An organisation for building research had been proposed as early as 1917 when the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) appointed a Building Materials Research Committee to investigate the suitability of a number of building materials and methods of construction for use in new housing after the war.
In 1921, the Building Research Station was established in Acton, West London, under the aegis of the department's Buildings Research (Materials and Construction) Research Board, later the Building Research Board. In 1925, it moved to Garston near Watford, Hertfordshire.
The station carried out research into all building materials and methods of construction with the aims of advancing efficiency and economy in building and allied branches of civil engineering.
The board appointed committees to bring advice and experience to bear on the work of the station in specialised fields: materials, structures, wood pressures, acoustics, heating and ventilation, fire resistance and fire grading of buildings, lighting and vision, urban planning and engineering services.
The work of the station expanded and developed up to and after the Second World War: in 1949 a Scottish Branch was established at Thornton Hall, near Glasgow; and in 1959 a colonial liaison organisation (established in 1948), became the station's Tropical Division.
In 1965 the Building Research Board was dissolved and the research station was transferred to the Ministry of Technology. In 1967 it passed to the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and in 1970 to the Department of the Environment.
In January 1972, the Building Research Establishment was formed by bringing together the Building Research Station, the Princes Risborough Laboratory, the Fire Research Station and the Scottish Laboratory.
The Building Research Establishment was the main organisation in the UK carrying out research and development on building and construction and on the prevention and control of fire. The scope of the establishment's work was very broad and embraced background research into the behaviour of materials and structures, the performance of buildings in use and also the practical studies of construction methods. Problems were investigated as they arose and advice was made available on particular design and construction difficulties. Activities included disseminating and encouraging the application of the knowledge gained. In addition to its departmental work, it also undertook work for nationalised and private industries.
In 1982 the establishment was joined by the Civil Engineering Laboratory of the Property Services Agency which amalgamated with the Structural Integrity Division Building Research Establishment. In line with government policy, the Building Research Establishment formally became an executive agency in April 1990. Privatisation of the Building Research Establishment was announced in April 1996 and it was advertised for tender later that year. The Building Research Establishment management team was announced as the preferred purchaser in January 1997 and the privatisation was completed in March of that year.