Sustainable Hypocrisy

If you have read my posts or tweets over the last few months then you will probably know that I am pretty peeved with Sainsburys over the future of the Greenwich store that I helped design for them back in the late 1990s. Sainsburys want to move to a more profitable location and, apparently, to stop any competitor gaining a foothold in the area they have placed a legal covenant on the land at Greenwich to prevent it from ever being used again as a food store.

The building was specifically designed to be the best and most energy efficient food store possible, mainly through a passive approach but also by recycling heat from the refrigeration plant and cooling the surplus with groundwater. To prevent this groundbreaking building being reused for its intended purpose is the anthesis of sustainable development.

The passive design features of the building (daylight, thermal mass, natural ventilation) would equally benefit many other retail uses, but the only party currently interested in purchasing the site is IKEA, who apparently cannot imagine how to adapt their big blue artificially conditioned box model to use daylight.

Both Sainsburys and IKEA have defended their respective positions. Their people in charge of sustainability have stated that the store was a prototype, things have moved on since 2000 and both new stores will incorporate the latest sustainable technologies. Well I think that shows just how little clue these corporate sustainability wonks really have. As far as I know daylight has been around for a while, is pretty well proven as a concept and is not likely to be superseded any time soon.

In IKEA’s case they state that their new store “will achieve a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating and will include technologies to help minimise the store’s carbon footprint such as photovoltaic (solar) panels.” Funny that they consider this to be an advancement in sustainability when, 15 years ago, the original building achieved the first ever retail BREEAM ‘Excellent’ without any contribution from solar panels. IKEA goes on to state how they are reducing their carbon footprint across stores by 11% through switching to advanced LED lighting. Hmmm.. the Sainsburys Store reduces lighting energy consumption by around 80% simply using daylight! I think it is unlikely that IKEA will ever recognise the irony of generating electricity from the sun just to run their technically superior LED lights.

Then, the other day, I read an article about Sainsburys proclaiming their latest sustainability hit, a new store powered entirely by food waste, presumably the kind of approach that represents a “significant advance” over passive energy conservation as used at Greenwich. It seems that a new store at Cannock in Staffordshire is to have a private wire connection to a near by anaerobic digestion and generation facility and will send its food waste there for conversion. Yes this will divert food waste from landfill and put it to a better use, but this is not a sustainable solution. Food is for eating! What will happen when energy demand at the store increases, will Sainsburys start to deliberately divert food to the waste stream in order to keep feeding the anaerobic digester?

The supermarket retail model is largely responsible for the waste of around 40% of food. This is a HUGE problem! A business that was genuinely focussed on sustainable development would be working to reduce the food waste problem at its root: packaging, handling and overstocking. To try and greenwash a problem like food waste with pseudo energy efficiency really is the worst sustainability hypocrisy that I have ever come across.

If Sainsburys and IKEA want to demonstrate that they are genuinely concerned about sustainable development then they will have to try a lot harder, or they should simply shut up. At present all they are achieving is to demonstrate that they really are only prepared to pay lip service to sustainability in the pursuit of profits.

Curating Place

I had the pleasure recently of being invited to help out at the formation of a new social enterprise: Curating Place. Curating Place aims to support young construction professionals with a platform to both work and learn their crafts. This platform will cut across the traditional divisions between conceiving and making and will be funded from any means except the traditional development finance model.

The first activity organised by Curating Place was a design charrette to re-examine the idea of Country House in relation to a site at Fall Hill Quarry in Derbyshire. The scale of the ambition to do things differently, set out by Ashley and Darren, founders of Curating Place really got me thinking about how things could be, rather than how things will continue to be in the absence of visionaries like these two.

One of the requisites for new country houses under present planning controls is to do something exceptional in the sphere of sustainability. Ashley and Darren have stated an ambition that the development at Fall Hill should be Off-Grid if possible, meaning of course some degree of self sufficiency. However the conjunction of ideas contained in the overall ambition of Curating Place really got me thinking about what could it mean to be truly Off-Grid in the 21st Century.

