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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2005
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Better Homes and Garbage
Green From the Ground Up
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Better Homes and Garbage
In Bill Dunster's London-area housing development, residents tread lightly without even trying.
by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Architect Bill Dunster
When it comes to devouring our natural resources, the places we live and work are monsters. More than half the materials consumed globally are used in construction, and 45 percent of the world's energy is used to heat, light, and ventilate our buildings. In the United States, three-quarters of all lumber goes toward new houses, remodels, and repairs. With the trend toward supersizing, lumber needs continue to grow: Our homes were 38 percent bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average.

Low impact, high style: A one-bedroom BedZED apartment is 603 square feet and costs around $200,000, a steal in London. Above, rooftop devices heat, cool, and freshen air while plants around them absorb carbon dioxide and insulate.
We dump millions of tons of "waste wood" from construction and demolition into our landfills each year, and toss 4.4 pounds of garbage per person, per day, on top of it -- much of it either recyclable or compostable. And that's not all. Irresponsible housing development, combined with an addiction to the automobile, have led to colossal suburban sprawl.

Each year, sprawl covers an amount of land nearly the size of Yellowstone National Park, while drive times between work and home and for necessities like groceries increasingly eat away at our lives: The average American driver spends the equivalent of 55 eight-hour workdays behind the wheel annually. If the rest of the world's people lived and consumed like that average American, we would need five planets to support them.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the situation isn't much better. But there's a bright spot on the map, thanks to a cranky, visionary architect named Bill Dunster. In the suburb of Beddington, a half hour by train from central London, Dunster, 44, has designed and built a "Zero Energy Development" that has earned worldwide attention. Called BedZED by its creator and "the UK's most revolutionary housing" by the Manchester Guardian, the 82-unit development is built on the cleaned-up site of an old sewage plant and blends work and living space, rentals and private homes.

BedZEDís bricks were made locally, reducing transport costs and pollution; its wood exterior is sustainably logged green oak, also from a local source.
Using renewable energy, it has the potential to satisfy all its energy needs. There is no net contribution of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels and a greenhouse gas linked to climate change. When the fine-tuning of the site's innovative micro power plant is completed this year, there may even be a small net export of green electricity to the national power grid.

From the train, a visitor can easily spot Dunster's development. Its multicolored rooftop ventilation systems look more like rooster heads than wind cowls. In fits of whimsy and utility, the two-way cowls spin in the breeze to deliver fresh air. Outgoing stale air heats incoming air, ensuring comfortable temperatures ineach room of the superinsulated homes. No energy-guzzling heating systems or circulation fans are required.

High-tech tricks like this, along with solar panels, double- and triple-glazed windows, energy-efficient lights and appliances, and the power plant, which burns urban tree waste, help residents enjoy a hypergreen lifestyle. (Since the power plant burns trimmings from trees, which absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide as they grow, the process is considered "carbon neutral"; additionally, the plant is nearly twice as efficient as conventional off-site facilities that burn fossil fuels, and so clean-burning that its particulate levels are negligible.)

But it's not just the environment that benefits. Quality of life has been considered as well. Homes are terraced so that almost everyone can have a private garden without decreasing the development's density. In fact, according to Dunster, if BedZED's density were replicated, the UK could restore and reuse the nation's brownfields, or contaminated properties, and build the 3 million homes the government says are needed by 2016 with no loss of open space.

The development has a childcare center and is a five-minute walk to the train station, and for those who drive an electric car -- Dunster does -- the building's solar panels provide free power. On-site businesses include engineers, psychotherapists, environmental groups, property developers, and recycling companies. Insulated lockboxes outside residents' front doors provide temporary storage for groceries, delivered en masse by store vans, saving individual car trips. Built-in bins in the kitchen simplify the recycling process, and large windows and a conservatory, or sunroom, let the light stream in. Recycled timber adds aesthetic warmth to rooms, while sedums planted on the buildings' roofs attract birds and butterflies.

Though there's nothing quite like it in the United States, ironically BedZED was made possible by an American. In 1862, while acting as ambassador to the UK, philanthropist George Peabody gave the city of London $2.5 million to build affordable, clean, comfortable housing for workers. The Peabody Trust now owns or manages over 19,000 mixed-income properties across greater London; BedZED is its most innovative investment to date.

When the units became available in 2001, they were either rented or sold within a matter of months. On Dunster's Web site,, he invites those interested in buying future ZED homes to sign up. So far, more than a thousand have. Yet "Britain's greenest architect," as Building magazine called him in 2003, has hit a wall finding funding for those projects -- even with a stellar track record and obvious demand.

Part of the blockage is due to conventional builders who don't like change, and who worry that innovation will cut into their profit margin. Dunster says problems also arise from environmentalists. A 15-story condominium development proposal for the London borough of Harrow, for instance, was opposed by some members of the local chapter of Friends of the Earth. "I had concerns about the high-rise nature [of the project]," says Bernard Burns, coordinator for the chapter. "I felt it was overdevelopment."

Last summer, Dunster drove his electric car the half hour from his ZED-style home to meet with Sierra at his BedZED offices.

Sierra: Why did the Harrow Friends of the Earth oppose your green design?

Dunster: Because [they] are emotive and they're not actually looking at environmental and policy problems from a dispassionate point of view.

Sierra: If they were dispassionate, what would they see?

Dunster: The project we called HarrowZED was going to be built on a brownfield site, in a suburban area next to a [subway] station. We live on a very crowded little island, and there is a massive shortage of land. Government, volume house-builders, all the big construction companies, want to put housing on greenbelt and agricultural land.

