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Li Keqiang, China’s Vice Premier (pictured right), completed his four-day visit to the UK in January 2011 by spending several hours at the BRE Innovation Park, demonstrating the organisation’s growing international importance

Building on success

There was some pessimism about the Building Research Establishment (BRE)’s survival when it was privatised in 1997, but BRE has survived and flourished. How has this been done and more importantly, how will it continue? We asked BRE Group CEO Dr Peter Bonfield. »


RE was established to provide independent, expert built- environment advice, primarily to

government. As a government agency the organisation had the luxury of guaranteed work and funding. Today, BRE’s activities still revolve around the provision of independent expertise, but the days of guaranteed work and funding are long past. “We have no government safety-net

today,” says Peter Bonfield, “and our customers are now − quite rightly − very demanding of what we do. Whether they are from the public or private sectors, they expect us to deliver very high value, and to be able to use the outcomes of our work to help them materially in what they are doing, either in their business or in government.” So how has the former civil service organisation survived and flourished in the commercial world? Bonfield points to a number of factors, one being the legacy of a strong and enduring link with government. This, combined with nearly 15 years in the public sector, gives the company a valuable ability to connect public-sector policy goals with private-sector activity. “We are a very unusual bridge between the two,” he says, “and have found ways of bringing public and private sectors together within and along supply chains. Take our Innovation Park or some of our

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applied research projects, like AIMC4 (, for example. In these we have been able to bring together people who wouldn’t normally work on the same team to try new things, measure what works and what doesn’t, and move forward in light of this.”

> New knowledge

Another key factor in BRE’s success has been its ability to conduct a very wide range of research. “While part of our operations involve consultancy,” continues Bonfield, “we differ from other consultancies in that we are able to not only apply existing expertise, but also to generate new knowledge. A lot of our consultancy is actually applied research − this means we are able to provide clients with answers that they can’t get elsewhere.

> Products

“Another thing that we have managed to do increasingly well is apply our long- established and new research knowledge in developing our own products − standards and tools that use our expertise to help the built-environment sector, both public and private, to deliver consistently better outcomes.” These standards and tools include BREEAM (now the world’s most widely

Photo credit: Peter White, BRE

used environmental assessment method

for buildings), the English Housing Survey (which produces the vital information on which national and local housing policy is based), SMARTWaste (for reducing construction and other waste), and Cali BRE (for improving productivity). “Those are just a few examples of the suite of products that employ our extensive research-based knowledge, and have been tried and tested to ensure that they are credible and actually work in the real world,” says Bonfield. “They allow the knowledge we generate to be used by thousands of organisations to ensure their products and buildings function as intended − and have enabled us to become strong facilitators of change.”

> Success despite recession

One might have thought that the most serious national and international financial crisis for generations would put a stop to BRE’s progress, particularly as the construction industry has been hit especially hard and the built-environment sector is, even in better circumstances, not renowned for investing in research. But the BRE Group has defied expectations by continuing to flourish. “In difficult times the industry has to work even harder than usual to compete,” explains Bonfield. “Both the

September / October 2012

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