News Brief

BREEAM USA Jolts Existing Buildings Market

The forebear of all green building rating systems, LEED included, is arriving from the U.K. as an accessible alternative.

The Bloc in downtown Los Angeles will be among the first projects to undertake BREEAM In-Use. The Bloc is undergoing renovation into an open-air urban destination.

Photo courtesy BuildingWise
Before there was LEED, there was BREEAM.

While the LEED rating systems might have more buzz, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology is the world’s oldest and most widely used green building rating system. Created in 1990 by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the U.K., the system is responsible for 544,600 certified projects worldwide, according to BRE. (By comparison, LEED currently has around 75,000 certified projects.)

Now BREEAM is coming to the U.S. through a partnership announced by BRE and BuildingWise, a U.S.-based LEED certification consultancy. A new organization, BREEAM USA, will make the BREEAM In-Use standard available to commercial buildings of any size, age, and condition. The standard offers benchmarking and certification for existing buildings.

BREEAM In-Use available to all commercial buildings

According to BREEAM USA, BREEAM In-Use is an “independent, science-based, and inclusive assessment” that gives building managers and owners a framework for improving their operational sustainability as well as reducing energy and water costs.

Barry Giles, CEO of BuildingWise, will lead BREEAM USA as CEO. Giles told BuildingGreen, BREEAM is “a way for getting in this vast number of existing buildings that don’t have an option for a certification program.” LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EBOM), the best-known certification of its kind, includes a number of prerequisites. Most significantly, the current version of its energy-efficiency prerequisite requires a minimum Energy Star score of 75, which by definition excludes 75% of buildings from LEED eligibility.

Giles—a LEED Fellow who helped launch LEED-EBOM as a founding member of its Core Committee and who actively consults on LEED-EBOM projects—laments the current market response to LEED. Its uptake has been poor, he notes, and with LEED v4 raising the bar, he worries that relief is not in sight. “Even Class A buildings are beginning to reject LEED recertification because of cost, paperwork, and time,” says Giles. (Recertification is required every five years in LEED-EBOM.) “The smaller they are, the harder it is to offer a fiscally sound package to them,” he says. That’s where BREEAM In-Use comes in: for a flat fee, it helps projects benchmark themselves and gives them a road map forward.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), for its part, is investing in its LEED Dynamic Plaque as a magnet for attracting building projects. Responding to the news about BREEAM USA, Scot Horst, chief product officer at USGBC, told Bloomberg news, “We need to keep coming up with innovative ways to get people onto a path to improvement. We see the same need. We just have different approaches.”

It starts with an online questionnaire

Engaging with BREEAM USA will start with an online questionnaire that building owners will pay $1,000 to access for up to a year, says Giles. The questionnaire is in three parts:

  • Part one covers the asset: the building, construction date, materials used, glazing type and percentage, etc. “With that, we’re able to calculate quite well what the energy consumption should be,” says Giles.
  • Part two covers the operations of the building. “Nine-five percent of the questions are associated with production of operational data,” according to Giles.
  • Part three covers the tenants. According to Giles, there is “a series of questions to give themselves a rating on how they deal with the space that they lease, rent, or borrow.”

“If you’re savvy with your building, it’s probably not more than a week in total filling the questionnaire in,” says Giles. That’s not a week in front of the computer; plan on fishing around for some data. You get scored as you go, and each question leads to additional questions that, according to Giles, provide a roadmap to the next level of success. For example, if you answer “yes” to having a water meter, the next question asks whether you have a year’s worth of water bills, and a subsequent question asks about submetering. There are no prerequisites, emphasizes Giles.

That initial score is unverified. The next step, if a building owner wants certification, is to hire an independent third-party assessor licensed by BREEAM USA who will come onsite and verify the data (at a cost based on the assessor’s bid). “The assessor’s job is to assess, not to consult,” notes Giles. Their report is sent to BREEAM USA for quality control, and BREEAM may ask the assessor for follow-up information. If it all passes muster, BREEAM will issue an official certification.

How BREEAM USA scores existing buildings
Along with energy and water, BREEAM covers a total of nine environmental categories, including waste, materials, pollution, health and well-being, land use and ecology, transport, and management.

Fundamentals unchanged from U.K. origins

While Giles has his eye on what he counts as 5.6 million uncertified existing buildings in the U.S., “Our biggest focus is to have well-trained assessors out in the marketplace before having a flood of buildings.” BREEAM USA will offer assessor training starting in October 2016, but it is also starting an “early adopter” program for buildings now.

BREEAM is being Americanized, says Giles, though its fundamentals won’t change, in order to maintain its international relevance. For example, BREEAM USA will align with the data input to the widely used Energy Star Portfolio Manager, but it won’t use the output of that benchmark. European standards are being replaced with American standards (like ASHRAE’s), and some concepts are being explained differently for the American audience.

BREEAM’s rigor has not been compared with that of LEED-EBOM, according to Giles, but he noted the strong desire by BRE and BREEAM USA to bring more data to the marketplace, working with the U.S. Green Building Council and other organizations.

Read more:

More BuildingGreen articles on existing buildings

Six Ways Existing Buildings Can Save the Planet

Design Strategies for Occupant Engagement—and Why They Boost Performance

Published June 10, 2016

Roberts, T. (2016, June 10). BREEAM USA Jolts Existing Buildings Market. Retrieved from

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June 14, 2016 - 3:34 pm

The point above, “Most significantly, the current version of its energy-efficiency prerequisite requires a minimum Energy Star score of 75, which by definition excludes 75% of buildings from LEED eligibility,” implies that there is a limit to the number buildings that can earn Energy Star certification. However, your building's Energy Star score is compared to a modeled building based on the CBECS national energy survey, which is a static data set.  Your building is not at this point being compared to peer buildings that have earned Energy Star certification. Theoretically, if all existing buildings today improve their performance to better than the buildings in the CBECS data set, then they can all get the Energy Star certification.

June 15, 2016 - 4:05 pm

Absolutely a fair point, thank you. I would completely welcome your hypothetical situation where all buildings improve themselves to get Energy Star (and those ineligible for Energy Star certification still use Energy Star Portfolio Manager to benchmark their energy usage).

Since it's a pretty far-off hypothetical, though, I'll stand by the point made in the article, that an Energy Star score of 75 is defined as a building that performs better than 75% of existing buildings. It is well within reach for many buildings to improve themselves to that level or above it, but unfortunately many projects are so far below it that they could use some incentive and recogntion to improve from 25, say, to 50, an achievement that would be a great service to the planet.

Further complicating matters are that the Energy Star scoring algorithim changes periodically and in ways that are not necessarily very clear or transparent, and the underlying CBECS data set, which is currently out of date, is updated periodically.