To assess the quality of the home you are about to build or buy, energy isn’t the only thing to consider. There’s also the quality of materials, water usage, minimising waste, how the location will impact on the greater environment (including frequency of use of your car), and how the house will affect your health and well-being. Xavier Dubuisson looks at international certification schemes that take into account these additional points and provides some guidance on how they could be used effectively in Ireland.

When you buy a can of organic baked beans at the supermarket, it tells you where it’s made, its sell-by date, ingredients, salt content, etc. Importantly, it also has a little logo that demonstrates its organic agriculture credentials through certification by a national or international accreditation body. Why then shouldn’t you get the same level of information about quality and sustainability, verified by an independent party, when you are buying a house?

Building Environmental Assessment Methods (BEAMs) do just that. BEAMS are voluntary rating and labelling schemes which assess the environmental performance of buildings, yet, while BEAMs are gaining traction worldwide, the Irish market has shown little interest to date. That may be about to change as a greater awareness of sustainability issues other than energy are taking hold, especially with water charges being phased in in ROI (likely to be introduced in NI too). The definition of a ‘green, low impact building’ goes beyond energy, which is where BEAMs surpass other energy-focused schemes such as passive house or the statutory SAP (NI) and DEAP (ROI).

Why BEAMs are going further than Building Regulations
Traditionally, legislation was seen as the most appropriate way of addressing environmental concerns. In the built environment, Building Regulations set minimum standards for energy and greenhouse emissions (Part L in ROI, Technical Booklet F1 in NI), ventilation (Part F in ROI, Technical Booklet K in NI), etc. So why do we need BEAMs?

The regulatory framework tends to look at issues in isolation and doesn’t adequately cover other key environmental aspects such as water usage, waste, air pollution, etc. Also, regulations tend to take a narrow view of the building within its boundaries without considering the broader environmental picture, for example the impact of location and transportation on energy use, or the impact of the building on its site’s ecosystem. In addition, a lax Building Control regime in ROI (which is in the process of changing, see page 34) hasn’t been conducive to compliance with the regulatory framework.

The establishment of BEAMs comes from the realisation that building environmental impacts need to be considered in a holistic manner and tackled through an integrated process from design, construction, operation, all the way through to maintenance. The Code for Sustainable Homes (a variant of the UK’s BREEAM for houses), LEED for Homes (introduced in the USA in 2000), as well as other schemes such as the Living Building Challenge, are now used globally to specify, predict and measure environmental performance in buildings. Most of them are voluntary and have emerged from innovative, cooperative agreements between the construction sector, regulatory bodies and developers.

Is an energy efficient house not sustainable enough?
Reducing energy usage in buildings and houses in particular is at the core of national and European policy when it comes to tackling climate change and energy security. Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from home heating and electricity usage accounted for close to 20% of all emissions in 2012 in ROI and 22.3% in NI for the same year.

The Building Energy Rating (BER) in ROI and the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) in NI were introduced to allow house buyers or tenants to make informed decisions in relation to the energy performance of their future home. It labels the building’s energy efficiency as it would a washing machine – the ‘A’ category being the best, ‘G’ the worst. Being mandatory on all new builds and houses for sale or rent, BERs and EPCs are also about encouraging developers to build energy-efficient homes with the promise of a distinct market advantage as homebuyers are increasingly concerned about energy costs. The fact that a BER or EPC provides third-party verification of the energy performance of a given property by an independent, qualified assessor is central to its value in the market place.

As seen above, in terms of energy performance, you must – as a minimum – pass the building regulations standards as calculated in the SAP software (NI) or DEAP software (ROI). The BER/EPC is also generated from these calculations.

You could go a step further and get your house certified as a Passive House, (new build or renovation), which is a popular route nowadays. You will need to go through an organisation accredited by the PassivHaus Institut in Germany and the design will have to meet defined criteria (space heating requirement ≤15 kWh/sqm.yr; primary energy requirement ≤120 kWh/sqm.yr; airtightness ≤0.6 air change/hour). The certification is based on an assessment by the accredited certifier of the design calculations (as inputted in the PHPP software), planning and construction drawings, airtightness tests and ventilation system commissioning report, declaration by builder and photographic evidence. According to the Passive House Institute database, a total of 23 residential buildings have been Passive House-certified in ROI and 4 in NI. The cost of certification is approximately €2,000/£1,500 for a detached family house.

While BERs/EPCs, Passive House certification and other equivalent energy-based certification schemes are useful as third-party verification and labelling, they only deal with one, albeit important, aspect of a house’s environmental impact. BEAMs cover a much wider range of performance indicators including health and well-being, lifecycle costs, construction quality, location and transport and environmental impact.