Sustainable Development or Emperor’s New Clothes?

Many readers of this blog will be aware that, in the late 1990s, I was involved in designing the flagship Sainsburys store at Bugsby Way in Greenwich, an exemplar of sustainable design.

Photo: Millennium Sainsbury's

The store was the Channel 4 People’s choice for Building of the Year, received Millennium Product status, won the RIBA Journal’s Sustainability Award and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. It was described by Building magazine as “the most radical design in the history of retailing.” Yet, just 15 years later, this exemplar building is facing demolition because of perverse, anti-competitive action.

Sainsburys have decided that they need a megastore with non-food retail and that the existing site is simply not big enough, despite the existing store having been designed for extension. Sainsburys have therefore applied for planning permission for a new store at nearby Charlton. This leaves the obvious question of what will happen to the store that, according to Michael Evamy, architecure critic for the Independent, is: “the most carefully thought about supermarket in the world, ever.”

Well, a planning application for redevelopment has now been submitted by IKEA. As an IKEA store is typically a big box shed, they have proposed knocking down the existing store and adjacent unit to make space. This blog by 853 shows not only the extent of the proposed IKEA development, but also the paucity of information about the proposed development that the company is prepared to share with the public and its potential customers.

Now, I have never seen an IKEA store with daylight or natural ventilation. They are dark, air-conditioned boxes and the information available from IKEA leads us to suspect that this new store will not be any different. However the pitch they have fed to Greenwich planners is that the new building will incorporate the latest sustainable technologies. By this of course they mean EcoBling.

The original store was designed to minimise its energy consumption without resorting to renewable generation. It was a true fabric first approach from long before the term was coined, as shown by my original design proposals, which I published to encourage plagiarism. At the time I estimated that the energy efficiency approach could reduce the carbon emissions by around half compared to a typical store. I have since calculated that, if all the original features have been maintained, this translates to a saving of around £500,000 per annum on the current energy costs for the store!

Sainsbury Interior

So how have we come to the parlous state of affairs when a new development claims to be sustainable despite demolishing a 15 year old, exemplar energy efficient building to replace it with an EcoBling powered box with no natural light or air?

Well, this blog by Councillor Alex Grant, who was a member of the planning committee that granted permission for the Sainsburys store, hints at the unsavoury truth. Apparently this situation has come about because of a restrictive covenant achieved by Sainsburys that prevents the site being used by any other food retailer. Thus, their flagship store will be demolished simply to stop anyone else from using it. An apalling ‘if I can’t have it, no-one can’ attitude to restricting open and fair competition that would benefit the residents of Greenwich.

This state of affairs reveals that claims of ‘sustainability’ made by many big businesses and much of the commercial property sector is nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes.

My friend and colleague, Paul Hinkin, with whom I collaborated on Sainsburys and several other exemplar buildings since, has started a petition to oppose the destruction of this historically and socially important building. If you feel that this building has more merit from continued existence than from extinction then please sign it.

2 thoughts on “Sustainable Development or Emperor’s New Clothes?

  1. Pingback: If we’re to have an IKEA in Greenwich let’s make sure it’s the right one | Blogs

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