Edie interview: Does the building world need a standard green standard?

Benchmarks against which to measure how green a building might be are not a new idea, but until now nobody has tried to establish a global standard which allows consumers to compare the impact of developments around the globe on a like-for-like basis. Sam Bond speaks to Colin Barrett-Treen, managing director of Green Horizons.

His company has established a set of criteria against which any property can be rated, in an attempt to offer ethical investors and consumers a reliable way to cut through the greenwash and judge a building's true environmental credentials.

edie: What are the criteria that projects are judged on, how were they decided and how did you set the levels for the different standards?

Green Horizons is the environmentally friendly division of Blue Horizons Overseas Property Network, a company which was launched by myself and my wife four years ago. We decided in the summer of 2007 that we wanted to do something that would potentially make a real difference to the way that property developers around the world view the concept of building "Green" properties.

We wanted to change perceptions, and as a result encourage more and more developers to produce real estate developments with a commitment to sustainability. We had already identified, by looking at independent research and by conducting our own, that the buying public would definitely choose to buy "green" properties, if only they were given the choice. This is obviously of immense importance when attempting to convince constructors to build with an environmental responsibility.

Once we had our goals set, the next challenge was to identify those property developments worldwide that were already being built in an environmentally friendly way.

Our intention being to present these properties to potential buyers in order to confirm our research and thereby encourage further developers to change their building processes and be more sustainable. This is where we hit our first obstacle.

As you are aware, there are many different national standards in the world, all of which creating their own accreditations for buildings in their own geographical locale. The problem is, when you are dealing with people who are buying and selling across national and continental borders, it is impossible to determine how one property development compares to another if they are in different countries.

This is even more of a problem as there are often different systems operating in the same country, for example LEED & Florida Green Home (to name just 2) in the USA.

So, after much head scratching, we decided that if there wasn't an international standard in place already, we would have to create one.

This we did, taking our lead from a few of the existing systems available worldwide, including notably the LEED from the USGBC which we regard as one of the most thorough systems available. We also consulted with The Carbon Trust and The Carbon Neutral Company before deciding on the format and content of our rating system.

Once we had completed the system (a copy of which is attached) we had it checked by a firm of sustainable architecture consultants (Faber Maunsell) to ensure that it was thorough, clear and robust enough to be a credible system in the market place.

As you will see, essentially the rating system works on the basis of our developer clients working through the rating criteria, and then applying for a rating based on the various "credits" that they qualify for in the four sections 1. Site Sustainability, 2. Efficient Use of Water, 3. Energy Efficiency and 4. Resources. The value of the credits is then totalled, which will qualify the development for a rating on a sliding scale from Bronze through to Platinum.

edie: How will this standard differ from/compare/compete with established national standards such as BREEAM in the UK and LEED in the USA?

The standard will differ in various ways;

1. It is an international standard, allowing purchasers to compare the relative merits of properties across the globe
2. Because developers in the international property marketplace sell their properties widely off plan and during the course of construction, many of the existing national standards present some problems for them, because in order to achieve the standards your building has to be complete and retrospectively assessed. With our system, we are able to grant the award based on a declaration from the project architect, confirming which credits the project qualifies for in the master plan and then obligating themselves to advise us if anything changes between the date of declaration and the build completion which would affect the rating, whether that be up or down.
3. The national standards are steeped in their own "local" legislation, terminology and beaurocracy. The GREEN Building Standard is worded to offer clear guidelines to developers around the world, for whom English is often a second language, to enable them to make a real commitment towards sustainable development.

edie: As a private company, one of the biggest challenges you face is likely to be convincing potential customers, and their clients, to trust your standard and its credibility. How are you going to go about this? I ask this because in the carbon offsetting market, for example, there is a lot of unregulated trade which can lead to a lack of consumer confidence.

I absolutely appreciate what you are saying here, and it is something we are very conscious of.

I believe in the saying that "actions speak louder than words", and in the case of a private business offering what we hope will become the natural standard for comparing "green" buildings worldwide, our actions have to be completely open and transparent.

Therefore, we make it completely clear to potential purchasers how we have arrived at a rating on each property by publishing a copy of the Architects certification, along with a copy of our rating criteria on our website for each property listed.

Let us be clear, anyone who examines our system will soon realise the care and attention we have given it to make it robust and credible. By publishing the Architects certification letter, we are committing to openness about how we arrive at our awards.

You also mention Carbon Offsets, which is very relevant here. We have chosen to work with the Carbon Neutral Company to provide services to our clients who wish to offset their carbon emissions. The reason we selected the Carbon Neutral Company is because they subject themselves to independent audit on their systems every year to ensure that they offer proper advice and full value in their offset schemes.

In short, we will be judged in the end by what we do and the way we behave. I have no fears that people will appreciate the full value and credibility of our scheme as it evolves.

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