Governments Get The Advice They Pay For

As my quest to obtain reimbursement of not insignificant travel expenses owed to me by the European Commission enters its seventh month, a couple of things have occurred to me: not only are governments of all descriptions and flavours completely out of touch with small business, but they undoubtedly also get the quality of expert advice that they pay for.

Back in the early part of the year I gave up two and a half days, unpaid, to attend a European Commission Science and Technology foresight workshop in Brussels, organised by Anne Glover, the EC Chief Scientific Advisor. The aim of the workshop was to scope the potential impacts of disruptive technologies so that European funding could focus on areas that would create the greatest benefits for European society. This was surely a worthy aim, but I believe that the execution reveals a fundamental flaw at the heart of such policy consultations.


At least I got to travel on lovely Brussels trams, even if the EC hasn’t made good on its promise to pay expenses.

Originally I was invited to address the gathering on developments in smart and sustainable cities, which was to be a short scene setting piece along with contributions from other experts from a wide variety of fields. In the end however, the workshop format was changed and I ended up, along with the other invited experts, merely contributing to discussion groups where we were outnumbered about 6 to 1 by euro-apparatchiks of one form or another.

This was a moment of revelation for me: The people who advise governments through such consultations are either from other institutions or from large businesses, not the people who really know about the issues; the pioneering small businesses. The average small business leader generally has more pressing concerns, such as ensuring continuing revenue and the ability to pay staff, to participate in unrelated, unpaid activity. Thus, unless policymakers are prepared to pay for the time of experts, the vast majority of people that they hear from will be those either paid to push a particular agenda or otherwise seeking influence.

This issue becomes increasingly problematic when it comes to trying to anticipate the impacts of new and potentially disruptive technologies. Disruption occurs when innovation leads to a revolutionary way of doing things, replacing the current business, social or policy paradigm. Disruption is impossible to predict from the viewpoint of the current paradigm which is embodied in current policy and established business practice. What I noticed in particular during the foresight workshop, was that many participants were simply regurgitating received wisdom, but the real insights came from the independently thinking small businesspeople, often from alternative fields.

The UK Technology Strategy Board (now rebranding as Innovate UK) does pay experts to help in seeking out innovation, at least through evaluating bids for public funding. The pay rates offered don’t actually cover the opportunity cost of the time commitment, but at least they allow us to convince ourselves that participation is not to the entire detriment of our businesses. The fact that we are paid experts also, I believe, engenders goodwill when it comes to our giving pro-bono support to help scope future competitions and contribute to the organisation’s wider aims.

On another tack, UK Government is regularly heard to lament the lack of innovation in publicly procured projects. It often blames this on the failure of SMEs to engage in public procurement, whilst continuing to set barriers to entry that preclude many SMEs based on finances and size of business. Looking at this picture as a whole, is it any wonder that so many small businesspeople are entirely disengaged from the public sector?

So, my message to governments and other policy organisations is that, if you want to receive meaningful advice and support from the expert small business community then you need to engage meaningfully with us, rather than simply expecting to be able to exploit us when it suits you and ignore us otherwise.

Maybe one day the European Commission will finally cough up my travel expenses and I’ll be so grateful for small mercies that I will be flooded afresh with goodwill towards governmental institutions. On the other hand, maybe the offhand way in which they have repeatedly dismissed my concerns mean that I might just continue to feel that my goodwill has been callously exploited.

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.

Objecting to IKEA

The Sainsbury’s store in Greenwich, which I worked on with Paul Hinkin of Black Architecture in the late 1990s is set to be demolished to make way for a big blue IKEA box, despite its being regarded as the most influential retail building worldwide in the last 30 years (Building Services Journal).

Photo: Millennium Sainsbury's

The Greenwich Council Planning website is open for comments on the IKEA Outline Application which requires the demolition of Sainsbury’s. I urge you to make a brief comment in support of retaining this important building.

My comments on the application are reproduced below:

The Greenwich Sainsbury’s was the first retail store to achieve BREEAM ‘excellent’, long before this requirement was adopted into planning policy. The original design achieved a 50% reduction in Carbon emissions at a time when the Building Regulations did not even measure Carbon. Further, the design focused on minimising the fundamental need for energy, rather than simply displacing energy supply from the grid to renewables. If a new building’s Carbon performance is predicated on renewables, then when the technologies eventually fail the building’s full demand will revert to the grid. By contrast the Sainsbury’s store will always be a low Carbon store by virtue of its fundamental design.

It is an appalling waste of resources and completely unsustainable to allow this store to be demolished so soon after construction. It is unfeasible that this should have come about by Sainsbury’s being able to place restrictions on the re-use of the existing building. Greenwich Planning Committee could make a strong statement about sustainability by calling for any restrictive covenant to be set aside and the building retained.

