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Some thoughts on BREEAM at 21

by Mel Starrs on May 12, 2011


So my last post seems to have opened up quite a can of worms! I’m going to concentrate on the BREEAM issues for now (though lots of good points raised in the comments which I am sure we will return to soon).

Before I go any further, can I urge commenters to remember that if you are a BREEAM assessor and you bring the scheme into disrepute, your licence can be suspended (refer to your March 2011 Process Note). Let’s all stick to constructive criticism.

I want to explore how BREEAM has changed over the past 21 years – and what today’s raison d’etre for BREEAM is. BREEAM has evolved over time, from a niche to a widely recognised ‘brand’ – but has its popularity diminished its reputation along the way?

Here’s a cracking observation in the comments of my last post:

 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…

…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).

This is a view I’ve seen time and time again. So why then do green rating systems exist? After all, ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ is a subjective notion at best, how can we possibly hope to quantify it? Partly, I think, is because it is human nature to measure, to draw boundaries around stuff to make it more manageable and to give us a common language against which we can debate.

So green building rating systems, as I tried to explain in the last post, give the industry a way of expressing the degree of sustainability-ness or improvement over the status-quo. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need them at all. But given that green building ratings systems DO exist, is it then a mistake to mandate their use, in either planning or funding requirements? I would argue yes. By moving from a voluntary standard to a mandatory code, standards need to move slightly downwards, in order that everyone can move up. Moving from innovation to compliance is a retrograde step in my opinion.

I’ve mentioned before that I disagree with BRE’s mission of making sustainable buildings a mass-market. I simply don’t think that every building CAN be sustainable, especially if a holistic view taking into account transport and other economic viability measures is used. I would even go as far as saying that not every building needs to be low carbon (historically significant buildings, for example). Have I taken leave of my senses? Surely if all buildings need to be sustainable, there will be a massive market opening a floodgates of opportunity for sustainability consultants? Not so much. Typically when a system caters to a mass market, it becomes commoditised, losing value. Low value offerings are seldom profitable for anyone.

This is one reason I was not a fan of the requirement for BREEAM within BSF. Prescient, even if I do say so myself, given the conclusions of the Sebastian James Review (pdf, 105 pages). James criticised BREEAM for being prescriptive – para 4.12:

Another example of how bureaucratic this guidance can be is the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) which regulates the environmental impact of a building design. All new school designs are expected to achieve a ‘very good’ rating under BREEAM guidance before they can go ahead.

BREEAM has been criticised for being very prescriptive, providing incredibly detailed guidance on matters such as cycling facilities (8 pages long) or of the ecology allowed on site (25 pages long). BREEAM has been revised for 2011 to consolidate criteria and reduce the bureaucracy, detail, and complexity required, which represents a good start. The transport criteria – including cycling facilities – have been consolidated, and a number of compliance notes have been removed. However there are still too many detailed areas with which schools must comply in order to reach the required standard.

And then para 3.18 in the conclusions:

Whilst the current move to simplify BREEAM should be welcomed, it could go further, and the expectation that it should be used at all times does not allow for Local Authorities to best determine the tools that they should use to ensure sustainable buildings.

Ouch. I fully expected to see BREEAM being dropped entirely as a requirement after such criticism, but James seems to recognise some benefit in keeping it:

Recommendation: That the Department revises its school premises regulations and guidance to remove unnecessary burdens and ensure that a single, clear set of regulations apply to all schools. The Department should also seek to further reduce the bureaucracy and prescription surrounding BREEAM assessments.

Gordon Hudson on Twitter at the time the review came out mused that this may indicate a move to something akin to NEAT, the self-assessment tool previously used in Healthcare (replaced in July 2008 with BREEAM Healthcare). A kind of BREEAM lite. My question would be – is there value in BREEAM remaining associated with a watered down version or should something completely new divorced from the brand be created?

The criticism of jumping through hoops and being over prescriptive in part comes from BREEAM’s success too. I fondly remember the days when the BREEAM assessor was able to use judgement and their understanding of the project when awarding credits. There was a certain level of discretion available to the assessor. Those days are gone, as anyone who has gone through the BREEAM QA process recently can atest. Items of evidence have to be submitted in exactly the correct way or they will be rejected. I have concluded that in order to process the volume of information at a reasonable cost, BREEAM have had to ‘standardise’ evidence requirements. Personally, I’d be happier asking the client to pay a bit more and having some discretion back. As I’ve said before, when things are commoditised, they tend to lose value…

I’m scarcely an independent observer on this topic – a significant proportion of the current income of my department depends on the continued use of accreditation systems. That said, I happen to find buildings with ambitious sustainability aspirations a lot more fulfilling to work on than buildings which are chasing a certificate for the sake of compliance (well really, who wouldn’t?). And I have already conceded that not all buildings are going to be truly sustainable. So have green building ratings systems evolved past their usefulness at the top end of the market? Should they now be mass market, fulfilling the needs of the majority? I struggle to see where the value in this is? If everyone’s doing it, eventually it becomes obsolete. The value surely lies in being an indicator of differentiation.

I would love to be writing at BREEAM at 30 post in 9 years time. I think the likelihood of that depends on what the next reincarnation of BREEAM turns out to be. There will no doubt be those who see no value at all in continuing with green building rating systems. Others will want the entire industry to use BREEAM. Personally, I want to see a return to the high end of the market with a mechanism for rewarding innovation and a move away from strict compliance to minute inconsequential details. The value lies in a client being able to boast meaningfully about their green credentials using language and metrics which have a shared understanding with others in the industry.

Comments (as always) welcome…