To certify or not to certify, that is the question?

Apologies, William, I realise this is a gross misuse of your legacy!  However, it is a question that has been preying on my mind.

We seem to find ourselves in a situation where every building in sight has some kind of certification.  Surely this is a good thing?  It gives the man in the street an accessible, simple means to identify which buildings are performing (in the category of your choice) better than others.  They provide some market standardisation across the property market and for occupiers – remember them? – give an independent marker that the building meets their own environmental requirements.  Some of us even hoped that they would lead to segmentation in the market, allowing ‘better’ buildings to attract higher rents, and thus better investment returns. 

So why am I getting uneasy?

 Perhaps I'm just getting cynical in my old age.  However, I suspect that it’s something to do with having spent many of the last 12 years comparing buildings across Europe against each other using my own, internal data rather than someone else’s. Let’s just say the now-infamous energy performance gap extends far beyond just energy and certification seems to have little bearing on the operational performance of the actual building.   We have reached the point where a certificate demonstrating construction best practice is all but mandatory, and the leaders in the market have adopted operational performance certification as well.  But here’s my question: what is the point of these certificates now?

In its infancy, there is no doubt that certification focused attention on development and operational performance in all its meanings.  Now that they are ubiquitous, and national and international building codes have caught up with the race for resource efficiency (watch this particular space following COP21), how is anyone outside of the dark depths of the engineering room supposed to differentiate?

Many of us in the market put hopes on the DEC (Display Energy Certificate) to provide this differentiation, based on actual operational performance but that did not come to pass.  So responsible investors have turned to other frameworks, collaboration (think Better Buildings Partnership) or created their own, internal benchmarking tools to fill the gap.  But where does that leave my poor woman in the street, trying to choose a building to occupy for the next 10-15 years?

In an attempt to answer this question, and ease my unease, I asked myself what advice I would give to a client when choosing a new building to occupy.  Or when trying to ascertain which of their own portfolio of buildings is performing well –or not. In their most basic form, here are some simple considerations we came up with:

  • If you are buying a building: demand the operational performance history as part of the due diligence;
  • If you are developing a building: work with experienced consultants who will agree to work to ambitious operational targets and who want to know what the end result is once everyone on site is long gone to the next project;
  • If you are looking for a new office: press hard for operational performance history (existing building) or targets (new build) and understand what this means for your business operating costs. This is critical to protect the business against rising costs over the term of the lease;
  • If you are managing a portfolio: only your business can decide which criteria is most important for itself. Collaborate across the whole business in order to link operational performance data with investment performance and release often-unexpected insights into the portfolio.

In a way, the certifications are victims of their own success and achieving mid-range levels is now standard practice.  We shall see what effect the revised versions and their more stringent requirements have and whether it will remain the case that only the very top levels, such as LEED Platinum or BREEAM Outstanding, provide a real challenge to excel.

And now I had better get into my (zero carbon) bunker to avoid the rotten tomatoes from the certification bodies.