Welcome to the first in our series of communications, also featuring elements such as e-booklets, explaining the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). This is the world’s longest standing and most widely used scheme for assessing, rating, and certifying buildings’ sustainability.

BREEAM accreditation delivers many benefits to constructions’ stakeholders. It’s also rapidly becoming essential for non-domestic buildings in the UK, as it’s clearly valued highly by the market and arms of government, whose responsibilities include achieving the country’s legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These audiences, and others, recognise the scheme presents a searching and wide-ranging test of a building’s environmental credentials, and not a mere box ticking exercise.
Since Yonder’s foundation in 2012, we’ve used our status as BREEAM accredited professionals to advise on and certify a staggering 12 per cent of all UK industrial buildings that have achieved scheme ratings. We can therefore justly claim to be the country’s foremost experts on maximising the BREEAM scores of clients’ buildings.

Our status and record demonstrate deep expertise in all aspects of environmental design, construction, and sustainability. They also confirm we have the knowledge and experience needed to translate BREEAM’s technical and academic criteria very effectively to the real world.

In this series of plain English materials, which assume no prior reader knowledge of BREEAM, we explain the method and answer important questions about it. These include who’s behind it, the features of a building it examines and how its process works. In this initial guide, we provide an overview of BREEAM, mentioning many aspects of the scheme that we’ll explore more deeply in future output.

What is BREEAM?

In a nutshell, BREEAM is a sustainability assessment methodology for constructions. After focusing initially on individual new buildings at the construction stage, the scheme has expanded massively during its lifetime of more than 30 years and now sets standards for environmental performance through buildings’ whole lifecycles, including the planning, design, specification, procurement, construction, and operational phases.

Versions of BREEAM currently apply to virtually any buildings, anywhere – including new or existing constructions, those undergoing refurbishment and fit-out projects, very unusual or multi-functional buildings, and even entire communities.

What are BREEAM’s objectives?

BREEAM aims to prompt groups such as building owners, occupiers, and designers to minimise the negative environmental effects of construction and development. The scheme’s goals include encouraging cost-effective sustainability enhancements and generating market recognition for organisations and buildings which adopt them.

When did BREEAM begin?

The scheme was launched in 1990, after two years in development.

Who’s behind BREEAM?

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) was a UK government national laboratory when it unveiled BREEAM. The organisation was privatised in 1997 and is now a centre for building science owned by a charity. It provides research, advice, training, testing, certification, and standards for public and private sector organisations in the UK and abroad. Based in Garston, Hertfordshire, the BRE has offices in Glasgow, Swansea, the US, the Middle East, India, and China. The organisation remains a vital part of the UK construction industry, especially in areas such as innovation, strategic direction, and translating the academic to the practical.

How popular is BREEAM?

Over 550,000 buildings have now been BREEAM-accredited and more than 2.25 million are registered for certification in over 80 countries worldwide. The method enjoys an about 80 per cent share of the European market for building sustainability accreditations and is by a country mile the most widely-used such scheme in the UK.

What does BREEAM scrutinise?

The BREEAM methodology seeks evidence of sustainable value in nine categories, namely:

Energy: In this respect, BREEAM essentially assesses whether a building is mean, lean, and green. It’s mean if its energy demand has been minimised through well-considered design and specification. It’s lean if the building can be used efficiently, via methods such as incorporating low energy fittings and avoiding operational waste – through accessible and meaningful sub-metering, for example. It’s green if it uses renewable and low or zero carbon technologies to make its environmental design and specification a reality.

Land use and ecology: This category looks at a building’s impact on local ecology and eco-systems, including how it integrates with them. It examines how well these factors were considered at each stage of the design process and whether they’re reflected adequately on-site. The scheme rewards constructions standing on previously developed or contaminated land, for example.

Water: This section scrutinises aspects such as whether a building uses water-efficient technologies, employs sub-metering, incorporates leak detection or prevention, and avoids unregulated wastage, via suitable design and technology.

Health and wellbeing: This criterion analyses how a project functions, internally and externally, as an environment in which people work or live. It examines features such as day lighting, external views, sunlight glare control, thermal performance, acoustics, site security and safety, and the provision of outdoor spaces for building users.

Pollution: Under this heading, a building’s impacts on aspects such as light, noise, air and water courses – including local drainage systems and infrastructure – are assessed, with a view to preventing increased flood risk, for example.

Transport: This category looks at whether a building facilitates sustainable transport, on-site and in aspects of its locality, including through the provision of facilities such as cycle storage spaces and car charging points.

Materials: This section scrutinises a building, its site, and its materials specification, rewarding factors such as enlightened procurement, durability and the designing out of waste.

Waste: This criterion examines aspects such as on-site waste efficiency, the use of recycled materials, and prevention of waste through perceptive design. It values features such as adaptability in the event of future climate change requirements or changing functional demands, for example.

Management: Under this heading, assessors analyse how a project is managed, specified, designed, delivered, and handed over.

Minimum standards must be met for energy, water, and waste but credits for the remaining categories can be traded and BREEAM is therefore somewhat flexible in its application.

Who assesses the buildings?

Independent licensed professionals. All BREEAM assessors and assessing organisations go through a training process validated by the UK Accreditation Service. This means they have the expertise to interpret BREEAM requirements and collect evidence showing the extent to which these have been implemented in-situ.

