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A heavy burden to bear...Can the UK afford BREEAM's sustainable standards?By: Adrian Aston, Director, FRICS, MAPM, Wakemans

Adrian Aston, Wakemans

The BREEAM row that has developed following the government’s suggestion to scrap green standards for new school buildings has put the issue of the costs of sustainability back on the agenda. Wakemans director Adrian Aston reviews the debate.

Government plans to drop BREEAM assessments for school construction projects sparked a wave of criticism from industry experts, many claiming that it would send the wrong message to the rest of the industry and that it was not acceptable to abandon BREEAM for schools with no alternative.

The Department for Education made the recommendation to drop BREEAM as part of the James Review, which singled out the BREEAM regulations for criticism, citing the excessive burden of regulation and guidance in procurement and high costs for carrying out pre-assessment of BREEAM for schools.

The question of can we afford to continue to construct sustainable buildings has been asked many times during this recession. In the private sector landlords are subject to market forces, which have dictated the need to incorporate green credentials in order to maximise letting potential and rents. In the public sector there is an urgent need to start investing to create jobs and stimulate the economy but cutbacks are putting pressure on budgets, which has led to this situation with schools.

There is no doubt that BREEAM is not perfect. There are many improvements that could be made to create an assessment that was less complicated to administer and also more focused on the practicalities of how a building works and integrates with its environment rather than a strict tick list and points system.

The James Review was not proposing that schools have no environmental stands applied but criticised the complexity of the BREEAM system and how expensive it was to achieve.

Certainly some streamlining of the process would be helpful but a review of what BREEAM is meant to achieve and a new way of measuring sustainability could help bring the costs down.

There is also a need to collect and analyse the recent data that is now available from schemes where new technology has been used. While there are lots of environmentally friendly heating and cooling systems, controls and water conservation products, these do not always deliver the expected savings over the lifetime of the building. These products are usually more expensive to purchase and install but can leave building owners and occupiers with larger than expected utility bills. This has occurred with some grant funded community schemes, where the management of the building is not sophisticated enough to allow the savings to materialise.

For public buildings like schools, we also need to consider the commitment to sustainable communities. How well a building meets its obligations with regards to creating opportunities for local employment or contributing to the economy are not considered enough by the BREEAM process.
Knowledge is key to the solution and accurate records of how all buildings perform could benefit the design process of the future. Access to a solid database about buildings, how they operate and how they perform enables property owners to plan for future maintenance and manage building costs effectively. In the private sector there are companies and organisations that do this well and the public sector could benefit from following their lead.

In February, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude published the first sets of data on the costs of construction for public sector buildings. The aim is to show how the government’s ambitious cost cutting strategy is being achieved. So far savings of 2% have been made on a 2009/10 benchmark.
There are huge disparities in the data, which the chief construction adviser Paul Morrell believes indicate scope for cost savings. Clearly there are many reasons why the costs differ from one site to another, but benchmarking in this way does provide a knowledge base that can help clients question if they are getting value for money.

The driver for publishing this information is to bring down the procurement costs of public sector buildings. Like BREEAM the tendering process for public sector contracts is lengthy, complex and expensive. Many public sector clients don’t have any knowledge about how much buildings should cost to build as they are just working with the budget they have. Similarly there are no measures to indicate how efficiently a building is performing or how environmentally friendly it really is despite its BREEAM rating.

Paul Morrell should go further and introduce similar government tracking of operational and life cycle costs across the same government departments. This would enable the success of some of the new complex and expensive technology that is sometimes specified just to tick a BREEAM box to be tested. It will provide valuable information for those buildings yet to be built and could also help those buildings that are running with high costs to be modified and bring about some improvements.

The construction industry faces a tough time recovering from the recession but needs to be much leaner and greener when the upturn comes. Now is the perfect time to gain more facts about the construction and operating costs of sustainable buildings so the question ‘can we afford to?’ can be answered with some certainty.

About the author

Adrian Aston is a Director at construction consultants Wakemans. He still enjoys riding his unicycle...

Features June 2012

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