6 March 2014

Black Thoughts on EcoBuild

It has been a totally surreal twelve hours; last night I was at Royal Greenwich to witness the planning committee rubber stamp the outline consent that will permit the destruction of Sainsbury’s Greenwich, one of the most innovative and pioneering public eco-buildings, and then next morning off to EcoBuild to be bombarded by every kind of product, all pitched with an eco-spin.  I guess if we are going to demolish our best building after less than 15 years we really need to question the benefit of investing time, effort or energy to improve building performance; but that discussion can wait for another day!

Solar powered alternative
 to kerosene lamps
 supplied by Charity Solar Aid
My mission this morning was to search out the small and the innovative and I have to credit the organisers of EcoBuild, because they were far better represented than at previous shows.  I would suggest that visitors start their visit, as I did, by heading for Resource Area (Realising the Opportunities of a Circular Economy).  Within this co-located event, is a wide range of small education, charity and SME businesses all working to promote resource efficiency and reduce waste. 

The Royal College of Art are promoting their SustainRCA initiative providing education, research and consultancy for businesses.  The Great Recovery challenges the current economic and environmental model of take, make, dispose manufacturing.  They promote a shift towards more circular systems and believe good design thinking is pivotal to this transition. The Great Recovery is building new networks to explore the issues, investigate innovation gaps and incubate new partnerships.

&SHARE are a resource sharing enterprise that provides an insurance backed platform to encourage organisation to meet and share their resources, including workspace, equipment, skills or data.  They also offer users the opportunity to choose to work with businesses and non-profit organisations in their local area.  In a similar vein, restart provide training for individuals, groups and organisations on how to repair our electronic gadgets, helping to reduce the 23% of functioning equipment taken for disposal.
The combination of environmental and economic sustainability drivers being linked to positive social outcomes was a feature of many of the most interesting propositions as was the increased diversity of organisations represented.

Goldfinger Factory is an upcycling production and learning hub for London’s most deprived residents, selling desirable home furnishings and fit-outs for London’s trendsetting residents and businesses.  Based at the bottom of the iconic Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger, they must have one of the most desirable factory locations in London!  They provide free workshops for the local community in furniture up-cycling, DIY and interior design as well as accredited training, work skills experience and ultimately create new job opportunities.

Among the acres of PV on show, coming mainly from China, were a number of smaller organisations offering renewable energy storage and optomisation solutions.  My favourite show giveaway was a Cadbury’s Boost bar from SOLARiBOOST (do you see what they did there?) a low cost device which uses a domestic hot water cylinder to store electricity from PV panels as heat, removing the need for a separate solar hot water systems.
Similarly, Maslow provides modern, high performance battery storage of renewable energy used to power direct current (DC), LED lighting systems and other DC equipment, without the need for wasteful power supply adaptors.  It is great to see these storage technologies coming to market and challenging the assumption that renewables will be unable to meet our future energy needs due to their inherent, intermittent availability.

The UK timber industry was well represented under the inspirational Grown in Britain banner and included a particularly good stand from English Woodland Timber Ltd who offer a wide range of shingles, timber cladding and other products made from locally grow timber, along with larger section sizes, seasoned in West Sussex and suitable for a wide range of specialist joinery applications.  I would love to see the Grown in Britain idea developed into building projects that are Made in Britain, to create jobs, preserve value from construction locally and ultimately help rebalance our economy.

I was surprised and delighted to see Rentez-Vous a marketplace that allows individuals to hire out their under-utilised designer clothing represented.  It is interesting that they see value in presenting their service to the EcoBuild audience and I hope that this trend for diversification is encouraged and supported by favourable terms for charities, non-profit organisations and start-ups in the future.
My most surprising product of the show was a high performance pet door from petwalk which they claim offers great design, comfort, energy saving and protection for you and your pets.  My only reservation is whether our two Dachshunds, Hyphen and Ditto are bright enough to work out how a door works?  At least it can be programmed to open automatically when the door senses their identity chips!

Best visual aid was by Giraffe Innovation Ltd who produced a statue of a person and scaled their hands, feet, stomach and mouth to represent the impact of their carbon footprint and then provide recommendations on how to Change Your Habit.

I had a really interesting discussion with Solar Aid provides low cost solar powered alternatives to expensive, polluting and dangerous kerosene lamps and we shall be exploring opportunities to collaborate on our sustainable school project in Uganda after my site visit at the end of the month.

In summary, I would say that uncertainty over the Green Deal has significantly reduced the number of refurbishment products on display and that wind turbines have disappeared almost completely, to be replaced by an explosion in PV and biofuel systems.  The Green Fringe and Resource Co-located event are both good initiatives which have helped to make this show more interesting and relevant than it has been for some time.  I would love to see the diversity displayed in the exhibition reflected in the wider conference programme and would encourage the organisers to seek out the innovative and inspirational work of the many smaller organisations who struggle to get their story’s told in mainstream media.

5 March 2014

The Time for Rhetoric is Over!

The time for rhetoric is over; what we need now is concentrated and concerted action leading to actual strategic change!

It is my belief that we are at a cross roads in the evolution of sustainable development in the UK and that the choices that we make in the next decade will radically shape the nature of our economy, environment and society for the rest of the next century.  Get our choices right and we will make the transition to a zero carbon economy and develop the tools, techniques and products to help less developed nations achieve similar benefits.  However, if we get it wrong and allow short-term, poor strategic thinking to dictate our choices, we will see the rapid destabilisation of our economy and environment, creating a perfect storm that we will be increasingly powerless to arrest.
One of the first issues that we will need to decide upon which will have a major influence on our future is the relationship between energy demand and supply.  We know that we need to renew  our power infrastructure and that this will significantly increase our energy costs, yet we are rushing headlong into signing contracts for foreign built and operated nuclear power stations, although we have done virtually nothing to refurbish our poorly performing existing building estate.  Surely a programme of demand reduction must be undertaken before we are locked into onerous and expensive energy supply contracts that will last for the next 50 years?

In our rush to make inappropriate and short term choices we are, in my opinion, also embracing fracking with unseemly haste!  Did I miss something, or is “natural” gas not a non-renewable fossil fuel just like the stuff that we previously got out of the North Sea before we used it all up?  How are we going to prevent the worst effects of climate change if we are simply to maintain our reliance on fossil fuels?  We need a renewable energy strategy and to develop appropriate expertise to drive the transition to a post-carbon Renewable Age.  This will provide a clear vision for economic development, help to develop new green tech businesses and provide the impetus for training and skills development.

To effectively manage our activities, the construction industry must work tirelessly to achieve positive social outcomes and ensure that all of our products are tailored to fit the people who will use them.  We must urgently invest in R&D to increase our collective knowledge base and ensure that the gap between predicted and actual performance is closed.  We need to adopt User Centred Design methodologies that will ensure that buildings are fit for human occupation, breaking the tyranny of the image which forces people to inhabit ever more contorted forms conceived with no thought to the effects that they will have upon their inhabitants.  This will only be achieved when we radically improve the way we procure design and fully embrace intelligent, evidence based team selection protocols.

Ultimately we need to develop a model for integrated sustainable development where social drivers are placed at the epicentre of the design process with both economics and environmental issues thoroughly address and reconciled.  We need to find appropriate and relevant solutions that will drive through the paradigm shift that we desperately need if we are to address the pressing concerns of our age and create enduring value for those who will follow us.

This piece is also published in the UK Green Building Council(UK-GBC) publication:

A defining decade:
Radically transforming the built environment by 2025
A collection of essays from UK-GBC's Leaders' Network