If the existing Sainsbury’s Store must be demolished please consider conditioning all of the building fabric improvements and energy efficiency measures set out in the Energy Assessment produced by Envision Energy in support of the IKEA application. Energy saving design is expensive compared to general construction and is typically value engineered out prior to contract. Without the full set of features described in the Energy Assessment, you would be left with a standard store design, compliant with the Building Regulations, but no more.

With regard to renewable energy, the IKEA development should aim to utilise the ground source energy potential left as a legacy by the Sainsbury’s store. Boreholes were sunk to serve as heat rejection for food refrigeration in the Sainsbury’s and these could be repurposed to serve a ground source, space heating and cooling system. This would be preferable to adding heavy goods vehicles delivering woodchip in an already congested part of South London, or the installation of photovoltaics, which essentially relies on offsetting to achieve Carbon abatement.

What I Learned This Week

This week, well actually over the last few weeks, I have learned that the UK construction industry is incredibly conservative, even more than I previously realised. I’ve also learned that the younger generation of professionals appears to be conditioned by received wisdom without necessarily examining the issues for themselves. Any challenge to the sacred cows of construction is seen as an affront and not an opportunity to learn and improve. I find this very worrying for the future of our industry.

Those that follow my blog or tweets will know that I am not afraid to express my opinions. In fact it is one of the main reasons that Building Design included me in their ranking of influential people a couple of years ago. But I am finding that activism for change is falling on increasingly deaf ears in construction. The mainstream construction industry seems to be losing the ability to think about the issues, particularly when these involve unwelcome truths or wicked problems.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in dinner jacket and black tie in the debating chamber of the Cambridge Union, which is modelled on the House of Commons, as part of a team arguing against the suggestion that “BIM is the Answer”. I chose to challenge two BIM dictums: that it will lead to more innovation and that it will generate greater collaboration. Lets be clear, I believe that BIM will be immensely helpful to the industry, but not in those ways.

Firstly, innovation is disruptive. Innovations come along and change the paradigm. Therefore it is not possible to model any innovation within the existing paradigm. That is why BIM cannot possibly stimulate innovation. A building information model can only be built from the existing paradigm and therefore true innovation is excluded from the modelled environment by its very nature.

Secondly, any technology that requires people to spend more and more time behind computers is a natural barrier to creative collaboration. Collaboration requires quality face to face time. Innovative businesses such as Apple and Ideo structure their teams to provide as much face to face contact time as possible to spark ideas which lead to innovation.

Counter arguments from the audience simply reiterated the cliches that BIM provides a less costly environment for innovation than bricks and mortar and that working on a common model equals collaboration.

I think that this reveals the complete misunderstanding in construction of what innovation really means. At The Atkins Christmas Debate on Innovation and Education it was clear that innovation was being defined by engineers as incremental improvement, not disruptive change. It is true that BIM will help deliver incremental improvement for construction, but that is not enough to be called innovation.

Construction teams are divided in order to drive down what is perceived as unnecessary expense. This is a barrier to collaboration so we invent management structures (of which BIM is one) to overcome it. As the management structures become more onerous we need to deploy staff simply to fulfil their demands. BIM is already the preserve of specialists that may never even meet each other. That is not collaboration.

Then last week we had the online Saint Gobain debate on whether there is a useful definition of a sustainable building. The discussion was wide ranging and should have provoked some genuine reflection on what it means to be sustainable in the 21st Century. In the end, the audience voted that there is a useful definition of sustainable building, even though nobody had been able to identify what it was. Once again the debate audience appeared to reject the opportunity to re-examine the issues but cleaved to the status quo.

I was on the losing side in both cases, but that is not what has made me sore (well only a little). No, rather, it is the retrenchment in the face of argument that concerns me most. As with climate change, we have almost reached a point where BIM and sustainability have become ideologies. The supporters and opponents of these positions become retrenched in response to any contrary argument and real debate about the issues is suppressed.

There have been other instances recently that have reinforced my jaded views. I can’t reveal confidential information but suffice to say I was invited to offer my opinion on a scheme only to find that the designers were not willing to discuss the issues, only to assert that their solution was sustainable despite evidence to the contrary.

Labelling buildings or construction tools as something they are not (or may be only a little) as pre-emptive defence against antagonists seems to have become prevalent. Has our industry become so beaten down that we now see every opportunity as a threat?

BIM has enough going for it already without making inflated claims to its capability. Sustainability is so wide ranging as to enable us to improve performance in so many ways, yet we still label buildings on the smallest justification. The fact that we have these tools and capabilities shouldn’t prevent us from striving to do better. Lets call a thing a thing and not pretend that it is more or less than it actually is.

(Actually politicians seem to think that they have magical powers that allow them to change the nature of something by calling it something else. This can be the only reason why the new Part L, which is to be enacted in April 2014, is called Part L 2013.)

The construction industry has been an amazing place to work for the last 25 years. It could be even more amazing in the future, but we need to stop hiding our heads, address the difficult truths and get on with making a real difference. Or am I just getting old and grumpy?

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.