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
The Guardian

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.

Silent forbearance

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 
green tariff.

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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