Understanding green building certifications: why should you get one?

Posted on: 8 January, 2024

More and more developers, businesses and homeowners are pursuing sustainability certification for their buildings, but is it actually worth it?

The buildings our sector creates are at the centre of the global push for sustainability. Whether it’s through embodied emissions generated in the construction lifecycle or operational emissions once a development is in use, the built environment is having a significant impact on the climate crisis.

However, demand for new infrastructure is continuing to rise, in line with an expanding population. Three-quarters of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 has yet to be built, meaning we need to work hard to adopt sustainable alternatives and approaches to the construction process if we want to achieve net zero in our sector.

Progress is being made. Innovations in the sector like lean construction, prefabrication and retrofitting are helping to address the environmental impacts of the construction industry, but more needs to be done.

In an effort to promote sustainable building practices and improve our sector’s alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations, various countries across the world have established green building certifications. But what exactly are they? What different certifications are available? And are they even worth pursuing?

What is a green building certification?

Green building certifications are used to review and assess a project or development’s environmental and sustainability performance. They usually come in the form of rating systems or tools.

These certifications are not a new concept, having first been established in the 1980s, but their popularity has grown amid the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies and initiatives.

Learn more: A guide to ESG: what is it and why does it matter?

Why get a green building certification?

There are a number of benefits for organisations and site owners that receive green certification, including:

1. Reduction in environmental impact

As previously discussed, the built environment – from construction to operation – is a significant contributor to global emissions. With increasing demands and tighter legislation being placed on construction firms to become more sustainable, green-certified projects will ultimately have less impact on the environment. From an operational perspective, this will help businesses in their pursuit of ESG goals and boost the perception of a brand/company among potential customers.

2. Visibility for brands engaging in sustainability

Sustainability is a commercial movement as much as it is an environmental one. Today’s consumers and employees care about sustainability – if you’re a business, you can’t afford to not be seen taking action, especially when competitors in the marketplace may already be ahead of you.

Pursuing green certification for a construction project or existing structure is an effective way to demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to sustainability, whether that’s to stakeholders, customers, employees, or potential occupants.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

3. Increase in property value, rent prices and lease rates

Buildings with green certifications are in high demand. According to research by JLL, developments with Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) certification had a 20.6% higher capital value on average than their counterparts. This in turn can help property owners charge higher lease rates and, when it comes to making a sale, command higher prices.

Learn more: Green leases, defined: how can they improve sustainability in real estate?

Incorporating sustainability through practices like biophilic design can also have health and well-being impacts for tenants and property users, further increasing the value of developments with green certifications.

4. Operation and maintenance cost savings

Many green building certifications look at a project’s operational emissions as well as its embodied carbon footprint, meaning it will be assessed for things like energy consumption and water usage. For business owners, this means that green-certified projects will be cheaper to both run and maintain, as in order to attain certification, they’ll need to be more efficient.

Receiving a green building certification will, of course, likely require more costs upfront as the eco-friendly fittings and optimisations needed are often more expensive. However, in the long term, there’s a good chance building owners and businesses that make this investment will see returns.

5. Tax incentives

Along with potential cost and energy savings through improved and optimised efficiency, construction firms, business owners and homeowners could receive tax incentives to help them with the initial higher costs of green construction.

In the US, there are several tax incentives offered by federal, state and local governments, such as Section 45L and Section 179D. Meanwhile, pushback from Italy against the EU Green Buildings Pact has prompted conversations in Europe around the scaling up of green subsidies to help ease the costs of the transition to green building.

What are some examples of green building certification systems?

There are a wide range of green building standards available across the globe, with many levels of certification that complement one another in recognising the sustainable qualities of new or existing developments. Below are some of the most prominent and widely adopted:

1. BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)

BREEAM is a globally recognised green certification that was established in 1990 and is suitable for both new developments and refurbishments. It rewards developments with a star rating and assesses the sustainability and environmental performance of infrastructure against ten different performance categories, each with their own benchmarks and targets:

  • Energy
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Human health and wellbeing
  • Land use
  • Materials
  • Management
  • Pollution
  • Transport
  • Innovation

2. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

Developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED is similar to BREEAM and is applicable to multiple building types, including new developments and retrofits. LEED-certified buildings have been assessed against specific criteria, such as energy and water efficiency and emission reduction. It’s the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

3. Energy Star

The Energy Star program is run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and designed to complement other certifications, rather than replace them. The focus of Energy Star, as the name suggests, is on energy efficiency rather than whether a development is ‘green’, with all construction projects compared against the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code. Structures with Energy Star certification have been independently verified to perform 75% better than similar developments in the US, use 35% less energy, and produce 35% less greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Green Globes

The Green Globes certification is a sustainable building certification administered by the Green Building Initiative (GBI). This rating and certification system covers new building projects as well as refurbishments and existing structures across environmental sustainability, health and wellness and resilience. While it has been accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), it’s available worldwide.

5. National Green Building Standard

The National Green Building Standard (NGBS) is a sustainable building rating and certification system specifically designed for homes and apartments. It’s another environmental standard that has been approved by ANSI and acts as a guideline for sustainable construction and renovation by assessing:

  • Energy, water and resource efficiency
  • Operation and maintenance
  • Indoor environmental quality (e.g. air flow)
  • Lot development

6. Living Building Challenge

The Living Building Challenge requires a building to have been operational for at least a year before it can be certified. With an emphasis on people and whether a building has a positive impact on the environment, this certification has seven performance areas against which developments are assessed:

  • Site
  • Materials
  • Energy
  • Water conservation
  • Human health and happiness
  • Equity
  • Beauty

7. Green Star

Green Star is an Australian Green Building Rating System managed by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA). To achieve the Green Star standard, projects are assessed against the ISO 9001:2015 and receive third-party assessment. As with BREEAM, the performance of buildings results in a 1-6 star rating as part of certification.

8. Passive House Certification

Also referred to as the Passivehaus Standard, this certification focuses on preparing new and existing buildings for the net zero future. Though similar assessment themes to the other certifications listed, achieving this standard requires buildings to have very high levels of insulation, insulated windows, airtight fabric and concrete free of thermal bridging, among other energy-efficient optimisations.

9. WELL Being Standard

The WELL Being standard is an internationally recognised system that focuses on the relationship sustainable buildings have with health and wellbeing. It assesses the impact of buildings against 10 factors:

  • Air quality
  • Light
  • Sound
  • Water
  • Materials
  • Thermal comfort
  • Movement
  • Nourishment
  • Mind
  • Community

10. Fitwel Standard

Another certification that emphasises health and wellbeing, Fitwel is most suitable for retail, multifamily residential and commercial buildings. This standard seeks to improve occupier engagement and the user experience of buildings, and, as with BREEAM and Green Star, includes a star rating system.

Like other certifications on this list, Fitwel covers categories such as water supply, indoor environment and location, but also includes human-centric features such as vending capabilities, cafeterias and emergency preparedness.

Are green building certificates worth the effort?

While there are numerous benefits of attaining accreditation, these programs aren’t without their potential drawbacks, including:

  • Significant additional costs for certification fees, third-party inspection, document submission and other expenses
  • More costly materials and design features that may be difficult to mitigate depending on the type of project
  • Not all certifications factor in pre-operational emissions before a project is built, meaning they don’t truly reflect its sustainability credentials and performance

Learn more: It’s not easy, being green – are green building certifications just greenwash?

Whether a green building certificate is suitable for a business, property or homeowner ultimately depends upon the type of property and their long-term vision. Pursuing green certification can increase the value of a project, reduce maintenance costs and support brand reputation, but its impact in these areas could be limited by the type of certification selected.