A quick look back over the 90-year history of the BRE (Building Research Establishment) Group.
The BRE Group has a history stretching back over 90 years, which has seen the bringing together of a number of separate research, testing and approvals organisations during that time.
In 1917, the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) proposed the creation of an organisation to investigate various building materials and methods of construction suitable to use in new housing following the First World War.
In June 1920, the Building Research Board met for the first time, and in 1921 a central, Government-funded laboratory – the Building Research Station (BRS) – was formed to carry out research work for the Board. Some of the earliest work of BRS studied the behaviour of reinforced concrete in floors, and the development of the British Standard for bricks – the UK’s first standard for construction materials. Originally based at Acton, west London, BRS moved to Bucknalls, a large Victorian house surrounded by 38 acres of land near Watford in 1925. BRE occupies that same site today, although the area has been extended over the years, with Bucknalls itself still at the centre. During the Second World War, staff of BRS were engaged in a number of novel areas of work, including creating a 1/50th scale model of the Mohne Dam that was used by Barnes Wallis in some of his early researches leading to the development of the bouncing bomb.
In 1949, a remote office of the Building Research Station opened in Scotland, concentrating on the issues that differing building materials, techniques, and particularly climate had on construction north of the border.
As well as that for building research, a number of other Research Boards were formed under the DSIR, including the Forest Products Research Board, and in 1927 the corresponding Forest Products Research Laboratory (FPRL) opened at Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire. Its remit covered all aspects of timber utilisation, strength testing, and the prevention of decay and insect attack. The Forest Products Research Board ceased to function in 1958 and the scope of work covered by FPRL was reduced, with some areas of the work passing to the Timber Development Association (later to become TRADA). In 1972, FPRL was merged into the Building Research Station, and in turn that was renamed the Building Research Establishment (BRE). The Princes Risborough staff and facilities moved to BRE’s Watford site in 1988.
From 1909 the Fire Offices’ Committee, which represented the loss prevention interests of various insurance companies, had been carrying out fire testing in Manchester. The DSIR had also recommended in 1920 that a Fire Research Board should be formed, but, unlike those for buildings and timber, it was not created and the FOC continued their work independently. This changed in 1935 when DSIR and the FOC, along with other interested parties, opened a central Fire Testing Station at Elstree in Herfordshire. This facility was available to staff of the Building Research Station, who carried out a number of tests on the fire resistance of structures. Plans put forward in 1936 to form a centrally-funded Fire Prevention Research Board were interrupted by World War II, although a small section was set up in BRS to explore certain aspects of fire fighting. In 1946, DSIR and the FOC established the Joint Fire Research Organisation to conduct research on all aspects of fire prevention and extinguishing. This became the Fire Research Board later that year, and in 1949 the Elstree site was renamed the Fire Research Station. (see more about the history of the Fire Research Station)
As with Timber, the Fire Research Station was amalgamated into the Building Research Establishment in 1972, still operating from Elstree, and also continuing to use a former airship hangar at Cardington in Bedfordshire for larger-scale fire and explosion testing. In 1975 the Joint Fire Research and Testing Organisation was split up into the Fire Research Station (Government owned) and the Fire Insurers Research and Testing Organisation (FIRTO, later to become the Loss Prevention Council). In 1994, FRS vacated Elstree and moved to the BRE site in Watford. A new fire testing Burn Hall, the largest of its type in Europe, was built on the BRE site at the same time.
An independent business
During the 1990s, BRE, like many other Government-funded research laboratories of the period, operated for a time as an Executive Agency of its parent Department, before being completely privatised in 1997. In order to retain the authority and independence that BRE had developed while publicly funded, a new body, the Foundation for the Built Environment (FBE) was formed to ‘own’ BRE. Members of the Foundation came from all aspects of the industries BRE worked with, so avoiding BRE being driven in any one particular direction by commercial pressures. In 2005, the Foundation was renamed The BRE Trust, partly to avoid confusion with the similarly-named Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (the Prince of Wales’s educational charity), and also to better reflect the relationship between the Trust and BRE.The BRE Trust is a registered charity, with a mission to support built environment research for the public benefit.
Because the work of BRE had, for many years, extended beyond just buildings; because we were undertaking testing and consultancy as well as just research; and because we were no longer a Government Establishment, in 1997 we stopped using the full name ‘Building Research Establishment’ and renamed ourselves simply ‘BRE’.
Independent of Government ties, BRE was also now able to certify and approve products that it tested, and so BRE Certification was born in 1999. A year later, BRE Certification took over the Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB), reuniting the businesses that were separated in the 1970s. In 2006, its services now recognised worldwide, BRE Certification was renamed BRE Global, and other aspects of environmental certification and rating, including BREEAM, were brought under the BRE Global brand. At the same time, the management structure of the businesses was altered to provide an operations group acting as an intermediary between BRE and BRE Global, and the BRE Trust, so creating the BRE Group we have today.
For the public benefit
The profits from the BRE Group businesses are gift-aided to the BRE Trust, who in turn invest in research projects for the public benefit, carried out by the BRE Group, other research partners and by a number of Universities across the UK where the Trust funds PhD studentships. (see www.bre.co.uk/bretrust for more details)
1921-2011: ninety years of building research
As we celebrated 90 years of building research, we created a timeline of the history of BRE since 1921 which is periodically updated to include more recent events.