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Is BREEAM bad for landscape?

BREEAM has been criticised for its simplistic approach to native plants. We look at both sides of the argument, and at some of the other strengths of BREEAM.

Nigel Dunnett

Nigel Dunnett is Professor of planting design and vegetation technology, and director of The Green Roof Centre, University of Sheffield.

BREEAM (the BRE Environmental Assessment Method) as it relates to ecological enhancement of landscape sites has developed into an inflexible scheme that, ironically, does not necessarily lead to the optimal ecological enhancement of a site. The insistence that ‘Only native floral/plant species contributing to a local or UK Biodiversity Action Plan (or as specified by the SQE) can be considered for the purpose of increasing the number of species on site, as well as general enhancement’ is based upon a misguided and very narrow view of ecological systems, and the scope of
this guidance needs to be widened.

The underlying basis for the guidance is based on several flawed notions when applied to urban schemes. Firstly it is generally assumed that native plants are best or better adapted to local climates, soils and geologies than non-native species. But urban environments are highly modified, with a different and more extreme microclimate than the surrounding rural areas, and with highly disturbed and unnatural soils and substrates. The notion that a locally native plant, or a plant which might have been found on the site centuries ago pre-development, is better adapted than a non-native does not hold up to scrutiny – in fact many non-native species will be highly adapted to urban conditions.

Secondly, native plants are proposed to support a wider native fauna than non-native plant species. This again is a generalization that does not hold true. In most cases a strategy to provide for generalists and to support foraging of a wide range of invertebrates, birds and mammals, combined with a targeted approach that provides specific plant species and habitat conditions for named and specific organisms, makes the most sense. Most of our native plant species have finished flowering by the middle of August, and therefore augmenting with selected non-native plants for pollen and nectar is highly beneficial.

Thirdly, non-native species are considered to be highly invasive. Again, this does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. A minute proportion of non-native species that are widely grown in the UK have proved to be problematic. At the same time, many native species are highly invasive: we call them weeds. 

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the very concept of a native plant community in an urban context doesn’t really hold up. The spontaneous ‘natural’ flora of urban brownfields and abandoned sites is in fact highly cosmopolitan and contains both native and non native species, fully adapted to urban conditions. In reality, these communities should be a fruitful source of ‘local plant species’. 

By denying the ecological value of non-native species, BREEAM is simplifying and removing potential diversity from urban developments. I have been involved in several schemes within the last few months where highly innovative and very ecologically positive elements have had to be removed at the insistence of the BREEAM assessor. It is time that a far more flexible and wider definition of ecological benefit is introduced into BREEAM which recognises the ecological benefit of carefully selected non-native species. It is time to recognise that a diversity of approaches has ecological benefit, ranging from the use of local plant communities, through to incorporation of spontaneous cosmopolitan native/non-native urban brownfield communities, through to carefully thought-through schemes that provide ecological enhancement with non-native species in more intensive contexts. Above all, we must recognize that in certain situations, aesthetic considerations need to be integrated with ecological principles so that ecological enhancement credits can be given to a far wider range of schemes, to the benefit of all.

Martin Townsend

Martin Townsend, Director, Building Research Establishment

Many landscape professionals, encountering BREEAM, do so because one of the factors used by the scheme to assess and certify the sustainability of building developments is ‘land use and ecology’.

Among the issues that earn BREEAM credits in this area is ‘enhancing site ecology’, a primary measure of which is the increased number of plant species on a development site. However, the methodology used to award credits under this issue has received some criticism for the way ecological value is determined, and for being too prescriptive in terms of the number and types of plant species required.

We take these comments very seriously because a key factor in the success of BREEAM – the most widely used building sustainability rating scheme in the world – is the continual review and regular revision to which the scheme is subjected. Many of the improvements arising from this process are the result of feedback from BREEAM users.

In recent years BREEAM has moved away from prescriptive guidance to present a more flexible approach focussed on the sustainability improvements achieved rather than the methods of achieving them. But it may be that earlier, more formulaic BREEAM guidance has led to some lingering perceptions about the prescriptive nature of the scheme.

On the issue of enhancing site ecology, for example, credits are available for increasing species numbers with additional credits being awarded on a sliding scale where the increase is up to or greater than six plant species post development. This allows a degree of flexibility for the ecologist to base recommendations on the local context and does not set mandatory performance levels. While there is an emphasis on the use of native species, others with a ‘known attraction or benefit to local wildlife’ can also be used in an enhancement scheme where they are recommended by a suitably qualified ecologist.

