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Why we should call time on sustainable accreditations

Nicola Forest, Sustainability Manager at ISG, discusses the value which green building certifications contribute to the design and construction of a building that achieves a tangible sustainable outcome

What defines a sustainable building? Most responses to this increasingly burning question would involve those infamous green building certification acronyms including BREEAM, LEED and WELL. With over 100 sustainable building certifications currently in existence globally, there’s a lot of ground to cover for investors, organisations, architects and building users across the built environment sector seeking to adopt sustainable excellence. But what value, in practice, do they contribute to the design and construction of a building that achieves a tangible sustainable outcome?

For many of us working in sustainability, the overabundance of accreditations and certifications are becoming counterproductive. The constrained and defined criteria of these schemes are leading to the very real possibility of a less focused approach to sustainability. Truly sustainable solutions and project specific innovative thinking are being missed because these approaches aren’t rewarded within the building certification criteria. This results in building certifications which exist because of their reputation rather than their credibility. 

The demands for sustainable buildings and responsible construction practices are rapidly shaping the design, build and operational landscape. It cannot be denied that sustainable building certifications provide an effective framework and design tool to reward projects for incorporating sustainable design and construction practices, which ultimately encourage more environmentally friendly developments - but that is where the reliance on them should end.

To truly achieve sustainable buildings, a perception shift is required. Green certifications alone cannot guarantee a genuinely green building or sustainable approach. Instead, they should be seen as a starting point for a broader conversation and action toward sustainability. It should no longer be acceptable for today’s buildings to only have sustainability aspirations that incorporate green building certifications. But where does responsibility lie to push the sustainability agenda? Should the big corporate firms be leading the way and scrutinised if they don’t or should architects be pushing for more sustainable designs and be considered negligent if they fail to? Ultimately developers, clients, architects and occupants must work together to incorporate holistic design measures that both reduce environmental impact and meet the building users’ needs.

Many of the environmental, social, and economic aspects of achieving a sustainable development are seemingly overlooked in green building certifications. The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce the consumption of resources, minimise waste, reduce whole life carbon, and create healthy, productive environments. Schemes such as BREEAM and LEED focus overwhelmingly on the in-use operation of a building rather than the carbon emissions and resource impact of how it is being designed and constructed.

Whole-life carbon is both crucial for understanding a building's true impact on the environment and a comprehensive way to steer design decisions. The majority of emissions occur before or during a building’s construction phase. However, to achieve BREEAM's highest Outstanding rating, a building needs 85 credits. But only 6 credits are available for approaches that tackle embodied carbon. Likewise, to achieve Platinum under LEED, a building needs 80 points. But only 3 are available for embodied carbon. Why as an industry are we continuing to consider this as acceptable?

As an industry, we need to be focusing time, budget, and resource on designing and constructing buildings that significantly reduce embodied carbon through informed selection of building products, material efficiency and optimized design. Utilising Environmental Product Declarations, low-carbon, carbon-neutral, or even carbon-storing products and reused or reclaimed materials is the vital frontier in building decarbonization.

Nicola Forest, Sustainability Manager, ISG

The concept of the circular economy is part of many conversations about sustainable buildings but is often either uncredited or indirectly credited in green building certifications. A circular economy within BREEAM and LEED sits disgused among other credits. By having such low value and emphasis on the circular economy within these schemes, there is a risk that forward thinking ideas like designing for circularity, establishing product take-back schemes, leasing rather than owning materials, supporting refurbishment and remanufacturing, and innovating reverse logistics (how to recover used materials better) may be missed. 

Real success in achieving healthy and productive environments has been seen from clients and developers who have taken the time to understand their building, their employees and building occupants. There is a growing emphasis on clients taking the key design aspects of for example BREEAM and the WELL Building Standard and working with the needs of their users to develop bespoke design solutions that cater directly to their stakeholders. This collective effort has seen successes around religion, flexible working, green spaces and female diversity which, although addressed in WELL, form a small percentage of the final certification.

In conclusion, while green building certifications have their merits, they should not be viewed as the sole indicator of sustainability. To achieve true sustainability, a collective effort is needed, involving stakeholders across the construction industry. By prioritising holistic design approaches, driving whole-life carbon and embracing circularity, we can move beyond certifications and create buildings that genuinely contribute to a sustainable future and the needs of those using them.

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