A case for reconstructing the world of sustainable building standards

Joe Mabel
Seattle's Bullitt Center opened in 2014 as the world's greenest building.

The following is an excerpt from "FutuREstorative, Working Towards a New Sustainability," authored by Martin Brown and published by RIBA Publishing. The selection was edited for clarity and length.

Sustainable building certification standards are immense influencers on not only the built environment sector but also commercial, industrial and domestic green lifestyles. With that influence comes a real responsibility in establishing the current direction of travel for the industry against a backdrop of climate, economic and social change.

Get it right, and we move closer to addressing major climate change issues, attaining carbon reduction targets and achieving ecologically, economically and socially just goals. Get it wrong and the negative impact ripples far beyond the built environment sector.

While challenging traditional sustainability standards is now urgent and vital, it is important to remember that new regenerative standards start from different perspectives. The established certification standards (BREEAM, LEED, Green Star) emerged from an energy-environment-economics paradigm whose key driver was, and remains, energy performance and prevention of damage to the environment, within economic boundaries.

New restorative standards such as the Living Building Challenge and WELL Building Standard are, foremost, philosophies based on a set of ecological or health values. Secondly, they are advocacy tools for promoting a better way of addressing the design, construction and operation of buildings. Thirdly, they are a building certification or recognition-of-achievement scheme.

However, it is the purpose of these certification schemes not only to set best practices for design, construction and operation but to go beyond current best practices and establish a vision for sustainable buildings based on what is required — with required practice then measured against that vision.

When an internet search across numerous building sustainability standards is collated into a common set of aims and purpose, interesting drivers are revealed:

  • To establish a consistent standard against which sustainable building design, construction and operation can be measured
  • To establish a best practice for environmental protection coupled with economic and social development
  • To provide inspiration and aspiration to improve, reaching higher standard levels than the standard set
  • To enable the prediction, measurement and maintenance of buildings’ sustainable performance
  • To give confidence to a building’s investors, owner and users that an agreed level of sustainable quality has been achieved
  • To provide a standard to match building owners’ and occupiers’ green aspirations and values
  • To reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ecological impact, and to safeguard human health and well-being through building design, construction and operation

Yet, if we apply the restorative sustainability that lies at the core of this book to these aims, we find the following imperatives:

  • Just being less bad is no longer enough — A sustainability standard should aspire and inspire and then only reward and certify buildings that return more to the environment, nature and society than the construction and performance of the building take from the environment. Any performance gap between what is required and what is achieved must be positive: not just "close" and better than zero. Anything less puts the standards into the accommodationist’s light green box of doing the minimum possible.
  • Best practice is no longer enough — Sustainability standards should establish that which is required, not just incrementally improve good practice. They should challenge and inspire practitioners on the direction of travel required.

Beyond existing standards

The established sustainability certification standards may have served us well in advancing sustainability to where we are today. Or, they may have hampered progress, and not taken us far enough or fast enough. Either way, they need to be challenged by a new breed of standards based on restorative or regenerative sustainability.

We need to flip the industry to more good thinking, through the influence of certification standards. From the climate change scientists’ predictions, and in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement to cap carbon emissions and limit global temperature increases at 1.5 degrees Celsius, we do not have the luxury of time to do otherwise. Similarly, based on the predictions of climate change economists such as Lord Stern, the costs of addressing climate change will increase the longer we defer real action. We have to act now: We cannot afford not to do so.

Consequently, we need to stop regarding green buildings as a benefit that we should be proud of. They should be seen as the norm; the way we build. Indeed, as a sector we should feel guilty about not using our skills and expertise to create green buildings for us and future generations. That we remain content to commission, design, build and operate buildings below this sustainability threshold reinforces the argument that the built environment sector is one of low aspiration.

The expression "restorative sustainability" has been adopted throughout this book as representing the next, necessary step forward from the sustainability thinking currently prevalent in construction, enabling the emergence of a future level — that of "regenerative sustainability."


Backcasting from a future vision

Reviewing the Living Building Challenge in her Elemental blog and in an article for Building in 2012, Mel Starrs highlighted "backcasting," which she defined as "envisioning the end result wanted and then mapping out a path to getting there, rather than focusing on making current practices a little less harmful."

