New ‘Green’ Building Standard

U.K. imports green building standard to U.S. for existing commercial building market

There’s a new green building standard in the U.S. geared toward the country’s 5.8 million existing commercial buildings that are not currently benchmarking sustainability efforts. It’s a great market to zero in on. According to the EPA, commercial buildings account for nearly one-fifth of U.S. energy consumption.
BREEAM USA, officially launched in June, will be administered through a partnership of BuildingWise, a U.S-based LEED certification consultant and BRE, a U.K. group of research, consultancy, training, testing and certification organizations.

Since that’s a lot of unfamiliar letters, let’s start by spelling out the basics.

BREEAM stands for “Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology.” While it seems like the new kid on the block, BREEAM comes to these shores with a qualified pedigree and long history of accomplishments.

“Before there was LEED, there was BREEAM,” is how BuildingGreen Inc. put it, drawing a comparison with the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system that is nearly synonymous in this country with green construction.

The BREEAM rating system, meanwhile, has a 25-year track record of driving efficiency improvements in new and existing buildings around the world.
BRE or the “Building Research Establishment,” a U.K. nonprofit research organization that originally got its start in 1921 as part of the British Civil Service in an effort to improve housing in the U.K., designed the methodology behind the system. 

Martin Townsend, director of sustainability, BRE Global Limited, told us that the perfect day for BRE staff, what with about 150 PhDs, is to sit in their offices, not talk to anybody and just concentrate on research.

“In some respects, that might be why you haven’t heard so much about us. But from this research, we write standards so, I suppose, when you look at our DNA, the thing that makes us tick is the science behind the research,” he added, “We want to drive the market based on sound science that is done by an independent organization.”

BREEAM enjoys worldwide use. Each standard, including the one launched in the U.S., is tailored for the host nation.

“What we might do differently than other green rating organizations is create a baseline based on the culture, the regulations and the challenges in the market within a particular country,” Townsend explained. “If, for example, we are working in the Middle East, we know that water is incredibly important. Therefore, we put more emphasis on water use in terms of managing a building.”

BREEAM has been a popular energy assessment system for buildings in the U.K. and Europe. The system is available in more than 70 countries. According to BRE, BREEAM has completed more than 542,868 certifications and has more than 2.2 million registered buildings in 77 countries.

In contrast, U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED boasts a bigger international footprint in 160 countries but has completed about 80,000 certifications and has about 1 million buildings in the process of getting certified.

However, those figures largely cover new construction. The built market is a tougher matter. Only about 7,400 buildings have been registered for LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EBOM) since the standard was launched in 2008.


BREEAM USA is derived straight from BREEAM In-Use, which BRE launched in 2009.

“BREEAM In-Use is all about outcomes,” according to the BREEAM USA website. “It’s a framework based on scientific research for understanding how your building is performing today and how to improve building performance and reduce environmental impacts moving forward. The assessment tool allows you to make decisions on next steps based on your budget by providing robust and accessible data for benchmarking and continual improvement.”

BREEAM In-Use has been Americanized with a technical manual released last August. For example, European standards are being replaced with American standards, such as ASHRAE marks. But it still employs applicable international best practices. It employs an online scoring platform and reporting section to enable the user to track and improve the performance of their buildings and a common set of questions to allow an entire portfolio of assets to be compared with each other no matter where they are located.

In the documentation process, BREEAM In-Use covers a total of nine environmental categories including energy, water, waste, materials, pollution, health and well-being, land use and ecology, transport and management.

During the assessment process, each category is sub-divided into a range of issues, which promotes the use of new benchmarks, aims and targets. When a target is reached, credits are awarded. Once a building has been fully assessed, depending upon the total number of credits awarded, a final performance rating is achieved.

How it works

The BREEAM USA process starts with a questionnaire, which the building owner pays $1,000 for access up to a year. The questionnaire has three parts.
The first part covers the asset itself — the building information, construction date, materials, glazing type, etc.

The second part, which is the most comprehensive, covers the building operations. 

The third part might be the most interesting since it covers the tenants. They are invited to answer questions, which drill down deeply on their own energy and water use. 

“A great quote that I think we’ve all used in our presentations is that ‘I can make an incredibly sustainable building, but it becomes less sustainable the second I put people in it,’” Townsend said.

Scores from each part are weighted, and a building energy score is determined.

The questionnaire stays open for a year, during which time users can adjust the data. That can be the extent of the process if desired since the initial score remains unverified.

However, to gain official certification, the building owner can hire a third-party licensed assessor to certify the building’s performance. For a fee the assessor will come on-site and verify the data. 

Why BREEAM could catch on

Bream’s approach is inclusive, according to Barry Giles, CEO of BREEAM USA and BuildingWise.

“We are democratizing the entry point,” Giles said during an AEC Business podcast. “We work with any building, any efficiency, any age, any construction, any configuration. Anyone can start filling in the online questionnaire.”

In contrast, other green certification systems may require prerequisites that might prove difficult to start from. For example, LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance requires an Energy Star score of 75 as a prerequisite.

Giles, however, is in no way drawing a line in the sand when it comes to LEED or other green building organizations for that matter.

The market his standard is targeting is immense, and he says he needs everyone to take part. He says he’d be happy with 10 percent of his target market or around 500,000 existing buildings to take part over the next 10 years. He also squarely understands the value of LEED since he helped launch LEED-EBOM as a founding member of its Core Committee.

He also remains an active consultant on LEED-EBOM projects. He started BuildingWise about 10 years ago and added in the podcast that one iconic structure he’s helping certify is San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid building.

“LEED has done a tremendous job bringing green building to the construction world,” Giles added in the podcast. “You can’t go anywhere in the U.S. without finding a federal or state regulation that says new construction must be done to some level of LEED standards. But when it comes to existing buildings, it’s been a struggle.”

BREEAM USA will kick off in earnest in October when the first assessors are accredited and the first structure, The Bloc in Los Angeles, is expected to be certified.

The Bloc is a city-block-scale renovation project in downtown Los Angeles that includes 460,000 sq. ft. of retail space, an office tower and a 469-room Sheraton hotel.

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