Smart building certifications: Too many choices?

June 9, 2021
As more real estate investors, developers, and building owners embrace the concept of smart buildings, this complex and diverse landscape presents the challenges of choosing a certification that best fits a facility and meets business goals.

Two of the most prolific green building certifications in the world—the UK’s BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)—were both launched in the 1990s. The past two decades have since given smart building owners and operators dozens of certifications, ratings, and standards to choose from, and the options continue to expand.

There is the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes rating and certification program, the WELL Building Standard administered by the International WELL Building Institute, the Fitwel rating system operated by the Center for Active Design, and the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge—just to name a few. Last September, UL and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) launched its SPIRE smart building assessment and rating program. In April of this year, BOMA kicked off its BEST Smart Buildings Certification Program’s Pilot Project with over dozen premier buildings across North America, and WiredScore launched its new SmartScore certification with 70 buildings across seven countries. There are also regional options like Singapore’s Green Mark certification, Australia’s Green Star and NABERS rating systems, and France’s HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale).

As more real estate investors, developers, and building owners embrace the concept of smart buildings, this complex and diverse landscape presents the challenges of choosing a certification that best fits a facility and meets business goals, while delivering financial benefit and prestige.

How did we get here?

While there is some level of overlap, smart building certifications each have an area of focus that is historically rooted in addressing a specific need. Take Fitwel for example. Its administering body, the Center for Active Design, was launched in 2012 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to transform New York City’s active design program and promote health in construction. Or WiredScore that was founded specifically to rate the quality and resilience of a building’s digital infrastructure. Many certifications have also expanded their scope in response to global issues and trends. Both LEED and BREEAM have shifted from primarily a sustainability focus to consider everything from building maintenance and operations to occupant health and wellbeing, and even social equity.

“We have such a plethora of programs today because each was responding to a specific need at the time it was introduced. These programs have evolved and expanded over time, which inevitably creates some overlap,” says Sudhi Sinha, vice president of ecosystem and new service development at UL. “Some certifications sprung out of regional drivers like the prevalent political narrative, specific regional events, and the collective consciousness and culture of the population—as well as the underlying economic situation.”

Some smart building certification programs were also developed specifically to fill a gap or to modify the way smart buildings are measured. Green Globes, for example, often touts itself as a more streamlined and affordable option to LEED, while others take an continual improvement approach, requiring annual ratings that track and require performance improvements over time.

“Smart buildings today have multiple dimensions, which is why we took a more holistic approach with the SPIRE program, looking at connectivity, health and wellbeing, life and property safety, power and energy, cybersecurity, and sustainability,” says Marta Soncodi, director of the smart building technology program at TIA. “Both TIA and UL have also historically been science focused and data driven—once you have data, you gain insight to benchmark and improve, and that data can be used in many different ways. So while some programs look more at design principles or take a higher-level approach, SPIRE’s assessment criteria is based on data.”

What are the key decision factors?

When it comes to the value of a smart building, most industry experts believe that location plays the biggest role, accounting for about 70% of asset value. For the remaining 30%, several other factors come into play that can influence certification choice.

“In many regions, codes and mandates take precedence. But the reality is that codes take time to get in line with technology and best practices. Even in the absence of codes, local trends are definitely a factor, especially if driven by funding and incentives that require a specific certification,” says Soncodi. “Participation in an association, promotional aspects, and even a ‘me-too’ mentality can also drive the decision—there are many flagship smart buildings that others aspire to. Ultimately, there needs to be visible value in the choice.”

Is one global standard feasible?

As smart building adoption increases, one can’t help but wonder if eventually the best of each certification could make its way in a single global standard that could ease the complexity.

“I don’t believe we will ever get to one global smart building standard—it has never happened in any one area. But I do believe that we’ll eventually get to a few dominant options,” says Sinha. “I believe LEED will continue as a dominant certification, but I anticipate excellent growth for SPIRE—it has the huge franchise benefit from UL’s presence in hundreds of countries and TIA members whose products are going into these buildings. Its holistic, ever-evolving comprehensiveness of scope eliminates the adoption challenges that more focused certifications face.”

According to Soncodi, the impact of large corporations with multiple global locations cannot be discounted. “Large global portfolio owners like Microsoft with multiple sites around the world want consistency and the efficiency of having a single certification from location to location. These players can be key drivers in global adoption and the dominance of a standard.”

Betsy Conroy is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant, specializing in business-to-business media and commerce. She has 30 years’ experience writing technical content.        

About the Author

Betsy Conroy

Betsy Conroy has spent the past three decades writing quality technical content and leveraging that content to launch impactful integrated marketing campaigns. She started her career as a technical and promotional writer for medical, security, and environmental corporations. In early 2000, she became an independent freelance writer, editor, and content consultant, focusing primarily on B2B manufacturers and associations in the electrical, networking, and telecommunications industries. Betsy frequently publishes content in a variety of industry publications on behalf of her clients and is also a contributing writer to Smart Buildings Technology Magazine. She was previously a monthly contributing writer to Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine and chief editor of BICSI News Magazine for five years where she was instrumental in bringing the publication from a newsletter status to that of a preeminent trade magazine and helping to launch BICSI’s premier publication, ICT Today.

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