Are green ratings helping or becoming a problem in the quest to improve the sustainability of new buildings?


The humble cycle rack could be about to become the modern day equivalent to the bricked up windows of grand Georgian houses. Both are responses to the fads and fashions of government policy: one a tax on windows; the other the widespread use of environmental ratings systems.

Cycle racks’ prevalence across new developments of every kind, often in startling numbers, demonstrates the success of environmental rating systems such as BREEAM and the Code for Sustainable Homes in focusing attention on the environmental impact of buildings. Unfortunately, their ubiquity is also a sign of the dogmatic application of rigid systems, that prioritise inflexible points-scoring mechanisms over features that would be of greater actual benefit.

As rating systems come of age in the UK - BREEAM, the world’s first, was established in 1990 - it is clear they have made a great contribution to the sustainability of construction. Showcase buildings aside, the average new office, home or school is a better-performing, more hospitable place thanks to the changes in practice and technologies they have driven. But their widespread adoption by councils in local planning rules has seen them morph into something else - and there are signs of a backlash. As the industry has caught up, design teams now complain that such tools have become tick-box exercises that suppress rather than drive innovation, conducted reluctantly and at breakneck speed to meet planning or funding requirements or for marketing purposes. Having achieved market transformation, are such tools now starting to outlive their usefulness?

“I think rating systems can be very, very helpful in terms of setting common benchmarks for big portfolio holders or developers knocking out a lot of schemes each year,” says Isabel McAllister, director of sustainability at Mace. “But I don’t think any of them are flexible enough to support innovation and they are all heavy on administration. Teams end up spending much more time chasing pieces of paper than improving a design. It’s perverse.”

These credits-based systems certainly have some unintended consequences, and everyone seems to have at least one story about a cycle rack. Perceived as an easy win on a BREEAM or Code assessment, they are often erected hastily post-completion to make up credits missed elsewhere in the design. They also crop up in unexpected places or inappropriately vast numbers. One industry figure tells of a mixed-use development in a hot, hilly Mediterranean location where no one cycles, where the design team were told they’d need to include at least 87 spaces for the building occupants, and more for visitors, even though it was well-served by public transport.

At Hammerson, head of sustainability Paul Edwards was bemused to discover that installing cycle racks earned the same amount of credits as choosing to refurbish, rather than demolish, a 27-storey office tower in the City. “If you look at the credits from a bang-for-buck perspective, you wouldn’t keep the tower,” he says.

To some extent, ratings tools have become victims of their own success, developing in size, complexity and precision in order to ensure consistency. “The more projects using a rating tool, the more difficult it is to keep it consistent,” says Gareth Sammons, BREEAM team leader at engineering consultancy WSP. “Over the years, the number of projects requiring BREEAM for planning or funding reasons has increased dramatically. The BRE’s response has been to put more focus on the detail and make the scheme harder in terms of audit requirements.”

Installing cycle racks earns the same amount of credits as choosing to refurbish rather than demolishing, a 27-storey office tower in the City

Critics say the academic rigour that was a strength of BREEAM has become a byzantine set of criteria that must be applied to the letter. The first manual was around 20 pages, with a single-page assessment. The latest is a shelf-splitting 501 pages, and a typical submission runs to over 1,000.

Meanwhile more than half of local authorities have now made BREEAM a planning requirement, changing what began as a voluntary standard into pseudo-regulation.

Assessment can be a daunting prospect for smaller or one-off clients, some of whom have barely heard of BREEAM. “A few weeks ago, three people called within a week wanting to know what BREEAM was all about,” says James Parker, senior research engineer at consultancy BSRIA’s Sustainable Buildings Group. “They thought it was just about putting in more insulation. One small rugby club had had BREEAM forced on it by planners - they had to get a ‘very good’ rating, and were told to think themselves lucky, as from July it would be ‘excellent’.”
Parker estimates that for something like a rugby club, with build costs around £100,000, the assessment process would add 10-20%.

There is also the question of the purpose of ratings systems. “A lot of what’s in BREEAM should just be in Building Regulations,” says McAllister. “An awful lot is already, but BREEAM asks for the information in a different format, which is where it becomes tedious. A big chunk could be deleted.”

Similarly Lynne Sullivan, founding partner of Sustainable By Design, says that many issues highlighted by the Code for Sustainable Homes are now included in planning requirements. “Since the Code was brought in, a clear pathway for energy standards to zero carbon homes has been set. Only the energy and materials sections of the Code aren’t regulated or localised, and on materials, BRE’s Green Guide will be overtaken by European standards for product declarations.”

Martin Townsend, director of BREEAM at BRE Global, defends the standard against accusations of unnecessary complexity saying the organisation has to constantly balance a desire to simplify and a need to be rigorous and thorough. He also says it will remove BREEAM credits that are covered in regulation in its regular reviews of the scheme. “We never reward people for issues that are already regulated for because the whole idea is to inspire people to go beyond regulation. We always listen to concerns, then we do our own research to make sure that’s what’s happening in the market.” Townsend also invites people to submit evidence that credits should be reviewed. “That’s an area we really need to work on with industry,” he says.

