev

    @kevincouling:twitter

  • http://twitter.com/kevincouling Kevin Couling

    Hey Mel. As I said on Twitter, I totally agree with your definition of Codes and your description of the Regs shaped stick used to beat the derrier of builders who think they’re being smacked on the elbow cause they can’t tell the difference.

    What I’m a bit less sure of is putting them both on the same graph. What I mean is, the codified standards have a direct impact on the final ‘level’ of sustainability of the building – I’m setting aside here some issues I have with BREEAM which maybe we can discuss when you do your post on that. It’s just this nagging feeling that I’ve been having for a while that whilst Building Regs should be ensuring there’s a solid back end to the curve what it actually seems to do is give designers and constrctors something to hide behind.

    The reality is that Part L, and more specifically, achieving something better than Part L (back to the old clients saying they want an EPC A / A+ and thinking that’ll get them a low carbon building) has very little to do with having a low carbon building.

    When I asked the audience at a recent Edge debate for a definition of a low carbon building, Bill Bordass kindly offered one. He said something like ‘one which uses significantly less carbon in operation than the relevant industry benchmark’. Which I agree with of course. The trouble is that’s nothing to do with Building Regs.

    So putting them both on the same graph is okay but only if you provide a secondary vertical axis to measure what Part L is doing because I’m not sure it’s doing the same as Codes for sustainable buildings.

    I’ve tried to formulate a series of Tweets to convery some of this stuff but it’s just too complex – maybe I need that blog…or I could just keep commenting on yours of course!

    Kev

    @kevincouling:twitter

  • Alan

    Afraid I got stuck at the beginning, with sustainability being the y-axis. Your building is either sustainable, or it isn’t, you can’t put it on a scale of 0 to infinity!

    So being an energy-bod I would look at another axis, energy use – but there’s a couple of energy axes:
    energy use “projected as designed and equipped” (ie including your appliances/IT spec);
    and then energy use “in practice”.

    Whilst bashing through designs going for both Passivhaus and Breeam, I don’t necessarily see your green building ratings achieving the same steps on energy use as on “sustainability”.

    First they, reasonably considering the brief of an all-encompassing “sustainability” standard, don’t score totally on energy efficiency. But also they don’t model energy use in full – SBEM as far as I can see is basically an HVAC model, not an energy model – and major building energy uses are outside the coverage of the model. For example external lighting, eg paths and carparks – this is definitely building energy use in my book, but I didn’t see it in SBEM. Furthermore, you get Breeam points for increasing external lighting provision – and no penalty for the energy use. This sets a trend at the moment where to get above a “good” rating you start to put in things that reduce energy efficiency. A subtler example is the perceived need to go for biomass heating for “excellent” or CSH6. Biomass is of course not low carbon at point of use, but only as part of a sustainable fuel cycle, however given a low kgCO2/kWh in the SBEM/SAP model this works against energy efficient design. So I see situations where the steps start going down (on my energy axis) but then can go up again!

    The other axis to look at is energy consumption “in-use” – another whole subject in itself!

  • Andrew

    I know what you mean or at least I think I do, but in reality sustainability includes trade offs – eg a product may be highly energy efficient, but be sourced from a long way away and from a factory where social conditions are very poor, vs a slightly less energy efficient product which is sourced closer to home and from a certificated factory. Which is better? Depends how you measure it!!

    Maybe you need some kind of 3d graph to represent other dimensions!? The last graph reminds me of the one BRE show to illustrate how BREEAM is moving the market.Perhaps interestingly, just lately I am coming across increased resistance to using green rating tools on a voluntary basis, as people have become frustrated with their oddities and sometimes seemingly bizzare hoops they require. A great example of this was a few years ago on a school I assessed under BREEAM 2005. The energy modelling credits utilised a spreadsheet which must have been flawed as our biomass boilers showed increased carbon dioxide when compared to electricity from coal fired power stations.In developer-land some at least don’t want to be constrained by such standards, either because they are cold hearted commercial people who don’t give a fig, or in our case I think as this is coming from some with a demonstrated environmental/sustainability bent, a genuine feeling that these codes and rating tools are not necessarily what we need to be doing to ensure a development is as sustainable as it can be. They can constrain thinking and channel actions into a game of achieving credits rather than looking for the best outcome (which may get no credits). There is lots of good stuff we’ve done which gets no credits on my current job, and conversely several exercises in letter writing which dont necessarily prove a great deal.That said, these codes and standards and regulations are a great tool in ensuring we don’t deviate from some basic minimum requirements. We can always refer back to them to help make the argument. What’s been interesting about my current project (which you will know well, Mel) is that we’ve actually complied with the requirements and gained clarification on several of the points in the process, but those “in charge” seem to think we’ve negotiated our way out of some of the issues effectively watering the standards down! Interesting perception!

  • Iain

    ‘Your building is wither sustainable, or it isn’t’…

    Are you a signed-up member of the stick approach to sustainability perchance?! Aside from some rudimentary huts I’m not sure that any construction project has been truly sustainable and as Mel points out, if you know a definition of what is sustainable I’m sure we’d love to hear it.

    Good point about the external lighting credit in BREEAM though – an example of a contradictory element of a rating system if there ever was one.