Diving into the Complex World of Green Building Labels

Big certificates mean big strides in sustainability

All around the globe, awareness of green building methods and sustainable projects is continuously growing. To enhance the visibility of sustainable buildings, several organizations are rewarding projects that meet special requirements related to energy performance, water efficiency, indoor air quality, and the use of innovative methods during planning. Perhaps the two best-known certificate programs are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). With more than 90,000 certified projects in 167 countries, LEED is the most widely used program of its kind. BREEAM counts over 2 million registered buildings in 81 countries.

Besides the huge international success of LEED and BREEAM, many national labels have emerged as well. Some provide basic information about energy demand or consumption such as Germany’s Energy Pass and the UK’s Energy Performance Certificates. Others describe a reference building and compare it to actual or simulated energy performance like the US’ Home Energy Rating, which allocates a score from 100 to 0, where 100 is the reference building and 0 is a passive house. Additionally, Energy Star is awarded in several countries to buildings that use at least 15% less energy than a reference project. Most certification programs, such as the National Green Building Standard or China’s Three Star rating system, have a very comprehensive approach and follow LEED or BREEAM’s methods like awarding medals or stars.

LEED and BREEAM drive the conversation

It’s clear that industry standards are measured against the two big players LEED and BREEAM. Both have a focus on promoting efficient energy use and reducing CO2 emissions but differ in how they are applied from the start. To achieve a BREEAM-label, a certified BREEAM consultant must assess the building and the planning process. LEED, however, allows for more flexibility during the design phase; it follows a less prescriptive approach and puts more weight on documentation. Throughout the certification process, experts must achieve minimum requirements in different categories, only one of which is energy efficiency. In the end, the summarized number of credits determines the final award. This means that every aspect of the certification can be seen individually, but many aspects balance one another out in the final evaluation.

Breaking down the individual aspects of these certifications sheds light on where priorities are within the organizations administering them. How the human element ties into all criteria is necessary to think about if the building industries want to push the certifications forward. Unfortunately, human comfort plays a relatively small role in most assessments. LEED has been criticized for not considering indoor air quality and thus not really looking out for human health. In LEED v.4 for new constructions, the category “indoor environmental quality” rewards just a total of 16 possible credits in a certification where a minimum of 80 are needed to reach the highest, or platinum, standard. BREEAM 2016 for new constructions weights categories related to “health” and “wellbeing” between 8 and 15 percent, depending on the use case. While comfort is certainly recognized by these certifications, it isn’t seen as nearly as important as other aspects of sustainability like energy efficiency.

Official requirements yield new tech opportunities

Knowing that energy efficiency is top of mind for sustainable building certifications, it’s important to look at how do these certifications measure up with the legal requirements for energy consumption. The European Energy Performance and Building Directive is directing for all new buildings be near zero energy by the end of 2020. Public buildings already have to be. And policy changes and mandates for energy aren’t just happening in Europe. The US state of California has set the same goals for non-commercial buildings. Japan and Korea have similar policy road maps.

High energy efficient buildings will be legally required in the near future. With any hope, certifications will start to focus on the remaining aspects that go into a truly sustainable building.

At Metabuild, we believe that every facet of a building’s performance and lifecycle is important and should be considered in an integrated process. We believe it should be as easy as possible for real estate professionals to make smart decisions so they can focus on creating great buildings. Building simulation, coupled with an intelligent BIM concept and artificial intelligence can help achieve an optimized building and planning process – one that promotes energy performance, sustainability, and comfort while minimizing costs.