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Sustainable aspirations are undermined by compromise

This week, according to housing minister Grant Shapps at least, was “an historic turning point” in the UK’s drive to slash carbon emissions and tackle climate change. New government standards, unveiled by Shapps, aim to ensure that every home built after 2016 be “zero carbon”.

Civil engineers have to take the lead role in this. Their mission – to champion sustainability and sustainable construction is defined by the ICE “as meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow”. But can they deliver? The evidence says no.

The UK has already tried – and failed – to deliver truly sustainable, zero-carbon communities. The ICE cites Bedzed, a 100 home development in the London borough of Sutton as “a sustainable, attractive and affordable housing community in south east England”. Unfortunately the developer is more honest, and confesses that it is not.

Bedzed failure

A review of the scheme carried out in 2007 concluded that the ecological footprint of the “average” Bedzed resident is 4.67 global hectares, equivalent to needing 2.6 planets of resources if everyone in the world lived like this. A keen resident, who made significant efforts to reduce their impact, could achieve an ecological footprint of three global hectares, or 1.7 planets.

“While this is a significant decrease in ecological footprint compared to the UK average, it is still not sustainable,” it concludes.

Which is pretty damning, given the efforts that went in to the scheme.

“Civil engineers worked to reduce the energy demands of 100 homes and 2,500m2 of commercial space,” says the ICE. “They then met the reduced demand for energy with renewable resources including passive solar heating and wood-fuelled combined heat and power (CHP).

“While BedZED’s tenants can lead sustainable and energy-efficient lifestyles by using local resources, recycling and by reducing water consumption and transport, engineers have used other techniques to reduce the amount of energy they require. Super insulation, high-performance glazing, air-tight details and natural ventilation that also recovers heat were used,” it says. “A reed-bed based ‘living machine’ was created to treat sewage and recycle water to underground tanks where it is stored with collected rainwater for toilet flushing. Photovoltaic cells on each block produce electricity to power 40 electric cars used by tenants.”

But it didn’t work, not helped by the failure of the CHP plant.

OK, its not a complete failure. BedZED’s original aims were to cut water consumption compared to the UK average by 33%, cut electricity consumption compared to the UK average by 33%, reducing space heating needs compared to the UK average by 90%, reduce private fossil fuel car mileage to 50% of UK average and – the zero bit - eliminate carbon emissions due to energy consumption.

The 2007 monitoring, carried out by developer BioRegional and the Peabody Trust found that energy and water use had fallen significantly – with electricity use 45% lower than the local average, water use less than half the local average and energy for heating 81% less than the local average. Car mileage was also down – although flights were up on the average Suttonian. But without the CHP plant the zero carbon bit was completely off, and even with it, the ecological footprint would have been barely reduced.

The limiting factor is that so much of Bedzed residents’ impact occurs outside of the estate; their schools, workplaces and the goods and food that they buy, for example. “And we have not so far been able to influence this,” says the monitoring report. Shapps’ initiative will not either.

Shapps’ compromise

He has rejected calls to make housebuilders anticipate the lifetime emissions of each property because it was “not reasonable”. He said that “they should not be responsible for the amount of television the families who buy their homes watch or the number of cups of tea they make each day”.

Toughened standards for fabric energy efficiency (insulation, glazing) will be included in future changes to the Building Regulations, and Shapps also said that the government will consult on the independent Zero Carbon Hub’s recommendations on the levels for other on site carbon reduction levels, which might require renewable energy technologies to be used like solar panels. And a proposed regime for off-site measures like community energy schemes which deliver additional carbon savings would be introduced. But it won’t be enough.

Masdar watered down

Because Bedzed is not the only failure. The global leader was, of course, intended to be Abu Dhabi’s Masdar. Conceived in 2006 as the world’s first zero carbon emission city, phase one is now complete after three years’ work and a spend of $1.4bn (£862M). The development, hardly a city in scale, consists of six main buildings, one street, 101 small apartments, a large electronic library, and the Masdar Institute.

Phase two, due to be finished this year, will add 222 more apartments, and more streets and shops. By 2015, Masdar City is expected to have 7,000 residents and 12,000 people commuting from Abu Dhabi.

But it’s still miles off what was intended.

Architect Sir Norman Foster planned to accommodate 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters and the city was due be completed by 2016; now the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025.

Foster’s vision was for Masdar’s streets to be car-free with pilotless maglev vehicles running around on a subterranean level. But this is now thought a white elephant and the rest of the city will be built on one level to save money.

The masterplan was to desalinate groundwater with solar energy, but for now water is piped in from one of Abu Dhabi’s gas-fired, high-energy, desalination plants.

The revised plan also no longer counts on-site energy generation as the only source of power. A scheme for covering all roofs with solar panels was found to be more costly than a centralised power plan and photovoltaic panels outside the city are proving less efficient than expected because of dust storms and haze. A multi-billion hydrogen power project has been called off.

US best practice

There is good work going on. Over in the US, President Obama has recently opened a new  $129M Department of Energy-funded Innovation Hub for Energy Efficient Buildings at Pennsylvania State University. And engineers involved in BedZed and Masdar will have learnt much. But with best endeavors and millions - or in the case of Masdar, billions – invested, zero carbon, sustainable construction still appears to be unachievable.

That was certainly the view of around 80 graduates and students in ICE Yorkshire last week, when the motion was put to the vote following a vigorous debate.  If the future of the profession doesn’t have the faith, then what chance is there?

Readers' comments (2)

  • David Williams

    It was pretty demoralising to read of the failure of BedZed - but at least they tried. In Weymouth we have thrown all concern for quality of life and cabon reduction out of the window. The relief road is being extended (for all practical purposes) through the heart of the town to Portland by replacing roundabouts on the route with complex light controlled intersections. The 'extension', however, is for cars and lorries. The cycle way, that was a requirement for the releif road to be built, stops where the road meets the town. Within the town the conditions for cyclists and pedestrians have deteoriated while everything being done in favour of the car. We've gone back to the thinking of the 1950s. It is time you came Weymouth Mark and wrote about what is happening here.

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  • I find it very sad that civil engineers are being targeted as "failures" because a couple of ambitious schemes have not turned out to be 100% effective.
    It is the nature of engineering to constantly investigate why forecast results had not occurred, to think "around and outside" the problem to seek different solutions. I am confident that this attitude will prevail in the engineering input to these schemes if it is allowed.
    Madar has suffered - not so much from engineering failures, but more from financial weakening. Even so, the city will succeed because it is an inspiration and contains growing tangible evidence that sustainability can work and problems will be sorted out. The will-power to make it succeed MUST be kept alive.
    Sustainability is not part of a "wish-list". It is essential for the World's survival.
    Demoralising articles by Mr Hansford do little to help in this aim.

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