US Land Port of Entry, Van Buren, Maine. Credit: Paul Warchol Photography

+ Sustainability standards have proliferated since the 1990s – each one targets a different set of measures.

Sustainability became a key built environment aspiration in the mid-90s and the market quickly developed volunteer-led standards, including BREEAM and LEED. But the industry’s view of sustainability has changed since then. Environmental impact is now better understood and so ambitions have grown to encompass not just many more aspects of environmental sustainability but also harder-to-measure issues such as health and human wellbeing. 

Following the success of rating systems like LEED, a plethora of new systems has now arisen – each developed to drive a specific agenda or to set higher aspirations. It’s my view that we should embrace the newcomers where their particular agendas drive the best positive performance for our projects.

The existing rating systems have been enormously successful. LEED, in particular, is used all over the world and has become a marker of building quality. All the existing rating systems require a well-rounded approach to environmental sustainability including minimum standards for water use, energy use, indoor environmental quality, material use and site development. 

With success comes conflict: the certification must be achievable and affordable to the majority of the market, but it must also drive innovation and exemplary performance. Rating systems manage this by awarding certifications at different levels. BREEAM ratings, for example, range from ‘Pass’ to ‘Outstanding’ while LEED runs from ‘Certified’ to ‘Platinum’. The highest levels are intentionally hard to achieve and challenge even the best design teams to re-think their assumptions and find new solutions.

The new rating systems do this too, in different ways. The Living Building Challenge pushes for ‘regenerative’ outcomes, sometimes in only one area, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the built environment has a positive net impact. The WELL building standard focuses on human health and how buildings influence this, while the International Finance Corporation's EDGE aims to raise standards quickly and affordably with a focus on developing countries. Each system drives a specific agenda or sets a much higher aspiration. I think we should welcome this where that agenda pushes us to design buildings that produce the best possible performance.

Is this fragmentation damaging or helpful? What’s the best way for us to build on our platform of sustainability achievements? Do we need to have just one system? I’d like to hear your views.