What’s the BREEAM process?

The assessors carry out two inspections of each development, using a wide range of science-based sustainability metrics, tools, and indices, all based on academic research. One assessment takes place at the design stage and leads to an interim certificate being issued. The other occurs after construction, following which a rating is determined and a final certificate awarded. 

How does BREEAM’s scoring work?

A development’s final BREEAM total results from each of the nine assessment criteria being scored on a percentage scale and multiplied by a set weighting.

Generally, BREEAM rewards most generously evidence of the more influential sustainability factors, such as reduced carbon emissions, low impact design, adaptation to climate change, ecological value, and biodiversity protection.

A building’s final total will place it in one of the following official categories:

  • Less than 30 per cent – Unclassified
  • 30 to 44 per cent – Pass (75 per cent of new non-domestic UK buildings achieve at least this level, which denotes standard good practice)
  • 45 to 54 per cent – Good (50 per cent of new non-domestic UK buildings achieve at least this level, which denotes intermediate good practice)
  • 55 to 69 per cent – Very good (25 per cent of new non-domestic UK buildings achieve at least this level, which denotes advanced good practice)
  • 70 to 85 per cent – Excellent (10 per cent of new non-domestic UK buildings achieve at least this level, which denotes best practice)
  • More than 85 per cent – Outstanding (less than one per cent of new non-domestic UK buildings achieve this level, which marks the development out as an innovator)

Is BREEAM ever updated?

Yes. The scheme is regularly revised, with a view to improving sustainability, responding to industry feedback, and supporting government environmental strategies and commitments.
There’s been a pattern over the years of the construction industry entering something approaching a panic over how it will meet tough new BREEAM standards, but within a few years routinely delivering these requirements.

That underlines how effective BREEAM has been in achieving its goal of pushing the sector towards more environmentally sustainable operation…not necessarily instantly, but over decades.

What’s BREEAM achieved?

Among the many achievements for which BREEAM can justly claim credit are:

  • Encouraging the insulation industry away from using blowing agents that deplete the ozone layer or have high global warming potential (the scheme is now attempting a similar feat over air conditioning refrigerants).
  • Persuading material makers to use certified environmental management systems and enhance continually their manufacturing and supply practices. This process has brought improvements from the cradle (which brings into play features such as forests and mines), through operations (where relevant considerations include durability, performance, and micro-pollution) to the grave (the stage at which questions are raised about issues such as recovery, reuse, and recycling).
  • Virtually mandating the use of key performance indicators concerning resource and waste efficiency in the main contracting sector.

Is BREEAM uniform internationally?

Not quite. For example, five European countries – Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Spain – have developed their own BREEAM schemes, operated by national bodies. However, such variants must still comply with overarching requirements laid down in the Code for a Sustainable Built Environment, to ensure a level of consistency.

Why should we bother with BREEAM?

There are many benefits to be gained by achieving BREEAM certification.

These include the obvious advantages for the environment and groups such as occupants or local communities from the building refinements BREEAM encourages and rewards.

Almost equally evident are the reputational benefits for organisations associated with BREEAM-certified constructions, which can be reflected in aspects such as their marketing and promotional activity.

BREEAM’s findings also provide valuable baseline metrics for professionals such as building owners, designers and main contractors over features like embodied carbon, impact on biodiversity, energy or waste efficiency, and water use. These can be utilised as the basis for actions such as setting future performance targets.

Among the other reasons for pursuing the BREEAM accreditation are:

  • There’s accumulating evidence that BREEAM-certified buildings provide increased rates of return for investors, plus higher rental rates and sales premiums for developers and owners. A Maastricht University document, published by RICS Research, for example, has reported a study, conducted between 2000 and 2009, which found BREEAM-certified London office buildings achieved premiums of 21 per cent on transaction prices and 18 per cent on rents.
  • Many stakeholders – such as potential clients, tenants, and occupants – now demand BREEAM certification, so failure to obtain it can have decidedly adverse impacts on factors such as marketing, lettings, and profitability.
  • The UK government’s Construction Strategy requires environmental assessments are carried out on all public projects, with the aim of achieving BREEAM Excellent ratings or equivalent rankings in lesser used alternative systems.
  • Local councils now frequently stipulate BREEAM certification as part of their overall area plans or in planning conditions for individual developments.

Is BREEAM certification expensive?

No. Research by international physical asset management consultancy the Sweett Group into projects using BREEAM, for example, demonstrated sustainable options often added little or no capital cost to development projects. Moreover, where additional capital outlay was needed, it was often recouped through lower running expenses, meaning undertaking the BREEAM process saved money over a building’s lifetime.

Are BREEAM users happy with their experience?

Yes. Take a survey commissioned by energy management company Schneider Electric and undertaken by the UK not-for-profit membership organisation the Building Services Research & Information Association, for example. This questioned a wide range of companies that had used BREEAM and found:

  • 96 per cent would engage with it again
  • 88 per cent thought it was a good thing
  • 88 per cent would recommend it to others

Want to know more about achieving BREEAM certification?

Just click the button on the right to download our free ‘How to achieve BREEAM certification with ease e-book’

If you want to know more about our expertise in helping organisations maximise their BREEAM ratings and how we can assist you with yours, please:

Write to us: Yonder ConsultingThird Floor, Concordia Works30 Sovereign StreetLeeds LS1 4BA