Kids pollinating plants instead of each other…

I don’t watch hours of TV – there’s not a lot on. But if you ever want to take a bite size of interesting stuff you should visit ted.com

This week I saw a 13 minute whirlwind which you have to watch. Do you ever wish your teacher was like this at school? Stephen Ritz is a whirlwind of energy and ideas, he’s also a teacher in New York’s tough South Bronx. There he and his kids grow lush gardens for food, greenery … and jobs.

Fascinating and inspiring…

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Not so sustainable….

I drive past McDonalds every day – deliberately. It isn’t part of my daily routine.

But I do remember the Nottingham Castle Marina branch being opened. If my memory serves me right it was 1989 – and a certain Martin Brandon-Bravo, the local MP at the time performed the little curtain drawing ceremony. I remember this as there was a brass plaque form many years. Then when he lost his seat McDonalds took the plaque down! Like erasing history?

So 24 years on, it is interesting to see another re-fit. A major one this time as the ‘restaurant’ has been closed for weeks. It’s not a great advert for the longevity of buildings.

Last week I was judging some awards – and the question of sustainability came up. Sure, we are putting buildings up with low carbon footprints. We are even getting good at it – some of the technologies are so clever we are being paid by the utility companies as they produce too much electricity to use themselves.

I guess McDonald’s are fitting better insulation and greener technologies.

But this building is 24 years old. It’s not exactly sustainable then. We have all of the embedded carbon from its original construction – and now another load.

My point is that some of the best sustainable buildings we have are buildings that have stood the test of time. Take the Pitcher & Piano in Nottingham. It was a church – built in 1876. It stopped being used as a pace of worship in 1982 when it briefly became a Lace Museum. Now a thriving pub. Sure, it has had a refit internally, but is this not a truly sustainable building? 136 years and counting?

Compare this to the monstrosity being built on Castle Boulevard I blogged about here. Will this be standing in 136 years – not a chance. Bet you my life on it…

Oh – and Ronny McD I haven’t forgiven you for taking down that brass plaque….

Can supermarkets ever be sustainable?

I am the least green person I know – although I do go to London on the train and sometimes get out on my bike. But there ends my light touch on the planet.

A few months ago I was in a place called Biddulph. If you get the chance to go there, don’t. Wash your hair instead. It’s the sort of place NASA could use for training – you know – no atmosphere. It’s also difficult to get to. Especially from Nottingham.

I valued some property there. It wasn’t one of my high-value jobs. And I had a look around the place. I came across a Sainsbury’s superstore. It was green. Very green – solar panels, rainwater harvesting, high insulation and generally those things we do in buildings to lower the carbon footprint. All good stuff and the feel-good factor was high. There were even posters to tell me how good I should feel.

But here’s the thing – they’re not really sustainable are they? The only thing they sustain are their profits.

As I have wandered around various places over the last few weeks it is plain to see that we have lots of vacant shops. Too many.

But they did have a use once upon a time – as shops. They haven’t always been vacant. And despite Mary Portas not wanting to apportion blame – the blame almost certainly lies at the door of the supermarkets. These monster (green) stores are built and they are like death stars – they suck the lifeblood out of everything around. Although Tesco have now announced an end to their big box concept the damage has been done.

It is not sustainable to build a supermarket which then shuts down all the local shops around it.

One of the biggest issues we face in reducing carbon footprint is the existing building stock. And buildings which are vacant will not attract the investment required to get them to standard needed…It’s a double whammy!

Water, water everywhere?

I have been working with some Canadians, who are looking at bringing to the UK their skills in re-using waste water. They did it very successfully at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.

In essence, waste water in the UK is generally treated good enough to throw away. But it contains a rich stream of goodies – heat, fuel and water. If you can separate them it can become a genuine resource. It is clear that we need to look at ways in which we can better use the resources we are fast using up. As the population grows, we have to think about these sort of things.

I was amazed at the weekend to find an article (through Earth Baby’s excellent blog) about Denver in the United States. There it is illegal to re-use water. You buy your water from Denver Water – and you are allowed to use it – once! They you have to give it back to them – and they treat it! They claim they use it 7 or 8 times before giving it to Nebraska…

To make matters worse – Denver Water even claim right to the stuff that falls from the sky. It is illegal to collect rainwater and re-use it. You might own the gutters to the house, but you are collecting it for them (to clean up and sell back to you). There is some fan static language as to why – “it will injure vested water rights”. Oh, that’s ok then! At least we all know and you are upfront about it.

