Premature green building labelling

It’s been more than fifteen years since the concept of a green label for buildings was introduced to the world (BREEAM) so you might be surprised to learn that the definition of what makes a green building is still an issue. In most jurisdictions you can call just about any building a green building, there is no statutory requirement or definition, I argue that buildings must be independently assessed with a rating tool such as LEED or BEAM before the term green building can be permitted. I know from my own experience that experts find differentiating between certification of new, existing, renovated, and re-certificated a challenge.

BEAM (formerly HK-BEAM) consistently failed to market and communicate its key benefits both here and overseas, in the meantime USGBC created and heavily marketed LEED and gained an international renown. Later the HKSAR Government commissioned a new green building rating tool, it would have been a direct competitor to the long standing BEAM (http://www.hk-beam.org.hk) first created in 1996. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, no pilot study took place and the tool, including its many certification stages was abandoned.

It is worthwhile to note that Australia, the GBCA (http://www.gbca.org.au) operates a green building rating system “Green Stars” for building design, and a different tool known as NABERS is entirely focused on the actual performance of buildings based on occupation and metered data.

The key issue, over the years stakeholders surveyed have constantly expressed a preference for green building labels to be awarded after the building was complete and operating (more like NABERS than Green Star). This is a key difference from LEED, Green Star, and other schemes, which awarded certificates based on design, and strong relying on the promise of superior environmental performance.Often these predication’s were based on optimist computer modelling.

Over the years, LEED has finally realized that design intent does not always translate to high performance buildings, and in V3 2009 version has called on building owners to share the critical metering data as the first step. Here is the link to a story about a LEED rated Walter Hardwick building [link] it’s one case where the LEED design has not been translated into green living for tenants, and supports the argument for post occupation certification.

The challenge remains for all rating systems in my mind, when project proponents look for the green building label to help and assist the marketing and sale of the property before occupation, offering only the promise of greener living. In the case for a new building, building operators make choices which impact the environmental impact.

Don’t think for second that defunct systems is limited to green buildings, there are countless buildings with fitted with gadgets that offered owners the promise of better building operations, management or lower costs, many have failed and litter our building stock.  The birth of computer controlled buildings, including the now ubiquitous BMS (Building Management Systems) promised the earth with energy and manpower savings, etc. etc.  As I witnessed only last week, many facility managers have reverted to paper-based manual operation and measurement records.

Going back to the issue, if design certification (promised performance) is offered that will assist the project proponent during the pre-sale, sale, and marketing activities, but the fact remains it is not any guarantee that the intended green features will be eventually installed, or operate correctly as the case of Walter Hardwick building [link] proves. But we surely cannot abandon new construction in favour of just certifying building operations, they are inextricably linked, and the use of materials critical for the sustainability and future operating impacts.

Furthermore, once an operating building is certified, how long should that certificate be valid? one, five or ten years? Fr the re-certification under BEAM EB (Existing Buildings) is five years, however the re-certification process is not really defined.

We need to listen to the stakeholders demanding green buildings that actually deliver superior environmental performance, not those which merely make that promise (aka green washing). From the project proponent / building owners perspective, how should we design a rating tool that is able determine how the building the future.

— John Herbert, Consultant, Kelcroft E&M Limited