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Environmental rating schemes - their use and future developmentSeptember 2011

BSRIA has set up a network to discuss the use and future development of environmental rating schemes. James Parker and Tracey Tilbry lay out the plan of action.

Environmental assessment and certification has become a routine part of building design, popularised in the UK by the BRE with its seminal BREEAM rating scheme.

The success of BREEAM (the BRE Environmental Assessment Method) may have brought it international recognition, but it is not the only game in town. In North America, the US Green Building Council has forged the LEED scheme (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design). This, too, has gone international.

More recently, rating schemes tailored to specific countries and regions have also been developed, such as Greenstar in Australia and Estidama in the Middle East. All have been designed with the intention of providing third party certification of the environmental performance of a building.

In the past 21 years over 200,000 buildings have been certified using BREEAM. The clients, designers and developers of those buildings have benefited from a scheme that aims to reduce running costs and improve working and living environments. But does a building rated as BREEAM Excellent truly perform more sustainably in operation?

It would seem logical that there should be a correlation between those public sector buildings with high BREEAM ratings, and the energy consumption reported in Display Energy Certifictes. However, such correlation does not seem to show in the available data. Energy consumption two to three times the design estimate seems to be normal, despite attempts to reduce consumption through low carbon measures and renewables.

Evidence is also mounting that the very systems designed to reduce energy consumption are often complicated and difficult to understand and operate. If buildings have systems that tax and confuse the building occupants - made worse by lack of training and familiarisation - then is it any surprise that many green-rated buildings rarely deliver on their promises?

The Technology Strategy Board's £8 million research programme for Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) may provide answers. Although not designed to challenge the credibility of environmental assessment schemes, the BPE programme may serve to amplify what we already know from post-occupancy evaluations: that buildings are not performing as well as they could be, nor anywhere near their design teams' ambitions. If so, we need to understand the root causes of the disparity, and changing what we do so that buildings perform closer to the design prediction and meet the standards set by assessment schemes like BREEAM.

In July, BSRIA launched its Building Environmental Assessment Network (BEAN) with the aim of supporting assessors, clients and design teams using building assessment schemes. The network will provide an opportunity to discuss relevant issues, share ideas and educate. It is also intended that the network should become an industry voice, providing feedback to the providers of the various rating systems.

Network aims and objectives

At the first BEAN meeting following the network's launch, it became apparent that a key strategy will be to shift the focus of assessments so that they concentrate more on building performance outcomes, writes Tracey Tilbry. The network will therefore look at how environmental assessments should develop over the next ten years, what form they should take, and what they will need to deliver in terms of measurable benefits.

This process will need to take on board market drivers, both in the short and long term, such as the seemingly inexorable rise in energy prices, coupled with possible reduced security of supply. Even though current assessment methods do address carbon dioxide emissions, the schemes will need to evolve to ensure there is a closer and more robust relationship between predictions and targets, and operational energy consumption and consequential emissions.

The network will be chaired by Dave Cheshire from AECOM. "The network is a great opportunity to take a fresh look at environmental assessment methods and see if they are genuinely delivering sustainable buildings that are more comfortable, better for the environment and cheaper to run," said Cheshire.

"The strong feedback from the first workshop was that environmental assessment methods have become too involved and complex," he added. "We need to work harder to communicate the opportunities clearly and in simple language. We also need to demonstrate the environmental and cost benefits of implementing measures."

LEED and BREEAM assessor Eszter Gulacsy of Mott MacDonald will be focusing on LEED and other methods. Gulacsy believes that there are lessons that could be learnt from the way these international methods, including Green Star and Estidama, are developed and applied.

"LEED is possibly the only non-UK assessment method that is used in UK projects, hence the relevance to the network," she said. "Investigation of other international methods may also highlight issues and areas of sustainability that are overlooked in the UK."

James Parker, BSRIA's BREEAM manager and senior research engineer, will provide the technical input from inside BSRIA, with support from Colin Pearson BSRIA's head of building performance. The BRE will also be represented at the network meetings and events. The Department for Communities and Local Government, which has responsibility for the Code for Sustainable Homes and the Building Regulations, is also keen on following the outputs of the network.

One of the immediate objectives of the network will be to look at the London Plan, which came into effect in July 2011. The Plan sets out a fully integrated economic, environmental, transport and social framework for the development of the capital to 2031. At one of the first events the network will assess how the Plan is likely to affect the environmental issues of new construction and refurbishment, and the schemes in place to measure it.

The network will also focus on emerging environmental assessment schemes. Ska is one of the newest environmental assessments for refurbishment, providing a focus on existing buildings and their adaption to new technology and materials.

A greater understanding of the scheme is needed for both assessors and clients. One of the first tasks for the network will be to host an event to discuss the virtues of all the systems, highlighting the strong and weak points of each scheme.

BSRIA runs the Building Environmental Assessment Network (BEAN) for BSRIA Members; contact Tracey Tilbry, BSRIA's networks and event manager at tracey.tilbry@bsria.co.uk or 01344 465512.

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