Urban Utopia? BedZed's dream crumbles
Ecovillage Network UK
office at evnuk.org.uk
Thu Jun 1 14:33:01 BST 2006
Living in a dream
Guardian and http://www.newbuilder.co.uk/news/NewsFullStory.asp?ID=1393
Living in a dream
Residents moving in to the BedZed development believed they would be at
the forefront of an eco-friendly existence - then things started to go
wrong. Terry Slavin investigates if its zero-carbon goal is within reach
Wednesday May 17, 2006
On a rainy day in Sutton, south London, the brightly-coloured wind
cowels do not seem to rotate on the roofs of the BedZed housing
development with quite the same vigour as they did in the early days.
Indeed, four years after opening, BedZed's mission to show how people
can live without exceeding their fair share of the world's resources has
yet to be fulfilled. The biomass-fuelled system providing zero-carbon
heat and electricity to 100 homes finally packed up early last year,
forcing BedZed to draw its electricity entirely from the National Grid
on what, residents were dismayed to discover, was not even a green tariff.
Meanwhile, the other linchpin of BedZed's ethos - its Living Machine,
which uses reed beds to filter sewage water for use in toilets and
gardens - has been out of operation for the past seven months because
the Peabody Trust, the housing association that commissioned BedZed from
BioRegional Development Group, an entrepreneurial, independent
environmental organisation, could not afford to replace the operator.
Peter Wright, a development manager at the trust, says the project was
over-ambitious, using untested technology and a complicated wastewater
treatment system that were not economic to run. "I don't think BedZed
was properly understood [before it was commissioned]," Wright says. "It
was a demonstration project. We're a charity, formed to house people in
need, rather than to subsidise the biomass industry."
But Bill Dunster, BedZed's architect, who has built a career propagating
BedZed's design principles around the world, says solutions to the
community's problems are at hand and the project that made his name is
close to getting back on its zero-carbon track.
It cannot come soon enough for BedZed's close-knit group of residents
who have sat out the problems with the development in silent
forbearance, although, according to a study in 2003 by the estate agent
Savills, resale values at BedZed were on average 15% higher than
property in the surrounding area, which may explain residents' reticence
about publicising the problems.
Resident Helen Woolston says: "We're in the worst of all situations,
buying all our gas, getting electricity from the national grid, and
we're not even on a green tariff." But now they "see light at the end of
the tunnel", she says. And, even with the teething problems, she has no
regrets about choosing BedZed.
Woolston, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her three-year-old
daughter, Isabella, signed up to her flat when she first saw it as a
concrete shell. The alternative was a dingy, converted Victorian
terrace. "I've always wanted to lead a more sustainable lifestyle and I
couldn't believe my luck," Woolston says on finding the flat. "It's not
huge, but there's plenty of light, and there's a really nice feeling on
a sunny day."
She shows off her "sky garden", a patch of grass on top of the apartment
block facing her, accessible via a footbridge. Dunster sees the
Babylonian-style gardens as his signature innovation, allowing people to
live at Soho densities without sacrificing home counties' comforts.
As well as a sky garden, all the residents have access to troughs to
grow vegetables, a focus for communal activity that has helped nurture
an extraordinary community spirit at BedZed. For Woolston, "the social
side is almost the best bit".
Although the zero-carbon living has failed to materialise, Woolston
points out that because the houses are so well-insulated and the
wind-driven ventilation system is so efficient, there is barely any need
for heat. "We wanted to be as green as possible - not necessarily zero
carbon. I have felt positive that by existing in this place we are using
less electricity, heat and water."
Sue Riddlestone, a director of BioRegional, concedes that there have
been problems. As a resident herself, she has had to withstand a few
tepid showers. But she says the use of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells has
cut electricity bills and BedZed uses water a third more efficiently
than other developments of its size, even without the Living Machine in
operation. "With projects like BedZed, which are pioneering and ahead of
their time, it's not unusual for parts of it not to work so well," she
says. "But everyone wants to get back to the zero-carbon position."
The first upturn in BedZed's fortunes came late last year when Thames
Water agreed to take over the Living Machine and run it alongside new
technology from the US. It is due to move in to BedZed later this year.
Additionally, Dunster says, a replacement technology to provide heat and
power from biomass has been identified to fill the gap left by the
failed combined heat and power (CHP) system, which was so unreliable
that Peabody installed gas boilers after the first winter. Dunster says
he is now talking to the Greater London Authority's Climate Change
Agency and the Carbon Trust about funding for the new system. "If things
go well, there's a good chance we'll have the plant replaced in time for
winter," he says.