Today, we find it increasingly difficult — intellectually, politically, economically and technically – to envision the future we really hope for. Faced with this difficulty, perhaps through too much choice, we lower our aspirations, content merely to incrementally decrease impact, rather than working towards a future where all benefit.

Built environment efforts need to become more responsible in addressing worsening trends relating to health issues, social inequity and environmental damage. The new standards give these elements equal or higher priority to energy and resource management.

Consider the absoluteness of the Living Building Challenge. While different certifications are available, it is a case of fully meeting the imperatives. In the case of energy performance, for example, this means demonstrating achievement design intent over a 12-month period. There is no scoring system, making the Living Building Challenge a clean, easily understood approach.

Built environment clients in the United Kingdom need to be aware of alternatives to the BREEAM family of accreditations — alternatives that may align more closely with their green, sustainability and corporate responsibility values. There is, however, a default expectation towards BREEAM, and an assumption that if we are not pro-BREEAM then we are somehow unsustainable.

Working within the spirit of BREEAM, an increasingly common requirement from clients, is seen by the contracting sector as transferring the responsibility and cost of achieving the standard. This should be a good move, embedding sustainability into construction practice without "just" chasing certification. Unfortunately, this also has given many contractors the opportunity to do nothing beyond the minimum required.

Existing standards may not as yet have moved the needle on the contracting side of the industry. Indeed, they actually may have hindered progress, relegating sustainability to tick-box accommodationist thinking, without conveying information about the wider climate change or carbon rationales for sustainability in the first instance. It is encouraging to note that services such as the Supply Chain Sustainability School, whose aim is to raise awareness of these issues throughout the industry, are addressing the wider climate change and sustainability principles.

What we should expect from future standards

Traditional sustainability standards, and to some degree the newer standards, are built upon the thinking shaped by the 1987 Brundtland definition for sustainable development — the principle of doing nothing today to compromise tomorrow’s generation. However, the sustainability world has changed and, as we have seen in 2015, the U.N. Sustainability Development Goals set out a far more proactive and ambitious approach.

If we in the built environment sector are serious about sustainability, then we have to embrace these 17 goals, and that means revisiting and revising our thinking so that our standards become a responsible driver and influencer for a future that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative. 

Given the urgency in transforming our built environment to address climate change, and to acknowledge the influence and leverage the sector has on other aspects of business and society, there is a need for sharing success. 

A collaborative future?

The future of sustainability standards eventually will follow other sector-disruptive developments in moving to an interoperable, open-sourced approach. We are not far from the era of dovetailed standards, where clients and others will assemble a certification standard best suited to meet their values, requirements and sustainability aspirations, instead of being pressed into choosing between existing standards and having multiple costly and often conflicting standard applications.

We are already seeing collaborative thinking between LEED and the Living Building Challenge in the United States, where the Living Building energy, water and material requirements are recognized for certification points by LEED. In addition, the LEED v.4 Materials Requirement is closely aligned with the Living Building Challenge Red List, Pharos and Healthy Product Declaration thinking.

In a recent blog post, John Elkington articulated what many may be wondering: Can we "Uber-ize" sustainability? The answer is yes, and the day soon will be here when fresh-thinking, digitally enabled, lean startup organizations, unfettered by the "traditional" way we have always done things, will offer alternative sustainability certification and recognition services that are tailored to the ever more complex needs of organizations. 

Portico — a Google construction portal for its own building projects, which focuses on healthy materials — is an example of a major, influential organization developing its own project standards and certifications. "Constructing buildings isn’t our core business," Google notes on its Portico support pages, "but creating work environments that inspire and energize our people is a major goal. The result: healthy Google buildings for healthy Google people." 

This will, of course, disrupt and challenge the audit and assessment rules and criteria of established standards, in much the same way Uber has with taxi services, and that PayPal, Amazon, Google and others have disrupted other industry sectors.

But it is a disruption that is necessary. And in many ways the scene is set, with the digitalization of design, construction and operation through Building Information Management approaches, the increase in smart, Internet of Things technologies in buildings, the popularity of the LEED Dynamic Plaque and other real-time sustainability monitors. All of which have the potential, individually or more rapidly through converging, to disrupt sustainability standards.