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Urban Utopia? BedZed's dream crumbles

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  • Ecovillage Network UK
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2006
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      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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