Putting to one side the arguments about monopolies, selling ice to Iceland and being ripped off generally, this is an amazing position to adopt in 2012. It surely can’t be sustainable on any level? America – leaders of the free world? Hmmmm.

Another knee jerk policy : the feed in tariff cut was illegal

You might have spotted this story just before the Christmas break. Friends of the Earth and two solar firms, Solarcentury and HomeSun took the Government to court over the decision to slash the Feed in Tariff from 43.3p to just 21p per kilowatt hour. The favourable rate was introduced in 2010 as a deliberately attractive rate to encourage the fitting of panels.

A whole industry sprang up. Thousands signed up and this technology has the prospect of making real inroads to our CO2 emissions. Self generation (and selling surplus power back the grid) are clearly very green. Your south facing roof could save CO2 and potentially make you money.

But no sooner had the movement started than the Government slash the rate of the feed in tariff. Not by a few percentage points, but by half. The announcement was made in the middle of the consultation period! Mr Justice Mitting in the High Court found the Governments decision to slash feed-in tariffs (FiT) several months early, before a consultation on the issue ended, was “legally flawed”. There is likely to be a Judicial Review in the New year.

Of course a number of people paid premium prices to get panels fitted before the cut off date – which now looks like a waste of money. But more fundamentally, this whole debacle has put some people off the fitting of the panels.

Like most things, we don’t like uncertainty. The smart money is that this is a set-back. the Government have had their knuckles rapped. But they will almost certainly reduce the rate – they’ll just have to it a bit smarter next time!

Nas the clue is in the official Government response – Greg Barker the Climate Change Minister said the government disagreed with the court’s decision and would seek an appeal.

Perhaps the Government are not quite as Green as they suggest?

UPDATE 4 January

Climate change minister Greg Barker has today said, “We disagree with the court’s decision,” adding, “We will be seeking an appeal and hope to secure a hearing as soon as possible. Regardless of the outcome, the current high tariffs for solar PV are not sustainable and changes need to be made in order to protect the budget, which is funded by consumers through their energy bills.”

The Empire State Building is green…

In all the times I have been to the USA I have never really thought they go mad on green. I think a few years ago, the best they got was lighting the Empire State with green lights – missing the point a bit?

But times have changed and this building now sources 100% of renewable energy. The owners announced recently that they are buying all of their energy from the Green Mountain Energy Company. This is reckoned to save around 45,000 tonnes of CO2 annually – or the equivalent of
planting nearly 150,000 trees – more than 6 times the number of trees in Central Park now.

The owners have spent $550m in the last twelve months – of which $100m has been on ‘green technologies’. 6,500 windows have been upgraded to replace the glazing with a new super-insulated sandwich glass. This will save another 100,000 tonnes of CO2 over a 15 year period – the equivalent of 17,500 cars being taken off the road.

I think it has taken the Americans some time to come to the sustainability table. New York is rather consumer-centric.

The Empire State building isn’t my favourite New York piece of architecture (The Chrysler Building is), but you can use it in lots of places to identify where you are! It is certainly iconic. And at 2.85m sq ft – it is a monster of a building – from a different era. But it is now bang up to date! And very green…

When I say ‘green’ I mean purple…. bright purple last night!

Super-green building?

Hot on the heels of my blog post earlier this week comes news of the greenest building in the world!

I had a meeting with Juwi – a sustainable energy company in the week and they were keen to tell us about their ‘life choices’. The spiel goes, “Our headquarters in Wörrstadt are the world’s most energy efficient building in the world, which produces more energy than is used.”.

So, the World’s most energy efficient building. You can download their data sheet here. It makes for interesting reading.

On the face of it, it’s pretty ‘green’. Solar panels, wind turbines, natural ventilation -lots of natural light and all of the other features we have become used to.

They are a hugely successful company – 1,400 employees and €800m turnover. They do live a green way of life.

