The subtext to the debate over scrapping the BREEAM standard for school buildings is that it costs too much, but, says Sean Lockie, that ignores our ability to deliver schools efficiently

The industry got worried last week when a rumour spread that the government was looking into testing the value of BREEAM in school refurbishment and new building on value for money grounds. Would compulsory BREEAM standards on education projects be the next to be scrapped following DECs and the FITs reduction?

BREEAM is a rating system used to assess the performance of a project in the areas of: health, energy, transport, water, materials, waste, land-use, ecology and pollution. It’s not a perfect system or a design tool but if it were scrapped what would replace it to ensure the sustainability outcomes were rigorously measured?

Part of the debate will no doubt be centred on if BREEAM adds costs and administrative burden to construction. I was involved in a 2008 study which undertook research with the BRE Trust to establish the costs of complying with BREEAM in schools. The research concluded that depending on the location, a primary school might cost 1.8-3.0% extra for complying with BREEAM “very good” and 5.9-9.85% for “excellent”. A secondary school might cost 0.8-2.7% for “very good” and 3.9-4.4% for “excellent”. Location had an impact with schools built on brownfield sites and near good transport links having the advantage of several “free” points under BREEAM. Rural schools and ones built on greenfield sites have to work harder to get the same score and so usually cost more. Economies of scale also had an impact.

If you are in education these days you need to understand and comply with BREEAM. Designers and contractors have become astute at focusing on getting the best BREEAM scores

The research was used to help inform Department for Children, Schools and Families funding models for programmes such as the Building Schools for the Future.  Are these costs still relevant?

Several factors have reduced the “on cost” since the study. Renewable solutions have been driven by the latest versions of Part L and planning requirements. In the four years since the study the industry has geared up to comply with BREEAM with the “very good” standard becoming the norm. If you are in education these days you need to understand and comply with BREEAM. Designers and contractors have become astute at focusing on getting the best BREEAM scores and several contractors have developed standard school designs which are BREEAM compliant.   

A few tips on getting a cost neutral BREEAM “very good” score:

  • Start early. Select the design team and contractor based on not only “time cost quality” but also on ability to get high BREEAM scores.
  • A targeted approach. BREEAM awards “points” for complying with certain actions.  Most have sorted the points so they target the no cost or low cost points first in order to achieve the best score for the lowest price.    
  • Track progress. BREEAM assessors often have to chase the team for supporting evidence. BREEAM tracker tools name the project team members who haven’t provided the required evidence.   

There are of course benefits to having buildings which have been assessed under a scheme like BREEAM, such as lower running costs, higher levels of productivity and in the case of commercial buildings potentially higher valuations and rentals. 

BREEAM has done much to improve the sustainable performance of school projects. Most of the new school design guidance will pick up many of the sustainability issues from BREEAM and deliver efficient schools. However there is a need for school design guidance to be developed further, producing more concise and centralised control of the design and delivery of projects. Standard solutions will help reduce the tendency to reinvent the wheel, reduce cost and provide more consistent elements across the school building stock. The government should therefore keep BREEAM because it is established it raises standards and most can deliver buildings to “very good” standard for no additional on cost.

Sean Lockie is director of sustainability at Faithful + Gould