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The future of environmental rating systemsMay 2013

As BREEAM continues to lead UK environmental rating methods, James Parker discusses its strengths, weaknesses and future developments.

Environmental rating systems have become an integrated part of the construction process in the UK over the last decade. BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method), now over 21 years old, is the leader in the field. Linked to many client procurement policies and planning conditions, it is a scheme than many constructing new buildings simply cannot avoid.

BREEAM often gets a bad press with accusations of it being too complicated, inflexible and a "tick box" exercise. But I don't think BRE are to blame for everything. The inflexibility can often come more from client requirements or planning conditions that insist on achieving certain ratings. This, particularly when the target rating is Excellent or Outstanding, can force the project team to target credits that may not add value to the project just to meet the overall score requirements. Put simply, the problem is not always the system, but how it is used or imposed.

Research that BSRIA carried out with Schneider Electric into the Value of BREEAM suggested that BREEAM had driven the industry in the past, but now sections of the industry have caught up. Now client requirements/policies often drive energy requirements, for example.

The real problem is that the construction industry covers a wide range of buildings, projects, clients and contractors. Systems like BREEAM have to be able to measure the whole range on a single measurement scale. So while achieving an Excellent rating may be easily achievable for a large retailer using larger, more experienced contractors; a Pass can be a real struggle for a client who builds once in a lifetime and may use smaller architects and contractors who have hardly heard of BREEAM, let alone fully understand the processes.

BRE have tried to ease the complexity for smaller buildings with the introduction of the Simple Buildings scheme, which allows 10 credit issues out of the standard 49 to be removed from the assessment, and has simplified a further 10. While this is a help, it is not going to make a dramatic change to scores achievable.

There will always be a problem trying to make a scheme more flexible or simple and maintain the fairness and robustness of the results across all project types. This is why BRE may appear to be stubborn on certain issues. But are there any real alternative methods?

The fit-out rating tool SKA, operated by RICS, takes a slightly different approach. The assessment starts with a scoping exercise to determine which of the around 100 measures are relevant to the project. At least 20 of these must be included in the assessment to be able to get a rating. This does allow a degree of flexibility and could alleviate some of the arguments over BREEAM projects, with careful policing.

The system that BRE are researching at the moment is BREEAM's integration with BIM. The idea is that BREEAM could become more of a predictive design tool as well as a rating system, with much of the design stage assessment automated. This would reduce the admin burden, but still may prove problematic to the small/one-off builders. There is a quote from the Learning Legacy report of the use of BREEAM in the Olympics that says, "BREEAM is designed to measure outcome rather than effort." This is where there is currently a mismatch, in that some credits are valuable and take little effort, and others require a huge effort for little gain. BIM would certainly help here.

The assessment criteria will undoubtedly change in the coming years, with the next iteration of BREEAM being worked on now. Building Regulations will be pushing energy requirements, so I would expect BREEAM to start to cover life cycle and embodied energy/carbon issues more. But whatever happens, I expect BREEAM is here to stay.

This article was first published in Sustainability Talk & News (STN).


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