By: Fermin Beltran // Fife Architects

If you have been  involved in construction in recent times, then you’ve probably heard about ‘BREEAM’ or ‘LEED’ accreditation schemes for buildings. Even if most people don’t really understand what they score or know what they actually assess it has become almost a necessary process for developers seeking any sort of green credentials for their buildings, but can these Sustainability Assessment Tools and other green building rating systems worldwide aid in reversing a destructive construction trend which dominates our built environment in favour of a future of sustainable construction? Can these tools actually rate a building’s sustainability?

Sustainability Assessment Methods have infiltrated the construction industry in recent years due to the overwhelming need by governments, professional and the general public who are collectively seeking a redirection of traditional construction practices and a reduction in the environmental impact of current economic, social and environmental frameworks. This paradigm shift has seen the rise of many rating methods worldwide which attempt to normalise a standard for which buildings can be assessed according to their performance and sustainability with an aim to bridge the gap between environmental credentials and buildings in practice.

There are many methodologies for sustainability assessments including Life Cycle Assessments (LCA), Environmental Impact Assessments, Energy Performance ratings, etc. All of which seek to quantify a product or building’s impact on the environment.

Systems like BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) in the UK and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in the US are Sustainability Assessment Tools (SATs) which have been develop to assist designers and to encourage stakeholders to take decisive action toward making buildings more sustainable. However, as these tools evolve around the world, developers and architects are currently facing a very difficult decision in choosing which tool to use and how to implement them in an continuously challenging global economic climate.

Currently, SATs worldwide are established as non-compulsory standards of excellence that grade how much a design can score in terms of their relative overall ‘sustainability’ according to a set of subjective indicators. Indicators are an essential component in the overall assessment of the progress towards sustainable development as it sets a benchmark for which to measure any new development (Gallopin, 1997). However, the actual benchmark is open for debate and varies from tool to tool. Regardless of the actual quantifiable contribution of the assessments and their accredited building towards sustainability, this approach indeed enhances construction practices and encourages new construction to be more environmentally conscious and resource-efficient. Most SATs on the market today have been criticised for being over-simplistic ‘ticking box’ exercises that mainly serve a marketing purpose in a complex construction world where supply chains and strict budgets dominate the decisions of most design teams.


Sustainability Assessment Tools Worldwide

Since the inception of BREEAM in 1990, there has been a rise in the number of Building Assessment tools worldwide. Here are the four which are widely regarded as being the primary players in green building rating systems worldwide (Kibert, 2005; ARUP, 2009; Reed, 2009; Platt, 2012):

LEED (USA) » Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
BREEAM (UK) » Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method for buildings
GREEN STAR (AUSTRALIA) » Australia’s comprehensive, national, voluntary environmental rating system
CASBEE (JAPAN) » Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency

The range of nomenclature in definition and labelling of the tools vary dramatically, but all of these assessment tools offer some form of score to enhance the buildings credentials in construction and establish a set a benchmark criteria for comparison with other buildings and future designs. Some tools have been adopted internationally with International versions of LEED, Green Star and BREEAM being used in various countries. The map below taken from the Council of Tall Building and Urban Habitat (Say et al., 2008) shows the countries which originally adopted the four main Assessment tools. Since then BREEAM and LEED have expanded to include many more countries and have begun a unification process under the World Green Building Council which already has over 90 countries now with either established or prospective Green Building Councils (Appendix A).

Ho well do they work?

These accreditations schemes (SATs) have become the lowest common denominator of a society trying desperately to say that they care about the environment but do little for the common citizen or the average city dwelling which actually constitutes about 75% of the world’s built environment (UNEP-SBCI, 2009).

BRE (Building Research Establishment) claimed for many years that BREEAM accounted for 40% of all new buildings. When one realises that only 1%-2% of new stock is added to the total stock each year it will be many decades before the entire stock is ‘sustainable.’ (Reed, 2009)

Scoring buildings according to their Sustainability, which is the ultimately and common goal of these tools, is a much needed start to a new redirection away from a fossil fuel practices in construction and towards a future of true sustainability in the built environment.

Sustainability » The Only Solution

The ultimate goal of these assessment tools is to identify and promote green construction practices so that buildings become part of the sustainability response. Both USGBC (US) and BRE (UK) who develop and monitor LEED and BREEAM respectively are not considering several aspects which indirectly devalue the sustainability assessment process. Architects and their peers usually focus on individual buildings, their immediate effect on their surroundings and the impact it will have in its urban context. This is not nearly enough if we have to be thinking that future generations are going to be able to meet their needs. Architects like LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe infected society with the notion of modernity and inundated architectural theories under false pretences of futuristic visions with the notion that massive cities, motorised vehicle movement and coordinated urban sprawl were the pinnacle of successful architecture. We have been convinced that humans must all live in a kind of urban utopia in the form of massive units of imposing human architecture which prioritises vehicle over pedestrian movement. According to their legacy (which we see in every major city in the form of concrete multi-storey massive housing blocks), we must all design buildings based on their present and future ”Urban Context” and not their Landscape or Ecosystem.

In an emerging epoch based on a vision of a ‘living, organic universe’, architecture must start again to mediate our relations between nature, place and community.(Buchanan, 2012)

Green buildings and the sustainability assessment tools which are encouraging the development of these buildings are shaping the global shift to a low carbon economy (World Green Building Council, 2009) in which design teams and developers deliver first and foremost personal well-being and efficient buildings that don’t waste precious resources and puts humanity before aesthetics.

Even if the current environmental assessment tools become mainstream there must be three things that need to evolve from such tools to allow for an effective global response to climate change.

  • Unified set of benchmark indicators that can be used across all assessments worldwide.
  • Acknowledgement of the need to catalogue and implement data from existing buildings which can be fed back into any new design. 
  • A clear plan to allow as many existing building typologies to be categorized and rated
  • Acknowledgement that regionalism, cultural differences and political conditions worldwide are major factors in considering the efficiency and performance of buildings.

The current frameworks that asses a building’s sustainability in the context of their overall environmental impact focus mainly on new construction. With few exceptions and only recent attempts by these voluntary assessment tools focus on existing housing stocks and user lead feedback. The loop seems to be going backwards. As most building owners and operators are reluctant to publish and evaluate their buildings in use as a result of fears of poor publicity and perceived higher up-front costs. It is clear that a coordinated unified approach to building rating systems is urgently needed.

An attempt to unify the efforts is being undertaken by the World Green Building Council; a coalition of national Green Building Councils founded in 1999 with the focus of facilitating transformation of the building industry towards sustainability through market driven mechanisms, making it the largest international organisation influencing the green building marketplace (World Green Building Council, 2012).

The natural evolution of the Sustainability assessment tools and their focus on human impact has to address the issue of globalisation and consider the buildings as part of the world’s ecosystem as well as the built environment.

// References

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