A wall made of natural stone. More businesses in construction are using the BREAAM standard.

BRE Group

BRE Group has a difficult mission: to champion new sustainability measures for the built environment, while keeping a sometimes-sceptical real estate sector onside.

The term ‘net zero carbon’ trips easily off the tongue today. But when BRE first began to champion the concept, over 30 years ago, it was widely met with bewilderment or suspicion. It’s been a long battle, but the crusade for acceptance of net zero strategies has now been conclusively won, declares James Fisher of BRE Group, the building science centre. As the group’s Strategic Relationship Lead for the real estate sector, Fisher has grown used to dealing with resistance to the case for sustainability.

I’ve spent a large part of my career having people say to me ‘this is just going to add cost, there’s no business case’,” he says. “But the value case for sustainability has completely flipped in the past year, in my view.

Unlocking value

BRE’s key tool for progress is the BREEAM standard, long recognised as the leading sustainability assessment method for master planning projects, infrastructure and buildings. Achieving a BREEAM rating enables those who own, commission, deliver or manage buildings to demonstrate efficient use of resources. Fisher’s confidence about the adoption of sustainability is based partly on recent financing trends that have triggered a decisive shift in the cost-to-return ratio.

“Up to now, achieving an ‘outstanding’ BREEAM rating for a building would have required a cost uplift of 3 to 5%,” he explains. “But now, if you’re using the project to leverage green finance using sustainability-linked loans, BREEAM is unlocking logarithmic value in terms of the cost. Conversely, you see the loss in value that poorly-performing assets will show in future.”

BREEAM certification

Some clients are leading the way in taking full advantage of this shift. CTP Invest, which runs logistics parks across central Europe, has just collaborated with BRE to implement the BREEAM standard across its entire portfolio, spanning almost 300 buildings in six countries. CTP has used the scheme to drive green bonds for investment in the company, raising a total of €4bn.

They’ve proved their investment grade and recently launched on the Dutch stock market. Sustainability has played an important part in enhancing the value of their company and allowing their business to flourish.

Often, the sustainability requirements of tenants are a driver for change. Paris-based SFL uses BREEAM certification in all its buildings, knowing it will achieve return on this investment through retaining prestigious tenants, including Google and Facebook.

Asset owners and investment funds now appreciate tenants’ demands for infrastructure that delivers on efficiency, health and wellbeing, says Fisher: “They understand that this is what they need to do to drive long-term rental yield and income for their business.”

New asset classes

Those enthusiastic early adopters are still in the minority for now. Fisher estimates around 40% of asset investors at pension fund level are actively signed up to the sustainability agenda. The next challenge will be to enlist smaller businesses to introduce sustainable measures in sites such as manufacturing plants and construction bases.

There are also emerging asset classes to consider. BRE is currently exploring BREEAM standards for the fast-growing concept of co-living spaces – furnished urban developments with communal areas and services. It is also looking closely at the increasing automation of logistics assets: “Perhaps there will be fewer humans working in those buildings in future and more machines, but if they’re still using energy, they can be assessed using BREEAM,” says Fisher.

All this means constant work to expand the standard, whose applications and complexity have mushroomed since it was first introduced in 1990 as a tool focused purely on office buildings. BRE has to strike a fine balance: keeping the sector onside, while pushing ahead with initiatives in emerging aspects of sustainability.

This requires a combination of education, the showcasing of success stories, and constant discussion. BRE’s technical teams update the standard by drawing on the latest science in collaboration with its network of accredited assessors and wider stakeholder groups.

We’re pushing boundaries that the mass market won’t necessarily have caught up with yet,” says Fisher. “But we run consultations often. We don’t want this to be a stream driven purely by ourselves – it needs to be representative of industry challenges.

International expansion

Balance is required, too, in the continuing international roll-out of BREEAM. The first certified projects in India and Australia are about to be unveiled, and the business is also expanding into the US and China. BREEAM has to be stretched to accommodate regional priorities – water stress in the Middle East, for example – but not so far as to compromise the standard.

This demands perpetual engagement with national and municipal governments, industry bodies and communities. “We always need to think about some territories where the legal minimum is lower than it would be in our traditional European base – we don’t want to weaken our jumping-off point,” says Fisher.

Fisher is an advocate of simplicity and directness when it comes to offering professional advice: “You need a one-page report that tells you the things you need to do: how can I make my buildings, my company more sustainable?”

In many cases, that means focusing on unglamorous but critical improvements to existing buildings. “Don’t necessarily prioritise a trophy asset that’s already performing well – think about the ones that really need help. You might not get a high score, but you’re on the journey. This is not about grabbing headlines but making long-term progress.”

Save the world

BRE Group practises what it preaches. Its Watford campus includes office buildings that are retro-fitted with energy efficiency technologies and constantly upgraded for sustainability. Elsewhere on the site, flanked by wild flower meadows, visitors can get inspired by touring built examples of the most advanced sustainable homes.

Naturally, BRE employees exude a personal commitment to the cause. “Underneath all this is a belief that we need to do these things to save the world,” says Fisher bluntly. “We’re not claiming BREEAM will do that, but everybody needs to go on this journey.

My appeal to everyone in the sector would be: the time is now. We have the solutions. Don’t wait to set your net zero target. We need to move quickly if we’re going to limit the damage of climate change.

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