For those of you looking to get a certification for your buildings and understand why certifications are important this article is for you. We go into detail about applications, costings, and what the various types of certifications are all about. For the rest of you, this will probably bore you to tears, so feel free to click onto the next LinkedIn article.
ESG is emerging as one of the most vital parts of securing funding and investment within the real estate sector. As more focus is placed on the sustainability of new and existing developments, there is a far greater pressure to be able to measure and prove that your building isn’t having a negative impact on the climate.
One of the leading ways to combat this pressure is achieving a building certification. Building certification organisations provide third-party verification of the energy usage, employee satisfaction, and general ‘wellness’ of a building.
There are a wealth of certification bodies, but there are currently three forerunners in the industry that are well established and widely used: LEED, WELL, and BREEAM.
But what are building certifications all about? How does a building apply, what are the parameters and, perhaps most importantly, what are the benefits?
Formed in 1993, and launched publicly in 2000, LEED is one of the most prominent building certification companies. Projects that go through the LEED certification process earn points by adhering to prerequisites on a variety of sustainability and employee well-being topics. LEED takes a holistic approach, looking at a wide range of topics. The majority of the marks, however, come from topics related to climate change (35%) and human health impacts (20%).
What Do They Offer?
LEED offers a number of certifications for different projects: Building Design and Construction (BD+C), Interior Design and Construction (ID+C), and Building Operations and Management (O+M) for commercial projects; Neighbourhood Developments (ND); Cities and Communities; and Residential certifications. For each of these certifications, there are different margins for points based on the requirements of the project, so it’s important to make sure you’re seeking the correct certification for your development.
LEED offers four different thresholds of certification: certified (40-49 points), silver (50-59 points), gold (60-79 points), and platinum (80+ points). Each project is verified by the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), and the majority of credits awarded are linked to embodied or operational carbon.
How Do I Apply?
Applying for a LEED certification is relatively easy, and the method is similar for whatever development you’re applying with. The first step is registration, wherein you need to fill out key forms that measure your applicability against several minimum characteristics (these range from complying with size requirements and environmental laws, among others).
As part of registration payment also needs to be submitted, generally within the $1500 range for non-LEED members and $1200 for those already holding a silver, gold, or platinum certification. Once registration is complete further fees apply, covering aspects such as pre-certification or review. A more in-depth look into the application fees can be found on LEED’s website.
After registration, it’s time to actually apply for the LEED certification. This is done through submitting a completed certification application and paying a certification review fee. To complete this application, LEED credits need to be identified and assigned to team members, who will then collect information in accordance to the credit requirements. This information needs to be documented and labelled in detail.
Once your application is sent through, it’s reviewed by the GBCI, who then replies within 20-25 business days with a report awarding or denying credits.
Once the report is returned, you will know if you have received LEED certification, and to what level it reaches. Supplemental reviews can also be submitted if you are unsatisfied with your result and want to amend any information in your application, although fees do apply.
What Am I Judged On?
So what are LEED credits exactly?
According to the project you are applying for, credits are separated into nine categories: Integrative Process, Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority. Within these are various sub-categories, some which are required for certification and some which contain optional credits awarding a number of points.
For example, for a LEED BD+C certification, in the Energy and Atmosphere category, there are prerequisites such as Minimum Energy Performance and Building-Level Energy Metering. These must fit the specified requirements in order to achieve a certification. Then there are sub-categories such as Optimise Energy Performance, in which 18 additional points are up for grabs.
For a deeper look into LEED credits, have a look at their website.
How Does A LEED Certification Benefit Me?
The big question is: why should you choose LEED to certify your building?
According to LEED, buildings under their certification save money, have improved efficiency and healthier employee spaces, and have lowered carbon emissions. Not only can LEED help you manage your performance, but having a green building certification can look appealing to investors and consumers, ultimately improving financial performance.
Between 2015 and 2018, LEED-certified buildings were estimated to have saved $1.2 billion in energy savings, with a further $149.5 million in water savings, $715.3 million in maintenance savings, and $54.2 million in waste savings.
LEED stands for accountability and, as they state on their website:
“Being “built to LEED” or “LEED equivalency” doesn’t exist—there is no substitute for LEED certification.”
Launched by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) in 2014, WELL certified buildings currently hold over 3 billion square feet of space in 98 countries. Over 500,000 people participate in WELL programmes that offer robust, verifiable, and evidence based certifications.
What Do They Offer?
