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Defending BREEAM (again)

by Mel Starrs on February 1, 2012


In ‘news’ that isn’t new (see my blogpost back in May), Micheal Gove is threatening to remove BREEAM for Schools as a mandatory funding requirement from the son of BSF. Why the industry has waited until 2 weeks before the announcement before making a kerfuffle over this, I don’t know.

Anyway, UKGBC have written a letter to Gove (a pdf of it can be found on Constructing Excellence website). This has kicked off a number of further letters and then discussions on blogs and twitter where actual debate seems to have left town, and we’re reduced to picking sides. Grow up everyone. Stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater and take a good hard look at what we’re left with if Gove succeeds.

Yes, BREEAM is bureaucratic, process oriented and expensive. In my opinion it should never be used as a planning requirement, but I did see some value in using it as a funding requirement when PFI was involved (PFI not particularly well known delivering anything over and above what is demanded of it). Back in 2005 when BSF began, the regulatory landscape was a little bereft of sustainability pegs to hang things on.

The blog which wound me up the most was Amanda’s piece in the BD (£). Indeed, it must have wound up the (slightly zealous) firewall at work too, as for a while I couldn’t see it. Of course it’s Amanda’s job to sell BD and she knows what makes good copy. But I’m sorry, my job is to deliver BREEAM projects and whilst I agree with her on some points, she misses the mark entirely on others.

The main gripe Amanda (and quite a few people on twitter) have is the monopoly of the BRE:

But if Gove does get rid of Breeam (sic) – and there’s no knowing whether he will – the most noticeable impact will be on the BRE’s profits. The research agency, which has a monopoly on training Breeam consultants, turned over £27 million in 2010. It charges a licence to use its software, and is responsible for the very high fees charged by consultants who operate the system.

This is the point that gets brought up again and again. I can’t (and I won’t) defend it. As one of the ‘high fee’ (ha!) consultants, I resent having to shell out for training on BREEAM (especially when I managed to get my LEED-AP without having to pay a single cent for a training course). But I can’t operate without the training, the licence, the assessment fees…

Is there an appetite for a non-profit making scheme, industry developed and lead? Oh wait – that would be LEED. Which we could use in the UK (and have done). So why no exodus to LEED? Ever compared LEED fees to BREEAM fees – think that’s part of the answer…

So where do I disagree with Amanda? She makes the cardinal sin of confusing BREEAM (broad sustainability) with energy and carbon savings. People, would you please STOP DOING THIS. BREEAM has one energy section out of a total of nine.

It is also worth remembering that Gove isn’t gifted with ‘getting rid’ of BREEAM. BREEAM will still exist for as long as BRE are able to eke out demand. Their courting of planning authorities has guaranteed continuing work for some time (although the effect of the NPPF is yet to be determined. I’m not a fan of BREEAM as a planning requirement as I have said before – but I think that’s a whole other blogpost).

Where I think BREEAM has been most successful is in influencing contractor practices on-site. I doubt WRAP alone would have managed to change contractor behaviour in the way that BREEAM has.

I know BREEAM isn’t perfect. I’ve written about it on here often enough. It may well be that BREEAM has done its time and the world has moved on. But I don’t believe we’re at a point yet where a ‘lowest price’ (D&B, PFI etc etc) contract will deliver a ‘sustainable’ building through regulations alone. I want to be able to say ‘my work here is done’ before I walk away from BREEAM. Throw away BREEAM now and we’ll likely be left with cheap, adequate buildings…

That’s not to say James’ recommendations weren’t valid. What schools need is a simple framework, with watertight clear intentions, perhaps self certifed in the same way NEAT worked. Perhaps Gove has already commissioned this work and will pull it out of the hat when he lays the deathblow to BREEAM but I’m not holding my breath.


  • Andrew

    hear hear!!

  • Andrew

    “Gove isn’t gifted…” quite!

  • Iain Williamson37

    A good article mel, bre only have themselves to blame for too high fees

  • Gordon GBSPM

    Although I agree with your take on BREEAM I do think that the beneficiaries of doing BREEAM well are not the contractors (Especially those at the top of the pile), but Clients and dare I say it Architects…
    The Clients due to their continued reliance on the cost of construction, rather than value of the asset over its life, or at least until they wish to sell it on.
    And the Architects as there still seams to be a huge gulf between those that understand the world has turned and will continue to do so and those who are still tracing out ineffective 80’s designs and getting commissions.

    With regards to the BRE doing so well, then where is the competition… its an open market, theres nothing to stop us all having a try?!

  • Anonymous

    As a newcomer to the sector (I recently joined Energy Solutions a non profit sustainable energy organisation that offers BREEAM, CSH, Passiv Haus assessment services and design advice) I can’t for the life of me see why the sector cannot represent itself to BRE and present constructive ideas for updating and making BREEAM fit for purpose. It seems to me that the lack of progress in the area of creating more sustainable buildings right across the board will not be enhanced by binning BREEAM but making it work properly for the benefit of us all. As to the costs – I’ve looked around various sites and at our own fee structure and do not find it particularly prohibitive – compared to other professional products and services. In terms of costs, I think BRE are relatively conservative compared to other organisations in the sector – the RIBA for example which charges almost £4000.00 in the first year to become an accredited CPD provider, this is way above our heads as a small sustainability focussed charity with oceans of specialist knowledge to share with design professionals.

  • Iain

    Mel, another excellent post. One point where I disagree with you is where you cite BREEAM as being inadequate as a planning requirement. Why do you think it shouldn’t be used as a condition of planning approval? 

    The fault I’ve seen on projects mainly lies with local authorities either: 
    a) interpreting BREEAM badly (e.g. ‘development should achieve Excellent energy credits’); or
    b) not understanding different construction programmes (e.g. ‘no work should commence on-site until an interim design stage certificate has been approved by the Council’).

    I see BREEAM being used as a proxy sustainability checklist for local authorities who do not have the skills or cash to develop, update and manage a comprehensive set of requirements. I think it delivers value to the construction industry here as it stops sustainability consultants having to decipher policies, gives developers/contractors something familiar and guarantees a level of performance has been designed/installed.

  • Alan

    Mel, I think it is significant that you identify confusion of BREEAM with energy saving as a reason to defend the standard – the fact that BREEAM neither promises or delivers energy efficiency is my main criticism of it.  But when people talk about BREEAM it is generally as if it is indeed providing sustainable buildings, which must mean energy efficient ones, if what they say about finite resources and climate change is true.

    My experience of BREEAM is that it has become very much an exercise of identifying anything in the building process which may have an an “environmental” angle and then looking for a suitable BS or equivalent to insist on, and if there isn’t one, then making something up that appears to be doing something – eg fitting controlled solenoid valves on WC water supplies or provision of water coolers.  When you come at school design from a Passivhaus perspective you come across areas where you can’t cut energy consuming items as they have been put in for easy Breeam points.

    If BREEAM has some aspects that should be included in every new school that is built, then perhaps these aspects could be included in the school premises regulations – I’d like to know what items on the BREEAM checklist everyone thinks must be kept.