Sustainability: rating systems

Early engagement in sustainability

5 June 2019

A wide range of rating systems are available to help project managers and quantity surveyors achieve a successful sustainability rating for their clients

The vast number of sustainability rating systems available globally can mean tough choices for those working on building projects: it can be difficult to know which rating system to choose and how to go about implementing it.

The rating systems most commonly used include BREEAM, LEED, SKA, DREAM, WELL, Fitwel, CEEQUAL and Home Quality Mark. These systems generally relate to buildings where occupants live and work; most are for enclosed, conditioned and occupied properties and some include different versions for infrastructure and communities.

The rating systems also have variants, schemes and subschemes, for different building types such as healthcare facilities, offices and schools, although some rating systems cannot currently assess all of these. All rating systems, however, provide a range of measurements and relate slightly differently to the 3 pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social.

Typically, there is a particular rationale for choosing a specific rating system, depending on the type of project. This could be:

  • a new build or refurbishment;
  • residential or commercial; or
  • phased and large-scale, or mixed-use development.

Some of the rating systems, including LEED and BREEAM, have schemes for the latter types of projects. In these cases in particular, the choice of rating system is worth considering at the foundation stage of a project – when a good transport infrastructure can be provided, a low- or zero-carbon district network installed, a whole-site ecology framework developed, and a site layout prepared that helps connectivity for cyclists and pedestrians. Subsequent assessments on individual buildings will then have a solid basis of credits in the chosen rating system on which they can build.

Decision factors

There are times when a client may want to be able to compare ratings across a range of projects and, therefore, needs to use the same rating system throughout. Occasionally local, national or public-sector policy requires that a specific rating system is used: for example, the Welsh government and the NHS stipulate that the BREEAM rating system is used, and some local authorities require BREEAM as part of the planning process for major projects. Other clients may specify a rating system to fit with their corporate social responsibility policies or attract the interest of global companies, as LEED often does.

SKA is often used for commercial fit-outs and could also be selected because public-sector policy requires it: for example, a university may use SKA for a fit-out project. WELL or Fitwell may be chosen as they support projects where the priority is the life of the occupants, rather than the life of the building. WELL has synergies with BREEAM and LEED among other rating systems, sharing and recognising credits from the other schemes. DREAM is specific to Ministry of Defence projects, Home Quality Mark is specific to new domestic property, and the CEEQUAL rating system offers a best-practice approach in infrastructure.

Often, the specific rating system and scheme chosen is based on the reasons above, before project managers or quantity surveyors are even involved in a project. In these cases, it is important that the project manager or quantity surveyor understands the reasons behind the choice, the scope of the chosen rating system and how they can influence its implementation.

If the project manager or quantity surveyor is involved in the decision-making process, there are several factors to consider:

  • Sustainability: this could be saving energy, reducing total carbon impact, or ensuring health and well-being. Sustainability objectives need to be clearly set out from the start and communicated to all relevant stakeholders.
  • Cost: this is a major factor. The assessment cost covers the registration, quality assurance cost and the cost of the assessor. Of course, assessment is a relatively minor part of the overall cost, so you should also consider associated factors such as specialist reports and additional capital costs. The overall cost is affected by the level of rating required.
  • Complexity: all rating systems require the design team to engage and provide information for assessment. A good assessor will help the team navigate the process and make the right decisions to support a cost-effective and sustainable outcome for the project.
  • Timescales: these can be long and need to be factored into the programmes, particularly where there is a funding or planning requirement with a deadline. From the provision of the last piece of information to the assessor, build in enough time for the report to be finalised, the quality assessment to be undertaken, and for resubmission if there are any queries or issues relating to the assessment. Three- to six-month timescales for assessments are not uncommon. Also, remember to consider and factor in the potential inclusion of post-occupancy evaluation, which some of the rating systems offer.

Anecdotal evidence from assessors suggests that fewer than 50% of registered assessments make it to final certification

Assessment should then be approached strategically. Project teams are advised to take the following steps:

  • Start early and receive expert advice from an assessor: if there are assessment options, it is worth requesting a pre-assessment for the 2 front runners. This will identify which is the most advantageous and cost-effective of the assessment methods. The timing of your decision also has an impact on cost – try to make a decision as early as possible because the earlier you apply sustainability measures, the less they are likely to cost. BREEAM in particular has credits that must be addressed before planning applications are submitted.
  • Involve the whole team: the quantity surveyor and project manager are vital because they will contribute to the cost and practicality of achieving the credits target. There is a tendency for design teams to be overoptimistic at pre-assessment stage in relation to the credits that can reasonably be achieved, so the involvement of the quantity surveyor and project manager can help to set realistic targets.
  • Be informed: the quantity surveyor and project manager need to understand the assessment and what the credit requirements mean, because critical elements are often lost in cost-cutting and value-engineering processes. The assessor is rarely present, or involved, at this time.
  • Keep going: do not let the assessment lag behind the design and construction process. Assessments often fail because the design and construction team were not engaged in the process during the active stages of the project. Trying to achieve certification once the project has been handed over can be a painful process, with limited rates of success. Anecdotal evidence from assessors suggests that fewer than 50% of registered assessments actually make it to final certification.
  • Learn lessons: review, and then take the knowledge forward to the next project.

Choosing the right rating system for the project is important, but what is more important is engaging in the briefing and design process early on, which will include appointing an assessor. Receiving advice from an assessor who is well versed in several systems and the different options available is particularly helpful. Above all, however, good project management and engagement throughout the ratings process is what will result in a successful ratings outcome.

Susan Logan is managing director at Ecoteric

Further information