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Environmental Certifications : LEED, BREEAM and HQE for buildings

In a world where environmental concerns are increasingly growing, the construction industry needs to evolve. Building sustainability has become an essential priority for developers, architects, and users. In response to this challenge, environmental certifications emerge as beacons guiding toward environmentally friendly, sustainable, and economically viable construction practices. Environmental certifications for sustainable buildings, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), and HQE (High Environmental Quality) have become benchmark standards in the construction industry. According to a study by the US Green Building Council, LEED-certified buildings consume, on average, 25% less energy and 11% less water than non-certified buildings, highlighting the significant impact of these certifications on reducing the ecological footprint of buildings. Today, we will understand and compare these three certifications: LEED, BREEAM, and HQE.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

Founded in 1993 by the U.S. Green Building Council in the United States, LEED has become one of the most recognized and respected environmental certifications worldwide for buildings. Aimed at promoting sustainable construction, design, and operational practices, LEED applies to almost all types of projects, including new buildings, renovations, and building interiors.

Evaluation Principles and Criteria

LEED assesses buildings across several environmental performance categories, such as:

  • Site development and sustainability: Rainwater management, accessibility to sustainable transport, pollution from sensitive lands, biodiversity preservation.

  • Energy efficiency: Reduction of energy consumption and use of renewable energies.

  • Water management: Water consumption optimization and promotion of recycling and reuse.

  • Indoor environmental quality: Improvement of indoor air quality for occupants' well-being, sound, thermal, and visual comfort.

  • Materials and resources: Encouragement of using eco-friendly materials, sourced with low embodied carbon, and efficient management of construction or demolition waste. Emphasis on durability, reuse, and recycling.

  • Innovation in design: Innovative solutions to enhance the overall environmental performance of the building.

Projects earn points across these categories based on the building's performance and project type. Depending on the number of points achieved, they can be rated as Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum being the highest level of LEED certification.

Certification Process

The LEED certification process begins with the project registration, followed by the submission of detailed documentation proving compliance with LEED criteria. Once the documentation is reviewed and approved by the GBCI (Green Business Certification Inc.), the project can receive its certification.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Global reputation: A LEED certification is widely recognized as a marker of sustainability and energy efficiency.

  • Long-term savings: LEED buildings consume, on average, 25% less energy and 11% less water than non-certified buildings, potentially leading to significant operational cost savings.

  • Improved well-being: Indoor air quality and comfort are important criteria, enhancing occupants' well-being.

  • Property valuation: A study by Build It Green found that LEED-certified homes in Northern California sold for 2.19% more.


  • Higher initial cost: Designing and constructing a LEED building can be more expensive than for a traditional building. Obtaining basic LEED certification typically costs about 2% more than a traditional building, according to the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate.

  • Complexity of the process: The certification process can be lengthy and complex, requiring substantial documentation.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)

Launched in 1990 by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the United Kingdom, BREEAM is the world's first environmental assessment method for buildings. It aims to improve the environmental performance of buildings through a comprehensive approach that covers design, construction, and operation. BREEAM is applicable to a variety of building types, including new buildings, renovated buildings, and urban developments.

Principles and Evaluation Criteria

BREEAM evaluates buildings according to several sustainability categories:

  • Energy: Energy efficiency with the analysis of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting systems, and the use and integration of renewable energies.

  • Water: Efficient water management, reduction of water consumption.

  • Materials: Use of sustainable and low-environmental-impact materials, focus on reuse and recycling.

  • Emissions: Evaluation of the building's greenhouse gas emissions and identification of potential reduction sources.

  • Management: Ecological management of the project, construction, and operational processes of the building.

  • Land use and ecology: Protection and enhancement of the site's ecology, promotion of biodiversity.

  • Well-being: Indoor air quality, thermal comfort, natural light, and acoustic quality.

  • Transport: The site's potential to promote sustainable modes of transport, proximity to public transportation.

Projects are assessed and rated according to these criteria, receiving a certification of Pass, Good, Very Good, Excellent, or Outstanding, the latter being the highest distinction.

Certification Process

The BREEAM certification process begins with the project registration, followed by the evaluation by an accredited BREEAM assessor who verifies compliance with the criteria. Once the evaluation is completed and the evidence verified, the project can receive its corresponding BREEAM certification.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Improvement of environmental performance: BREEAM encourages the use of sustainable practices and technologies that enhance the building's overall performance.

  • International recognition: Although originating in Britain, BREEAM enjoys international recognition and applicability.

  • Building valuation: Certified BREEAM buildings can benefit from better market valuation, attracting tenants and investors concerned about the environment. According to the "Business case for green building" report, BREEAM certification can increase building rents by up to 24.9% compared to conventional buildings that simply meet current standards.


