Dec 16, 2014
THEME: Sustainability

Learning from the US: Creating a Culture for Sustainable Buildings in the United Kingdom

This post was co-authored with Ed Garrod, Head of Sustainability and Integrated Design, Elementa Consulting

Why are we so far behind?

We face a living building challenge. We all agree we need to improve the performance of our buildings to reduce carbon and enhance wellbeing, but we can’t seem to gather the momentum to move forward.

The Living Building Challenge™, a building certification program, advocacy tool and philosophy that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment, was launched 3 years ago – anyone heard of it? It was aspirational, as it should be, and it continues to be championed by one individual in the UK. Any revolution needs a following and after September’s World Green Building Week and the UK Green Buildings Council’s (UKGBC) launch of ‘Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices’, we’re calling for action. New Year, new resolution.

So what is stalling us? One issue is that we’re pricing ourselves out of a holistic approach. There are almost 190,000 LEED accredited professionals in the US and just under 3,500 in the UK – pro rata this should be more like 37,000.  Becoming a LEED accredited practitioner costs $200 on the back of self-directed learning. In the UK, we promote BREEAM and a one-day course to become accredited costs £1,300. By simple mathematics, if a design firm was to invest in LEED rather than BREEAM, it could gain seven sustainability experts for the price of one. In design terms, this means we’re not engaging in an integrated design process or starting with the big issues, so as a first step the cost of training needs to reduce.

There is also a performance gap, between how buildings are meant to perform and how they actually do. We are so bogged down in compliance with regulations and standards – EPCs, Part L, Ska, BREEAM, LEED – that we forget the reason we’re doing it, to minimise the drain on natural resources and improve health and wellbeing.

We don’t even model properly. Building modelling here is a compliance-based system with a drop down menu and too much margin for error. LEED, on the other hand, adopts an approach that models the occupancy, actual loads, real systems and every component part, including street lights and lifts. It then commits to tracking performance and sharing data for five years.

In the UK, we comply because policy tells us to. BREEAM is enforced by planners, essential to get a scheme consented, so we focus on creating a process that is as painless as possible. Sustainability is seen as a cost. In the US, many initiatives are not driven by policy but a desire to reduce cost barriers and make change happen. LEED is voluntary, incentivised by tax savings and embraced by occupiers who see the value: cost savings, lower energy costs, wellbeing, community benefit and so on.

The Crystal - a Sustainable Cities Initiative by Siemens - is one of the few buildings in the world to achieve both BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum ratings. Our London office designed the interiors.

The Crystal – a Sustainable Cities Initiative by Siemens – is one of the few buildings in the world to achieve both BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum ratings. Our London office designed the interiors.


When we’re pulling together briefs for new buildings or refurbishment projects, we need to ask different questions and make the business case. Not do you want BREEAM, Ska or LEED, but would you be interested in saving 30% on your energy costs? The answer to the latter is easy and will also encourage sustainable living and behaviours that support efficiency.

Change is coming. First, we need to be clear what good looks like and the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) will help, albeit another scheme enforced rather than carried out by our own initiative. Then, bodies set up to enable change need to collaborate; the Building Research Establishment (BRE) often conflicts with the UKGBC in its focus on compliance not outcome.

Next, and not soon enough in my opinion, comes the WELL Building Standard®, created by Delos Living LLC and managed by the International Well Building Institute in partnership with leading scientists, doctors, architects and wellness thought leaders. It is the first protocol of its kind that focuses on human wellness within the built environment, and treats the building a bit like a patient that metabolises energy to function and needs positive inputs in mind, comfort, fitness, light, nourishment, water and air, just like we do.

With so much of our time spent inside buildings, if they’re healthy, so our health improves. While the US is not perfect and commitment varies from state to state, the self-directed and self-enforced method is proven to work. And it’s based on apolitical, factual definitions – net zero carbon means net zero carbon in North America – fancy that!

The UK must learn to collaborate and adopt a self-directed improvement culture and soon.  Will you join our revolution?

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