Energy Performance Certificates are the latest green initiatives thrust upon the industry by the Government, but are they really better than other voluntary schemes?

Saving the planet is the latest of the seemingly insurmountable challenges thrust upon the construction industry. Pressure to make buildings more energy efficient (sometimes brought upon us by the Government, sometimes by commercial forces) grows constantly.

The Government has calculated that buildings count for 50% of all energy consumed in the UK, and 50% of the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the country: so how can we differentiate an energy efficient building from an energy inefficient one?

Voluntary certification schemes adopted to demonstrate the environmental credentials of a particular building are increasingly being superseded by the mandatory requirements imposed by the Government. The implementation of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) is the biggest such mandatory requirement yet.

EPCs are a result of UK regulations, introduced in response to a European Directive on the energy performance of buildings (the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive 2002/91/EEC), which come into force in several stages (see linked articles for further information).

Where a new building is constructed, the duty is on the contractor to obtain and provide an EPC to the owner of the building. Where an existing building is sold or let, it is the seller/landlord who is responsible for providing prospective purchasers/tenants with an EPC.

A more stringent regime is also planned for public buildings, which from 1 October 2008 must display an energy certificate in a prominent and clearly visible place. It is likely that the Government will try to extend this scheme to cover all commercial buildings, not just public buildings.

The Government’s expectation in so doing is no doubt that companies will be forced by commercial expediency to ensure that their buildings are as environmentally sustainable as possible. Any company which professes to be “green” will lose credibility with the public if its buildings are certified as being environmentally inefficient.

Without requiring the mandatory display of certificates, there is also the possibility that sellers and landlords will compare the cost of complying with EPCs against the level of fines which may be levied for non-compliance, and take the view that the financial difference is too little to bother.

This slightly cynical approach is contrary to the success of voluntary schemes for certifying environmental credentials of buildings. There is commercial pressure to offer “green” buildings for sale or letting. Many owners and occupiers are very conscious of their environmental responsibilities as part of their corporate social responsibility, including their premises.

Of those voluntary schemes, the BREEAM scheme is the most widely recognised in the UK property industry. Such is the competition amongst corporate owners and occupiers to differentiate themselves from their competitors that a new “outstanding” certification level for BREEAM is to be introduced later this year to cater for this need. It is now common practice for developers to impose obligations in consultant appointments and contracts to design and build a building so as to achieve a specific BREEAM rating.

But the BREEAM regime is not without its pitfalls. Frequently a BREEAM assessment is carried out using the plans and specifications for a building still to be built, with the resulting (positive) assessment publicised when marketing that building. If, however, construction costs spiral upwards, would that lead to environmental measures being ditched in order to save costs? The resulting building might fall well short of the anticipated BREEAM assessment at the start of the project.

The mandatory EPC regime proposed by the Government will have the advantage that it is based on the building “as built”, and will ensure that a building’s environmental credentials are considered in any sale or letting.

The challenge of producing energy efficient buildings is one which the industry seems generally willing to accept. But the challenge brings with it a cost – so should it be the construction industry, the government or the end-user who foots that bill?