Exporting building-research excellence from the UK
23 February 2021: The Buildings Research Establishment has been a trailblazer in its field for a century. Much of the language it uses to describe what it does today is very familiar to chartered accountants.
“The organisation was set up by the UK Government after WW1 to look at the built environment and how it could be improved,” says Herbert. “That’s an ongoing journey.”
Perhaps one of the most famous milestones for the Buildings Research Establishment (BRE) was the work undertaken at the Hertfordshire site as part of Operation Chastise, or the Dambusters’ Raid. What BRE brought to the equation was a demonstration of how modelling advances technical understanding of a building and its properties. BRE continues to use models, both physical and software-based, to solve complex construction challenges. Today, that means wind tunnel testing and testing the spread of fire to make sure that building design, and construction, are based on science, and that they harness technology.
“We burn things, we break them, or we blow them up,” says Herbert. “On the site, we do a lot of testing of products related to the built environment. We might do fire safety testing on equipment, we might test to see if the lining to a tunnel does what it's supposed to do, and also with beams, railways sleepers, and so on.”
On the security front, there is a fair bit of blowing up. “We do a lot of security work testing to make sure that building security works in a whole range of areas, both for UK companies but also internationally,” he adds.
The burning, breaking and blowing up is about half the work undertaken at BRE. The other half is about the impact that buildings have on the environment. “That means setting standards to ensure that when people build, they do what they say they will do, but the standards also to address the impact of the construction sector on the environment,” he says.
BREEAM is a tool designed by BRE that auditors can use to assess the environmental impact of a building. It has become a trusted mark of sustainability for buildings and communities in 77 countries around the world. “We also do lots of consultancy work for governments, not just the UK Government,” says Herbert.
“Another of our products – LPCB – is a standard developed by the insurance industry that we now own and run. This is a standard that makes sure things like suppression systems for fire safety do what they are supposed to do,” says Herbert. “The LPCB standard is actually enshrined in regulations across the globe. For example, a high-rise block built in the Middle East would have to adhere to the LPCB standard.”
BRE teams operate around the world, explaining to regulators the benefit of the BRE standards and tools. “Anyone can convince a building company that their product will achieve a certain result. How do you actually know that is true – particularly with safety products because we hope they don’t have to be used. Nobody wants the fire hose to come out or the sprinkler system to come on because you hope there's not going to be a fire. But how do you know whether what's been installed will perform on the day? The only way to rely on it is to have a set of agreed, independent, standards that everybody follows.” Apart from testing products, BRE regularly audits the processes of the factories in which these products are manufactured to make sure they are consistent and create a repeatable product.
BRE itself applies accountancy thinking to its processes. “We operate a risk-based approach ourselves at BRE. Each of our units has risk registers. The internal audit team takes the risk register information when they are preparing their internal audit plans, identifies the high-risk areas and spends more time in that area than in the low-risk areas. My head of risk and internal audit is also a qualified accountant,” says Herbert.
So where will the challenges for BRE lie given that the world is at a crossroads in so many respects, and the built environment will be an outward manifestation of the decisions governments and supranational organisations take now?
“Much of the work BRE has been doing over the last few years is with industry, trying to come up with a better way of building, often referred to as modern methods of construction – or offsite manufacturing methods. We secured a grant for just over £17m to work out what modern methods of construction means and how to get the industry to move in that direction,” says Herbert. “The building industry is very traditional. We still use a small brick, and we lay them, and that isn't necessarily the most efficient way of building or delivering consistency.”
And traditional methods struggle to deliver that other necessity for change – data. Modern methods have a digital plan, so you always know where all the services are located, the types of materials used, their age and provenance. This makes maintenance so much easier and helps with testing in terms of safety and energy performance.
“Our hopes and expectations are that we will have that digital footprint which will give us a record of a building, that we can actually build more in a shorter space of time. That would help this new wave of construction,” says Herbert.
“There are many major infrastructure projects happening around the world, not just in the UK. The investment other countries are making is phenomenal. And certainly, BRE wants to be part of that process – to make sure that we set the right standards, that we can give people confidence that what's being built adheres to those standards, and assists with the move to net zero.”
He points out that the UK offers the world really strong technical skills and scientific knowledge. “It would be great to disseminate that information in a much broader way. And we do. But there's always more we can do,” says Herbert. “We want to be seen as an organisation that works across the globe, improving standards as we go.”