  • Cost and complexity: The certification process can be costly and complex, especially for smaller projects. However, according to the "Target Zero" study conducted in the United Kingdom, the initial costs of a building certified BREEAM Excellent vary between 0.2% and 1.8% more expensive.

  • Adaptability: While BREEAM is flexible, adapting its criteria to specific local contexts can be challenging.

HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale)

The High Environmental Quality (HQE) certification, originating in France in the late 1990s, is a voluntary initiative aimed at enhancing the environmental quality of buildings. Managed by the HQE Association, which promotes a balanced approach between environmental respect, occupant comfort, and health, HQE sets a high bar for sustainable construction and building management.

Principles and Evaluation Criteria

HQE assesses buildings across several themes, organized into four main categories:

  • Eco-Construction: Focuses on the building's environmental impact from the design phase, emphasizing the selection of ecological, durable, and recyclable materials, and the preservation of the surrounding environment. The aim is to minimize energy consumption through effective insulation, optimal orientation, and the use of renewable energies.

  • Eco-Management: Involves efficient management of energy, water, waste, and the maintenance of buildings to minimize their environmental impact.

  • Comfort: Enhances thermal, acoustic, and visual comfort for the occupants, as well as improving indoor air quality.

  • Health: Ensures the quality of indoor air, water, and hygiene of spaces.

  • Projects are evaluated based on these criteria, aiming to achieve certification that attests to their high environmental performance and quality of life for users.

Certification Process

The path to HQE certification starts with project registration, followed by an assessment by an accredited HQE expert. This assessment verifies if the project meets the criteria set in the relevant technical standards, chosen based on the nature of the project (new, renovation, operation). After this initial evaluation and the implementation of necessary recommendations, a final verification ensures all requirements are met. Once compliance is confirmed, the project is awarded the corresponding HQE certification.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • Holistic Approach: HQE's comprehensive approach integrates environmental, comfort, and health criteria, promoting high quality of life for occupants.

  • Environmental Respect and Energy Savings: Imposing strict standards on material choice, water, and energy management, and indoor air quality, HQE significantly reduces buildings' carbon footprints. This encourages the use of sustainable solutions and technologies, leading to long-term energy savings. A French study found energy expenditure differences of around 15% between HQE certified and non-certified properties.

  • Building Valuation: HQE-certified buildings are recognized for their quality and performance, potentially increasing their real estate value.


  • Administrative Complexity: The certification process can be seen as complex and burdensome in terms of administrative procedures.

  • Cost: The initial investment for certification can be high, although it is offset in the long term by the realized savings.

Comparing Certifications: LEED, BREEAM, and HQE

Choosing among LEED, BREEAM, and HQE certifications requires a thorough analysis of their specifics. While they share the common goal of promoting sustainability, they differ in geographic scope, international recognition, evaluation criteria, and cost. LEED, from the United States, and BREEAM, from the United Kingdom, enjoy broad global recognition and are applicable in various international contexts, whereas HQE is primarily rooted and applicable in France and Francophone countries.

In terms of evaluation criteria, LEED emphasizes energy efficiency and innovation, BREEAM broadly covers sustainability and ecological impact, and HQE stands out for its focus on occupant quality of life, in addition to environmental considerations. The certifications vary in their approach to occupant well-being. LEED and BREEAM evaluate indoor comfort, including air quality and access to natural light, while HQE places a premium on quality of life, delving deeper into comfort and health aspects.

The certifications adapt to local contexts differently. LEED and BREEAM, with their international recognition, provide guidelines adaptable to local regulations but are not designed specifically for them. In contrast, HQE aligns closely with French standards and requirements, offering more direct integration with French national and local regulations.

The cost associated with each certification varies, influenced by factors such as project size, the desired level of certification, and geographical market. LEED and BREEAM may have higher initial fees, reflecting their international stature and rigorous evaluation process, whereas HQE, potentially less expensive initially, requires thorough management and documentation that may lead to additional operational costs. The choice between these certifications ultimately depends on the specific sustainability objectives of the project, its location, and stakeholder requirements. For projects seeking global visibility and recognition, LEED or BREEAM are often preferred. However, for those focused in France or Francophone regions, prioritizing interior quality of life and energy efficiency, HQE might be the certification of choice.


In the current era where sustainability is crucial, environmental certifications like LEED, BREEAM, and HQE emerge as beacons of eco-responsible construction. Each certification, with its unique features, guides the industry towards harmony between sustainability, energy efficiency, and occupant well-being, paving a path towards sustainable innovation. While LEED and BREEAM are globally recognized for their comprehensive approach to sustainability, HQE stands out with its focus on quality of life, specifically tailored to the French context. Given these options, the choice of a certification should be guided by the unique objectives of each project, reflecting a deliberate strategy towards environmental and social impact.

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