With 110 potential points up for grabs, WELL offers four levels of certification: bronze (40-49 points), silver (50-59 points), gold (60-79 points), and platinum (80+ points).
When applying for WELL, there are two overarching project groups. There’s Owner-Occupied, which is designed for projects that are owned or leased by the project owner, with regular occupants being affiliated with the owner. Then there’s WELL Core, which is a distinct pathway for core and shell buildings looking to implement fundamental features.
Within WELL Core, there are various applicability designations. WELL Core applicants can choose where their upcoming certification will be relevant. Examples of these are whether the certification encompasses the whole building vs. the extent of developer buildout, or whether the certification should be tailored to their building management staff vs. direct staff.
WELL also offers the opportunity to become a WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP), a credential which demonstrates expertise in the WELL building standard. WELL AP exams are currently at a discounted price of $299, but students can take the exam for only $99.
How Do I Apply?
To register for a WELL building certification, projects must first choose whether they want to sign up for a single-cycle certification or a three or five year subscription. After making that choice, basic information about the project and its scope needs to be submitted. Project measurements must be taken within a certain timeframe, typically five years.
After submitting the proper documentation, projects are assigned a WELL Reviewer, a third-party individual who is responsible for reviewing your project for certification.
Pricing for a WELL building certification varies depending on the size of your project, and whether you’re an Owner-Occupied or WELL Core project. After paying an enrollment fee of $2500, Owner-Occupied projects are $0.16 per square foot and WELL Core projects are $0.08 per square foot. On-site performance testing starts at $6500.
What Am I Judged On?
WELL has 10 concepts of certification: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Materials, Mind, Community, and Innovation.
Within each of these are several sub-concepts, some of which are required for a certification, and others which offer additional credits (usually within the 1-3 point range). For example, under the Air concept there are 14 requirements. Requirement A01 is in regards to air quality, wherein buildings have to meet and document certain thresholds for airborne substances such as particulate matter, organic gases, inorganic gases, and radon. These parameters are non-negotiable and must be met to achieve a WELL certification. A014, on the other hand, which outlines implementing ultraviolet treatment for HVAC surfaces to control mould and microbes, is an optional credit worth one point.
Here’s another example: within the Materials concept there are 3 obligatory foundational requirements, each of which deal with management and restrictions of hazardous materials such as lead, asbestos, and mercury. However, WELL applicants can optimise their material management through a number of optional credits. These include VOC restrictions (4 points total), implementing a waste management plan (1 point), or improving cleaning practices and products (2 points total), among others.
WELL’s vast amounts of varying credit opportunities offer buildings looking for a green and wellness certification flexibility in choosing which credits are suitable to them. This makes WELL an attractive method of certification, particularly if you’re just starting out on your sustainability journey.
For a deeper look into WELL’s credit system, look at their website.
How Does A WELL Certification Benefit Me?
Apart from WELL’s extensive portfolio of clients, as mentioned previously, what buildings can gain from a WELL building certification is incredibly multi-faceted. WELL not only looks at a building’s environmental data and carbon output, but there is a strong focus on employee health and wellness at the heart of a WELL certification. Improving employee wellness – whether through environmental means such as ambient light and air quality or more holistic means such as activity facilities and connection to community – can have a huge impact on employee attraction and retention. WELL can help you monitor these aspects of your building, to create a healthier environment.
Engineering consultancy Cundall’s London office was the first WELL Gold certified building in Europe and saw a 27% drop in staff turnover and a 50% drop in absenteeism, making up the initial (approximately) $80,000 cost of certification in one year.
WELL also offers a database (of sorts) of certified buildings, with case studies for each with varying levels of information. Users can organise the database by certification level, project type, sector, and location to see what buildings and developments have found success with a WELL certification. Have a look at the database here.
Rounding out the big three in building certifications is the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, commonly known as BREEAM. First launched in 1990, BREEAM boasts over 550,000 certified buildings across 50 countries. They provide independent third-party verification for the sustainability performance for buildings, communities, and infrastructure projects.
What Do They Offer?
BREEAM offers six levels of performance rating, each indicated with a corresponding number of stars. From levels 1-6 there is: Unclassified (less than 30 points), Pass (30-44 points), Good (45-54 points), Very Good (55-69 points), Excellent (70-84 points), and Outstanding (85+ points).
The standards your project is judged against vary depending on two factors: your location and what type of project it is.
In terms of location, there are standards specifically designed for the following countries: the UK, the USA, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. All other countries fit under a separate combined category of standards.