I believe that we often bandy terms such as Off-Grid without really stopping to examine the true meaning and implications of such terms. To me the term Grid implies any rigidly structured network. Traditionally a grid is comprised of perpendicular elements and so convergence is impossible. Recently, Grid has come to mean the central delivery of services such as electricity and water or the interconnectedness of central financial systems. So I wondered what other grids could affect future development?

Here then are some grids that I believe we really should think about a bit more deeply in relation to future development:

The Energy Grid

By Energy Grid we mean the centralised supply of fuel and power. Going Off-Grid is of course quite different from simply going Carbon Neutral which, typically, relies on the Energy Grid to absorb surplus generation and deliver new energy to meet our peak demand. Clearly therefore, going Off-Grid requires local energy storage to deliver the necessary temporal shift. The expense of storage technologies requires a complete re-think about how we actually use energy, rather than using Carbon Accountancy to simply gloss over our continuing energy profligacy. In the future we will need to be much more aware of, and tap into, the natural energy flows around us.

The Water Grid

To be Off-Grid means that we must also address how we use water, where it will come from and how we will dispose of sewage. Traditionally we would tap the water table with wells to supply us with fresh water and utilise the biology of the land surface to treat effluent before it reaches the water table once again. Developing within a quarry, below the level of the general land surface and closer to the water table raises intriguing questions about water management, which are directly relevant to cities which have little green land surface to absorb effluents. Clearly we will need to be much smarter in creating closed loops of water and nutrient flows in future development.

The Resource Grid

The network that serves the extraction, processing and transportation of building materials and components has a substantial, mostly hidden impact. We are starting to learn about these impacts through measurement of the embodied Carbon, but this is only one small aspect of the total impacts which may include toxic emissions, environmental persistence or land degradation. As a first step, perhaps we could incorporate the concept of material miles alongside measures of embodied carbon to encourage the use of locally found materials and the preservation of the traditional craft skills to convert them.

The Financial Grid

We are all now confined by a Grid of debt which keeps drawing tighter. Debt enabled the rich to become richer whilst distracting the poor with instant gratification consumerism. Without the need to pay bankers’ bonuses, we could probably still exist on the basis of trading what we have for what we have not. Skills and materials are both tradable commodities and some Transition Towns are establishing their own currencies to promote such trading within their local economies. Peer to Peer lending represents the ultimate disruption to the traditional banking system, and ordinary individuals can now become business angels, as communications technology allows us to connect with far wider opportunities.

The Social Grid

Peer to Peer services, such as crowd funding, shared ownership and social networks, are rapidly undermining the rigid Grid of the capitalist social structure. Owning a car or a lawnmower is becoming almost pointless as you can now borrow these (or rent them at low cost) whenever needed, without incurring the cost of ownership. The construction of traditional housing is one of the most fundamental demonstrations of society based upon exchange and barter. In past times when a family needed to build a house their neighbours would all help, knowing that the favour would be returned, thus engendering community. Real life social networks, when individuals strive towards a common goal, are even more valuable than currency.

The Eco Grid

The Eco-System is the essential network that sustains life, providing us with oxygen, water and food whilst absorbing our waste (mostly). For generations we have pillaged the Eco-System with little thought for what appeared to be an infinite resource. Now we realise that our profligacy will haunt us for generations. We need to get off our rigid Grid of thinking about development on the one hand and environmental protection on the other and aim for convergence between human activity and the Eco-System. As designers, we must put biodiversity, natural resources and waste management at the forefront of our thinking, and I don’t mean just the odd bit of green roof green-wash.

So, perhaps, we could take Off-Grid to mean 21st Century development that is not reliant on centrally delivered services or pre-conceived intelligence, which matches people with opportunities outside the conventional socio-financial structure and which allows convergence of ideas and outcomes between traditionally conflicted spheres.That sounds to me like a proper ideal for the establishment of a new enterprise such as Curating Place.