But is their claim about being the greenest building in the world right? Well, the answer is that I don’t know. I can’t get any information. It seems they produce more energy than they need. But I can’t work out how much. Nor can I find any information on what certification has been used for the building. In Germany I had thought the body responsible was the German Sustainable Building Council – they have a website here. It even has a list of certified buildings here.

This is not a blog post criticising Juwi – far from it, I think their building looks brilliant. And it clearly is ‘dark’ green! It has all of the features we have become used to – and they need to be congratulated on their work.

But, I think this reinforces my earlier blog post. we need some consistency in how we measure buildings. And be clear about what we are measuring. We also need to be careful if we make bold statements – like being the greenest, bluest, yellow-ist etc.

In Aya Sofia in Istanbul a few weeks ago I stood at the centre of the Universe. That’s what is said on the sign…

Valuation – beautiful simplicity?

You probably already know that I value buildings as part of my job. And I have an interest in green buildings – particularly the relationship of ‘greenness’ and value.

Valuation can sometimes be complex, but on occasion there is a simplicity which can be quite stark. I drew this picture above to a group of people at the conference I was at in Shanghai. Whilst I ‘think’ in pictures, many of them didn’t, but immediately spotted the issue.

There is a difference between the cost of a building and its value. We measure buildings differently for each. For cost we generally take the external dimensions. For value we take the internal measurements. If in my simple buildings above suggest £200 per unit to build and £325 per unit of value, the calculations will be 12x12x200 = £28,800 for cost to build and the resultant value is 10x10x325 = £32,500.

One of the big ‘easy’ solutions for buildings is to improve insulation. We are told that this single element could reduce our carbon footprint by the most significant amount.

So my ‘green’ building on the right has walls twice as thick – allowing for extra insulation.

The calculations – as you can see – build costs are the same but the value is 8x8x325=£20,800. Not only is this £11,700 less, but the builder loses £8,000!

I accept that I have simplified the calculations, but you can see that simply increasing the insulation depth has a significant effect on value.

We still have a lot to do in trying to increase the thermal efficiency of a building – whilst making sure that the usable space delivers value.

Simple really!

A green Christmas?

I have managed pretty much to avoid blogging about Christmas so far, but I now feel moved to do so. I am working up to doing some shopping too; I might just wait a couple more days though…

I just wonder how green Christmas is? Not very I suspect.

Firstly there is all of that packaging. This is both of the gifts themselves but also the bag from the shops or the cardboard from Amazon! Then we wrap the pressies in lovely paper – around 83 square kilometres of the stuff – in context that would just about cover the whole of Guernsey…

Then there’s the billion or so Christmas cards we send each year (The average is 17 each so you can judge your own popularity).

What about the 7.1 million Christmas trees we chop down and then discard?

And then there’s all that electricity for those lights – especially the ones in my photograph.

Bah Humbug!

The future of the City?

Some recent research suggest that the human species is on the move – towards the City. More so than ever before in our history.

New York skyline

It is estimated that by 2040 some 65% of the population of the World will live in an urban area. In itself this is quite a shift – but add to the mix an estimated increase in population in the same period from the current 6.9bn to 8.8bn. As a direct result of this the population living in slums in our Cities around the World by 2040 is expected to increase from the present 1bn to 2bn.

And if you thought we had spotted a tend already think again. Many people have never heard of Chongqing in China. It sits on Yangtze River. The population is estimated to be 32m – in reality no one really knows because the edges of the urbanisation have begun to blur. But in context Greater London is supposed to be around 21m, New York Tri-State 22m.

Clearly this poses some important questions for our Cities. What will they look like? How will they function? How will they be sustainable (in the widest sense of the word).

When I was in Shanghai back in the warm August sun I was amazed at the size of Shanghai – it took us around 45 minutes on a reasonably fast carriageway to reach the outer limits of the City.

Clearly transportation is going to be key in these mega-Cities. Paradoxically New York is one of the most efficient urbanisation’s for transport – LA is one of the worst – the urban sprawl hinders it.

Energy is also going to be a big deal – a huge amount is going to be needed to keep the Cities alight – imagine all those light bulbs needed.

What is clear is that we are going to have to think very carefully about the infrastructure that makes our home places tick.

The tricky balance of social, economic and environmental pressures are going to be the real challenge for us as we stride forward…