And Dunster is excited about the prospect of finally fulfilling one of
the original ambitions of BedZed: being able to offer organic,
zero-carbon food to residents through a new offshoot of his Zed empire.
He has located an organic farm in Kent where the tractors run on
rapeseed oil and, it is hoped, power needs are to be met by wind
turbines and a methane biodigester CHP system. The project in Kent is
about to apply for planning permission for the green technology. If it
goes ahead, electric delivery vehicles will bring the food to BedZed and
Dunster's other urban communities in London, ensuring that the
deliveries rack up no carbon food miles. "You can start to see how it's
really possible to lead a zero-fossil fuel lifestyle," he says.
But aside from getting their wayward child back on its zero-carbon
track, BioRegional and Dunster are moving in their own directions in
their approach to green design.
BioRegional has created a blueprint for low carbon living with WWF
called One Planet Living, which it is acting as consultant on projects
across the world. And last year it teamed up with FTSE-listed firm
Quintain, developer for the £1.3bn regeneration of Wembley, in a joint
venture called Bioregional Quintain to build projects in the UK.
Two Bioregional Quintain projects - 500 homes in Middlesbrough and 170
apartments in Brighton - have been submitted for planning permission,
but its most ambitious plan is for a 2,000-home zero-carbon development
in the proposed Thames Gateway called Z-squared, for which it hopes to
find a site this year.
Biomass-derived energy and low carbon food and transport infrastructures
are major features of the proposed developments, but you will search in
vain to find the south-facing conservatories and wind-driven ventilation
system beloved by Dunster in BedZed.
Pooran Desai, sustainability director of BioRegional Quintain, says
BedZed "may have been a step too far" in its radical architectural
design. Desai, also a BedZed resident, says the conservatories trap heat
in the winter, but overheat during summer, at a time when summers in
Britain are getting warmer. They, and other building-integrated
technologies such as PV panels and wind cowels, add significantly to the
costs, he says.
Research carried out by BioRegional suggests that BedZed residents emit
40% less carbon than the average UK household, with the largest savings
coming from CHP (16%) and the car club (11%). The architecture itself
accounted for only 3% of carbon savings, it says.
"We realised that the big benefits are coming from the car clubs and the
lifestyle side," says Desai. "We didn't think we had to spend so much on
buildings when they contribute such a tiny amount of the person's carbon
He says BioRegional Quintain does not want to be doctrinaire about
design. "We want to see a diversity of developments with the aspiration
of people reducing their carbon footprints."
Meanwhile, Dunster, whose latest low-carbon projects include a 145-unit
development about to be constructed in Leicester and projects in China,
says BioRegional's figures for BedZed are "rather misleading" and that
the car club, in particular, has failed to take off.
"Most people who come to BedZed haven't given up their cars, and they
aren't eating local food," he says. "It's not the buildings that aren't
working, it's the profligacy of a modern consumer society. The really
successful part of the project has been the ultra energy-efficient
building fabric, the solar electric panels and the fact that residents
get garden space and a 15% increase in their floor area [with the
passive solar conservatories]. The conservatories are the one thing most
people really, really like."
Cut-price wind turbines
Unlike BioRegional, whose developments, such as the project in Brighton,
will draw much of their zero-carbon energy from offsite sources such as
wind turbines, Dunster believes energy must be generated on site. And he
thinks he's solved the cost problem. From this month, he will begin
selling to the public and the construction industry cut-price wind
turbines and solar panels that he has imported from China - a move that
will generate considerable heat in the UK's fledgling renewables industry.
The schism between the developer and architect is seen in their approach
to solving the problems at BedZed, with Dunster working hard to find a
replacement biomass CHP system, and Desai arguing for the more tried and
tested technology of biomass heating, with electricity imported on a
Amid the flying sparks, Wright has tried hard to keep his head down.
He's not convinced that the new heat and power system that Dunster is
championing will get the necessary funding or, more importantly, work as
it should. At the same time, getting on a green tariff, he says, is
easier said than done: electricity supplier EDF has rebuffed BedZed's
attempts to buy green electricity, saying government agencies have
cornered the market.
"It's ironic," Wright says. "Green tariff electricity comes from places
like BedZed. The new CHP system could be the answer, but it needs a
bigger picture to make it happen. We need a different investment model
if it's going to be biomass based."
But Dunster firmly believes that the funding is in place and that BedZed
will soon get back on track. "In a year's time, the original ambition
when we started this project will be on offer to residents," he insists.
"All the people who have been detracting and knocking it for all these
years are going to look very silly."
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