Do you believe what you read?

28 May 2012
The headquarters of the National Audit Office is probably not everybody’s idea of an inspirational place, but I like it there. It is an art deco building opposite Victoria coach station in London. It has recently been refurbished to a very high standard, maintaining the character of the building while providing everything needed for a modern office environment. In the reception area, it proudly displays its certificate boasting that the building is compliant with this BREEAM excellent standard. This was probably the highest standard for a sustainable building at the time, but the ‘outstanding’ designation has recently been introduced. Next to this proud accolade is the Energy Performance of Buildings certificate, a legal obligation. It proclaims a very middling C rating. How can this be? The fact is the two standards measure very different things. BREEAM measures a whole range of sustainability features from availability of bike storage facilities, proximity to a bus stop, materials of construction and many more. The Energy Performance of Buildings certificate does what it says on the tin. It measures the energy efficiency of the building and no more. I speak to many people who think that a standard like BREEAM for buildings, Code for Sustainable Homes  or CEEQUALfor infrastructure projects is all you have to specify to ensure sustainability. This is not the case; you need to specify outcomes too. If you want an energy efficient building, you need to say so. All of the standards mentioned are excellent, well proven and beginning to be recognised globally as best practice and rightly so, provided you understand what they do for you and what they don’t do. Given a free hand, a designer or consultant will design a building in a way that gives you the desired outcome in the standard at the biggest possible profit margin to them, so buyer beware. In another example, the wonderful Olympic white water canoe centre has a BREEAM very good rating, yet it exceeds the building regulations for energy efficiency by more than 15 per cent; 21 per cent of its energy demand is from local renewable sources, using a ground source heat pump and solar photovoltaic panels; the building exceeds challenging Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) targets for recycled content; and 100 per cent of the water for the facility is non-potable, sourced from a local borehole. This is a great performance, so why BREEAM very good? Well, for a start there is no bus stop nearby. There is a tale of the Prince Charles-supported café at the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales. Legend has it that it missed out on BREEAM outstanding because there is no bus stop at the top of the mountain. I am not sure if this tale is true, but since when did bloggers let the facts get in the way of a good story? Standards are great, they help to achieve consistency of behaviour, they educate people and provide a great framework for management but as a purchaser you also need to focus on outcomes.
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