However, there are also specific gripes with the way that BREEAM, in particular, is administered. Some assessors have expressed frustration (see box) that they have no discretion and can’t speak to Quality Auditors (QAs) at BRE by phone, while some users say they have no way of arguing their case where a design meets the spirit of a credit but not the specific technical requirements. For example, Hammerson is developing the first BREEAM Excellent shopping centre in Marseille. “Even though it would be illegal under French regulations to put a certain level of recycled content in the building, and every other part of the scheme has a high level of recycled content, they’re not willing to work through the issues with us,” says Edwards. “That to me is totally inflexible. You want to ring them and discuss it, and for them to say, ‘okay, if you can do this instead, you can have the credits’. There’s no opportunity to do that.”

Townsend says this is discussed a lot at BRE, and that submissions proposing alternative ways of earning credits are always debated in the office. “A lot of people say that our QA teams are inflexible. But what we try to do is maintain a standard, and we don’t want to lose credibility by applying it randomly. Where assessors are chasing a few critical points, it might seem harsh but it’s part of being consistent.” BRE did propose an alternative system, with quality checks carried out by the organisations carrying out the assessments. “What was interesting was that a number of large companies didn’t like that. They said they preferred having a true third-party audit.”

A wider issue with BREEAM specifically is the way it is run, on a commercial basis by an organisation, BRE, whose privatisation in 1997 is still a sore point. In some cases, BREEAM 2011 requires assessors to submit much more detail than is required to award credits, such as data gathered from monitoring site activity. “That data is gold dust,” says Clare Lowe, commercial director at BREEAM consultancy Southfacing, which produces the online Tracker Plus tool for BREEAM assessors. “Gathering this information should hopefully mean that benchmarks become better defined, but it would be nice if it came back to assessors. They have an obligation to the industry as a whole to publish that information.”

Townsend says that BRE is to begin publishing BREEAM data on the Honest Buildings website (“like Facebook for buildings”), but he concedes that the BRE must “share much more information” and “make ourselves more accessible.” To this end, it is launching an online portal later this year to communicate with users. Longer term, it is working with BIM software providers to develop products to make BREEAM “a design tool, rather than a scorecard”.

BREEAM’s users can take comfort that BRE recognises its own sustainability as an organisation relies on keeping them on board. However, with councils increasingly mandating the use of certain rating systems, BRE will have to work a bit harder to keep its customers happy.


Robert Diamond, head of sustainability, Ingleton Wood, BREEAM assessor since 2006, accredited professional since 2010

Ingleton Wood

The 2011 BREEAM manual is like the Yellow Pages, and you almost need a PhD in each element to really understand what’s going on. The harsh reality is that credits are often not feasible, not achievable and sometimes inflexible, and a lot are missed because they’re overly complicated.

BREEAM is much more holistic than the Building Regulations, which is a positive thing. But the amount of information required from teams puts people off. It becomes a tick-box exercise - it’s to the letter rather than the spirit of an environmental assessment.

The BRE seem to look at submissions and ask “does it say this exactly, yes or no”. If it does, you get the credit, if it doesn’t you don’t. With some people, we almost have to drip feed them what we need - “this is what I need you to say”. It’s frustrating because as an assessor, you don’t have any discretion. In my mind, rules are for guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.

BRE needs to have more faith in assessors and allow more flexibility for us to use our judgement. It’s really important to improve the environmental performance of buildings, and we need systems like BREEAM because Building Regulations are not enough. I think it does need to be a planning requirement or people wouldn’t do anything outside the minimum. But I’d like to see a simpler, flexible system that helps to drive standards rather than putting everybody off.


BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method)
Established 1990

Developed and administered by the BRE. BREEAM New Construction 2011 contains assessments for offices, schools, healthcare, education, retail, industrial, data centres, courts, prisons and multi-residential, as well as a bespoke version. BREEAM has been applied in more than 50 countries worldwide. There are country-specific schemes.

Projects certified 16,499 (worldwide)

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
Established 1998

This US scheme is BREEAM’s big rival internationally, and has been used on projects in 135 countries, including UK. There are nine versions which can be applied on a range of project types, including homes, neighbourhoods and existing buildings. The system was developed and is administered by the US Green Building Council.

Projects certified 16,599 (worldwide)

Code for Sustainable Homes
Established 2007

The UK’s national standard for new homes, managed by BRE Global under contract to DCLG. It has replaced the BRE’s EcoHomes  standard, though this can still be used for domestic refurbishment. It is mandatory for affordable housing funded by the Homes and Communities Agency, but now under review as part of government consultation on red tape, due to report any day now …

Projects certified 100,617
post-construction certificates awarded for up to December 2012 (20% of those homes in the private sector).

Ska Rating
Established 2005

Developed by fit-out contractor Skansen with the RICS and Aecom for office and retail fit-outs, the rating system is now managed by the RICS.

Projects certified 70

Established 2007

Developed by the Ministry of Defence for its new-build and refurbishment projects, this system is based on BREEAM. It is a web-based tool designed to be used by project teams themselves, with assessments at four stages: survey, design, construction and operation.

Projects certified 207 at survey stage, 164 at design, 143 at construction and three at operation.