Aside from location, projects are divided into different types. There are Communities – for large scale development plans; Infrastructure – for civil engineering and projects within the public realm; New Construction; In-Use; and Refurbishment or Fit-Out. Correctly identifying which standard your project falls under is essential to make sure you’re working towards the certification that is best suited for you. A more in depth look at the various standard categories can be found on BREEAM’s website.
How Do I Apply?
After deciding on which BREEAM standard is applicable to your project, a BREEAM appointed assessor will be assigned to your building. With the guidance of the assessor, you then need to carry out pre-assessments, before moving on to the official assessments. The progress information of these is given to your assessor, who then completes a review and decides on a compliance level. Then, the assessment is submitted to the certification body and, if successful, a BREEAM level is awarded.
For business or building owners who want to use a standard design across several projects, BREEAM offers something called Pre-Approval, wherein a client can have one assessment that then applies across multiple developments. A BREEAM assessor will determine if a client is suitable for Pre-Approval, and credits can then be awarded which can be used in up to 100 future BREEAM assessments. More on Pre-Approval can be found on BREEAM’s website.
There are different prices for the various steps of the BREEAM application process. First, £500 per asset for a Performance Measurement Credit is needed for registration. After that, initial certification is split into three parts: Asset Performance, Management Performance, and Occupier Management, each part costing £350 per asset for a one year certification and £800 per asset for a three year one. For renewals, one year certifications cost £95 per asset to renew annually. For those who have three year certifications, mid-cycle certifications can be carried out for £250 per asset if there are any new changes to your project that you wish to add. Any changes to the certificate after the fact will cost £145 per amendment.
For a more detailed look at the cost of BREEAM, have a look at their 2021 fee sheet.
What Am I Judged On?
There are 10 categories on which a BREEAM applicant is judged. These are: Energy, Health & Well-Being, Innovation, Land Use, Materials, Management, Pollution, Transport, Waste, and Water.
When exploring the technical standards for BREEAM certifications, website users are prompted to select their location and standard before getting access to the nitty-gritty so, as mentioned previously, knowing exactly what your project is and requires is vital.
Within each of the 10 categories there are various subcategories, each awarding a certain number of credits. Some of these subcategories are prerequisites and have to be fulfilled to be awarded a certification. So let’s have a breakdown of a specific example: the technical standards of a UK non-residential building.
For the category of Management, there are 5 subcategories. One of these, Man 03, is Responsible Construction Practices, in which there are 6 available credits. In order to achieve these credits, projects have to use legally harvested and traded timber as a prerequisite. Alongside this precondition, projects can receive credits by incorporating an Environmental Management System (EMS), implementing pollution prevention policies, and monitoring and documenting site energy consumption, among other requirements.
For a more detailed look into the technical standards of BREEAM certifications, applicants can sign in to the website to download various documents outlining the way projects can earn credits.
How Does A BREEAM Certification Benefit Me?
BREEAM is extremely well established, having been around since 1990, and therefore buildings undergoing BREEAM certification can be ensured of a trusted, third-party verified certification process.
Besides this, there are a number of business benefits for choosing BREEAM as the certifier of your development. For example, BREEAM certification makes buildings more attractive to investors and tenants. In a study by UKGBC highlighting the 101 property assets in the portfolio of commercial property company Landsec, BREEAM certified assets at the Excellent level outperformed non-certified assets by over 100% in rental performance.
There are also considerable savings to be had when building to BREEAM standards and gaining certification. One particular development, the Co-Operative Group’s project in Manchester’s One Angel Square, stated that they aimed to save 40-60% of their current energy costs by using BREEAM standards.
Resource papers on the value of BREEAM certifications can be found on their website.
BREEAM also offers a real-time map, where users can explore thousands of BREEAM certified developments across the globe. For example, in London there are currently 5051 projects that can be explored, ranging from Pass to Outstanding ratings. Users can see their locations and their percentage scores. Having a detailed database gives BREEAM an edge when it comes to deciding on potential certification bodies, as applicants can see the scope of their operation.
Ultimately, there are many benefits to having your building certified by either one of the three main certification bodies. Of course, there is an upfront cost, but the impact far outweighs this cost. However, as ESG and sustainable performance becomes one of the leading components of securing investment and attracting occupiers, the initial costs of these ventures can soon transform into a number of beneficial opportunities. From saving energy costs by cutting down excess waste to creating a safer and more comfortable environment for tenants and employees, having a building certification not only looks good, but really makes a difference.