As part of the process of continual improvement, we have formed a working group, which includes representatives from the landscape sector, to investigate the best ways of making improvements. The group will examine issues such as the use of plant species numbers to determine ecological value. It has been agued, for example, that a habitat with relatively few plant species may nevertheless be very important in supporting key wildlife higher up the food chain.

The working group is initially contributing to the current consultation on BREEAM New Construction 2011, which is being carried out as part of the development of the 2014 revision of the standard. As time for this is limited, so are the opportunities for radical change in the current revision.  However, the group will then continue to review land use and ecology issues with the aim of further reviewing and improving the methodologies used so that this can be built in to future BREEAM revisions.

Your views and experiences as landscape professionals will also be very valuable in improving BREEAM’s ability to drive greater sustainability in the built environment. Please take part in the consultation on the current standard by contacting me or the BREEAM team at [email protected]

Jim Gibson

Jim Gibson, Partner, Gillespies

Perhaps like many of you I have been increasingly disillusioned with the ‘tick box one size fits all’ structure of the BREEAM assessment process. Yes, of course, there are aspects in the process to admire and the simple fact that appraisal of the sustainable design credentials of a project is now embedded in aspects of UK planning policy is fundamentally a good thing. But, from a practising landscape architect’s perspective, and I don’t think I’m alone, we are too often hauled into the process too late and to ‘max up’ land use and ecology credits which arguably are at the cheaper end of the spectrum for a developer to achieve.

Inevitably, considering the breadth of project types and scales to which it applies, the BREEAM assessment process is neither a nuanced nor a finessed toolkit and has little flexibility to respond to local conditions or distinctiveness. It is these site and place themes however, that are ingrained in our thinking as landscape architects and therein perhaps lies my fundamental difficulty with BREEAM. I could expand further to bemoan that structurally BREEAM is too focused on buildings (rather than landscape and setting), is reliant on clunky techniques of attaining project credits and I could relay, as many of us will have experienced, design team meetings with developers squeezing assessors, assessors squeezing the designers and the QS squirming and bleating about escalating cost – but I won’t!
By contrast, however, the BREEAM Communities assessment introduced by the BRE in 2008 (and updated in 2012) is much better geared for the landscape profession. With certain reservations, I was introduced to BREEAM Communities when Gillespies was coordinating the landscape and public-realm design of MediaCityUK, Salford. Adopting BREEAM Communities for the project was a client decision driven by a combination of altruism and commercial thinking, with, I suspect, more of the latter!

Although the assessment process has many parallels to traditional BREEAM assessment, put simply, it takes a more holistic view of development (rather than individual buildings), is applicable to masterplans and can be applied earlier in the design process. 

These differences bring excellent opportunities to drive sustainable decisions about landscape design. Whilst clunky tick-box weaknesses remain and there are ways to cynically improve assessment scoring, aspects of the assessment such as including place-making design themes involving local communities, are a major step forward.

If appropriately articulated, the BREEAM Communities process can be used as a sustainable design toolkit and as a stick to push sometimes ambivalent clients or, occasionally, design team colleagues, to embrace broader landscape themes such as SUDs, green infrastructure, modal shift, community involvement etc into schemes.
No, the BREEAM toolkit isn’t perfect. The way that BRE consider the use of native plants is clearly flawed and too simplistic but I guess we don’t live in a perfect world. But BREEAM is here to stay, and we should continue to support it and speak with a single voice to the BRE to effect appropriate changes. Importantly, BREEAM Communities is a positive step forward for the landscape profession and should be embraced

The Landscape Institute is in discussions with BRE about the BREEAM points that can be scored for landscape and biodiversity. If you want to learn more about this contact the head of knowledge and information services at the Landscape Institute, [email protected] 

Leave a comment


Posted by Philip Rusted - March 6th, 2014
Great to see this article in LI feature. Now all we need is an article from a grower (i.e. Robin Tacchi Plants) and we will get a full picture of the challenges of BREEAM. If we all work together we can ensure that the Ecologists have the market knowledge to recommend plants that are available and that are suited for landscape design schemes. Realistic plants for a sustainable landscape. Too often this is all forgotten when it comes to construction and planting. Too often it is influenced by builders who just want evergreen all year interest planting to show the landscape at its best all year round with little or no ecological benefit. By the time it is built the idea of BREEAM is a fading memory. And then we all have to discount our products and supply last minute with what is available on that day! Joined up thinking and working together as professionals is what is needed. Also - lets not think of Profit as a dirty word. We can only be knocked so hard for so long......

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