The Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (or BREEAM) and Code for Sustainable Homes assessments (CSH) are tools designed to encourage developers to consider the environmental impact of their building project. They involve assessing many facets of a development; from Energy and Water usage to Pollution and Land Use and Ecology, to give an overall rating of a building’s environmental performance.
As Suitably Qualified Ecologists (SQEs), we are regularly consulted by developers looking to obtain credits for the Lane Use and Ecology part of BREEAM or Ecology section of the CSH. These sections of the assessments offer credits for projects which reuse previously developed land or land of low ecological value, protect features of ecological value, mitigate the ecological impacts of development, provide ecological enhancement, minimise building footprint and consider the long term ecological impact of the development. By visiting the site before development commences and examining the site plans we can determine how many BREEAM Land Use and Ecology credits or CSH Ecology credits a building project is eligible for. Occasionally this is a straightforward process; if a developer is looking to put a car park in a woodland, for example, it is fairly evident that they will not be able to comply with most (if any) of the creditable issues. Alternatively if a green-roofed eco-house with a surrounding wetland and wildflower meadow is proposed on a contaminated urban industrial site, credits will be widely available.
However, such clear-cut developments are rare, and it is more often partially disused brownfield, suburban or arable plots which are subject to BREEAM and/or CSH developments. These plots are typically overgrown, completely hedged or fenced off from surrounding areas and are often home to dilapidated buildings. At first this type of land seems ideal for developments; it is often in prime locations, its disuse means it is likely to be considered an untidy eyesore, ripe for development, and landowners are often keen to sell or develop these relatively unprofitable parcels of land. However, there is a conflict in the BREEAM and CSH guidance which frequently occurs when such sites are developed. These plots are often undergoing a process of being reclaimed by nature, as weeds spread across the site, climbing plants encase derelict buildings, shrubs and hedges create impenetrable perimeter walls and small creatures take up residence. While these sites look untidy and out-of-place amongst the geometric hard surfaces of towns and villages, they can become ecological oases of great value to birds, small mammals, insects and plants. This ecological oasis element regularly comes into conflict with the BREEAM and CSH credits on a range of issues, raising the following questions: what can be classed as land of low ecological value; has the development protected features of ecological value?; have ecological impacts been adequately mitigated?; can a relative ecological enhancement can be achieved? It is understandable that these questions arise as the raisons-d’être of BREEAM and CSH are to minimise negative ecological impacts, but some developers are learning how to avoid this conflict…
The method for determining whether the development will result in an ecological enhancement (and whether it deserves BREEAM/CSH credits) involves counting the number of plant species present on each plot before development, and comparing it with the numbers of plants present (or planned to be planted) after development. If the numbers have increased it is considered an improvement and credits are awarded. If the numbers fall by a large enough margin, no credits are awarded. Some developers have become wise to this issue and only consult an ecologist once the site has been partially or completely cleared of vegetation. This way the number of plant species observable before development is so low that a minimal level of post-development planting will result in an increase in species numbers, earning credits. Furthermore it is possible that features of ecological value which should have been protected in order to earn BREEAM/CSH credits (such as trees, hedges or ponds) have been removed, with no signs that they were ever present by the time the ecologist visits the site. Early clearance of a site can be necessary for access or topographic survey, for example, but an ecologist should ideally be consulted as soon as possible so that an accurate assessment can be conducted. The BREEAM guidance does state that the SQE’s report must be based on an assessment of the site prior to commencement of development, but this is often unrealistic as developers do not want to delay their project while they await quotations, site visits and reports from ecologists. Consultation with BREEAM and CSH specialists more commonly happens during the project, i.e. when site preparation or construction is underway. Unfortunately this delayed consultation can result in loss of credits which could otherwise have been easily achievable through simple measures such as erection of protective fencing or timing of works. This is why we always aim to visit a BREEAM and CSH sites within one week of instruction, and issue our report within the following week.
As ecologists we are passionate about maximising the value of ecological enhancement and minimising the negative ecological impacts associated with any development. We want to see BREEAM and the CSH working to their full potential as they can achieve these things, as they were designed to do. When assessing any project we want to recommend that maximum credits are awarded whenever this is possible. Early consultation is a key part of this, so if you are involved in a BREEAM or Code for Sustainable Homes development, please don’t hesitate to contact us during the project’s conception or infancy. The sooner we can become involved with a project, the more likely it is that you will be able to earn more credits.
It is also worth noting that in certain districts, such as North Norfolk, all housing developments are required to have a CSH minimum 3 star rating by 2010, rising to 4 star in 2014. As environmental awareness becomes more prevalent, it is possible that other councils will adopt a similar standard at some stage in the future.
Will is Wild Frontier Ecology’s BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes expert. He has been responsible for undertaking BREEAM assessments on a variety of projects including office blocks, medical centres and a hospital. He has undertaken Code for Sustainable Homes work for large scale housing developments in Thetford and Mildenhall, as well as numerous smaller development projects throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. Will also undertakes protected species and habitat surveys.