Benchmarking the Benchmark: Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of Malaysia’s Green Building Index

Commentary / 4th Quarter 2019

Benchmarking the Benchmark: Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of Malaysia’s Green Building Index

by Mitchell Gelber

Good intentions notwithstanding, Green building rating tools can evoke a certain degree of consternation within the construction industry. These tools are far from immaculate entities, but rather dynamic and sometimes imprecise instruments whose efficacy is often a function of how, why and where they are employed. Just as how a hammer could be used to drive a nail, but also as a weapon in the wrong hands, Green ratings could likewise be applied constructively or towards more perverse ends.

External sunshading screen; powder-coated aluminium louvres

At their best, they have helped refocus entire industries on vital environmental concerns. By raising awareness amongst professionals, contractors, manufacturers and regulators, and establishing clear performance benchmarks, these tools can drive best practices and give Green building design considerations a crucially important seat at the table. At their worst, they can represent shallow or even cynical marketing exercises; environmental boosterism that provides simple lip service rather than measurable advances. Over the years, criticism of Green building ratings has generally coagulated into a few common premises, namely, that they are expensive, ineffectual and that, as voluntary initiatives, they lack the teeth of statutory building regulations.

In light of such concerns, looking back at the first 10 years of Malaysia’s Green Building Index (GBI) presents an opportunity to evaluate one tool’s performance in the pursuit of a more progressive Green built sector.


The lingering sentiment that green buildings are costly is truly pernicious. The refrain of “it’s too expensive” can be heard from stakeholders throughout the building industry as a primary justification for maintaining the status quo. In Malaysia, this perception is further exacerbated by the fact that environmental considerations are commonly seen as value-add, rather than imperative. But a closer look at the GBI tool tells a markedly different story about the cost implications of Green buildings.

Green buildings may not be expensive on aggregate, but environmental responsibility does not absolve oneself from the application of common sense.

With its emphasis on passive design solutions, many GBI criteria, including some of the most impactful, can be realised without additional expenditure. Of the 51 individual criteria in the GBI Non-Residential New Construction tool, as many as 40 can be scored with little to no incremental construction cost. Indeed, with proper design, planning and site management, most projects can achieve well over 50 points, the minimum certified score, without significant capital expenditure.


While one of the fundamental concerns of a Green building benchmark is to thwart greenwashing, when poorly administered or inadequately conceived they can actually contribute to the very condition against which they are sworn to protect. Several notable rating tools around the world previously gave consideration to projects based solely on their predicted efficiency on the drawing board or via computer modelling.

The unfortunate by-product was an accommodation of underperforming buildings that sometimes failed to meet expectations. One of the first Green building tools in the world to audit its buildings after occupancy, GBI is predicated on measurable results with submission of several months of utility bills for water and power as prerequisites for certification. As such, the tool has accumulated a wealth of actual verified performance data from its projects.


Green rating tools, as mainly voluntary initiatives, can lack the impact and immediacy of government regulations. Where building efficiency and other environmental considerations can be mandated by way of improving the existing building codes, incremental Green ratings can quickly prove surplus to requirements. However, this argument presupposes effective implementation, administration and enforcement of local zoning and building codes.

Green rating tools, as mainly voluntary initiatives, can lack the impact and immediacy of government regulations.


An additional challenge facing the Malaysian construction industry in recent years is a rampant proliferation of Green rating tools sponsored by both trade associations and various government-linked concerns. Some of these initiatives have been launched with the stated objective of providing ‘less expensive’ alternatives to GBI, while others have unabashedly introduced watered-down ratings that simply lower the threshold for certification. And although a legitimate case can be made for a large enough organisation establishing its own internal metrics, other arguments for maintaining multiple Green building standards in a single jurisdiction are dubious at best.

The direct impact on the administration of GBI has been minimal, but the introduction of multiple redundant Green ratings has sowed unnecessary confusion and trepidation within the wider industry.

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