For HarrowZED, we proposed a densification of suburbia, arguing that increasing the density around public-transport nodes is one of the greenest things you can do. Transportation is as important as the design of buildings, in fact. Annual emissions from a typical UK family can be split into thirds: car use, heating and powering the home, and food miles [i.e., emissions caused by hauling food from around the world to one's grocery store].

We showed how we could get densification near public transportation, design to reduce energy demand to the point where it could be met by renewable energy sources generated within the site boundaries, conserve an old orchard nearby, and provide each unit with a garden, and yet it was blocked by this environmental pressure group. We think they've lost their marbles.

When you actually do a dispassionate analysis of how serious carbon reductions have to be, how to reduce the "ecological footprint" [the amount of land and water needed to produce the resources we consume and to dispose of the waste we produce], you end up with solutions like BedZED or HarrowZED.

Sierra: Why have your projects sometimes been judged harshly?

Dunster: I think it's more a comment on the maturity of society. There has to be innovation, change, responses to natural stimuli, whether it's pollution, climate change, harvest failure, whatever. We live in a dynamic world. But there is actually very little awareness of the big picture. The problem is the lack of an overview.

Sierra: How do you see the big picture?

Dunster: Environmental degradation is a major social problem. This year, one of the UK's most eminent climatologists, Sir John Houghton, said that global warming was a weapon of mass destruction. Somewhere between 2050 and 2080, the summertime temperature in London will approximate Marseille due to climate change.

The harvest completely failed in southern Italy last summer due to drought. In 2003, over 14,000 people died in France, and 900 died in the UK, from overheating. North Sea gas runs completely out in five years, and North Sea oil runs out in ten. The UK is already a net importer of oil, which comes from some of the most politically unstable countries in the world. So you tell me how Europe is going to work.

Sierra: I hadn't expected you to say that environmentalists were giving you a hard time. You have no trouble with demand but with supply, which I thought was caused by the government not supporting sustainable architecture and housing contractors being afraid to build your innovative designs.

Dunster: It's all of those things. The classic excuse we get is that nobody can afford to build green. But the reason people usually can't afford to build green is because the project is a one-off prototype. You wouldn't expect a prototype car to cost the same as a production model, so you shouldn't expect the same for buildings.

We've found that if we could build between 2,000 and 5,000 units a year, there would be no additional cost for using [resource-saving and sustainable] materials. In fact, you could even get savings. The UK government is talking about needing to build an additional 165,000 homes a year. If we could get between 4 and 5 percent of the housing market built to our specification, it would be no trouble at all.

Sierra: How realistic is it to think that renewable energy can satisfy the needs of new homes?

Dunster: If you take a typical UK home and cover it in solar electric panels, you provide just about enough annual electricity to run a big American fridge, which by the way is all the rage in the UK right now. The volume home-builders ask, "Why would we put those panels on our houses if all it does is power a fridge?" What we're saying is, get your energy loads down and renewable energy works. When you design properly you get a spectacular reduction in load, which we have achieved at BedZED.

Sierra: Is it difficult for residents to figure out how to work with their homes? In mine, when I'm cold I simply turn on the heat.

Dunster: You can live in a BedZED unit and leave your doors and windows open in the middle of winter and you can be cold. Or, you can be careful and you can shut them, be precise about how you live in your unit, and be perfectly comfortable. It's like sailing a boat. You can sail the boat badly and capsize it, or you can race along at a beautiful speed over the water. These houses in many ways are like yachts. It has to do with the attitude of the sailor.

Sierra: What type of person lives in one of your homes?

Dunster: Most of them are just straightforward ordinary English people. They live in one of our units not because of the environmental aspects but because it's a better deal and better product. They're what I call eco-sloths. They live in this energy-efficient environment but don't have to make much effort.

Because of the conservatory and rooflights, they don't need much electric light. The recycling is easy. They live near public transportation. In essence, a lot of decisions have been made for them. But there's already a big difference between the environmental impact of the eco-sloth in our BedZED and the environmental impact of a typical UK family in traditional housing.

In terms of ecological footprint, three planets would be needed to satisfy a typical UK individual's resource needs if the whole world consumed as much as we do. Our eco-sloth is already down to two-planet living.

Then there are some people who are dedicated to one-planet living. They actively recycle. They're vegans. They collaborate with others and get local organic food deliveries. They use car-sharing clubs or public transport. Some of them work on the premises as well, so there's no commute. Those people we call eco-saints.

It doesn't bother me how people live here because the infrastructure is in place, so people can easily go from eco-sloth to eco-saint. You don't force them to adopt your views; you just let them sink into it. That's the only way I can see out.

If you don't go down this route, where you provide people with choice and infrastructure, you go down the other route of laissez-faire, environmental catastrophe, and eco-fascism, where everyone's forced to do something because you've run out of natural capital. If you want to avoid that, you have to plan, which is what this project's all about.

Sierra: Why aren't more architects trying projects as environmentally ambitious as BedZED?

Dunster: Because they're not being asked to by clients. We're completely different in the way we work. We see our job as doing the research, creating the product, and then finding someone to buy it. [He points to a model of a high-rise his studio has designed.] That tower could be the first carbon-negative high-density building in the world. It has enough built-in renewable energy to meet its annual demand and pay off the energy involved in building and maintaining it. It's a truly green building. We can build it.

Sierra: Is part of the problem that people don't want to change their cozy lifestyles?

Dunster: Look, virtually all families now have to have two wage earners, there are massive childcare problems, many spend two hours a day commuting. Property prices are very high so people are being flung farther away from the center, creating more strain on public transport, more air pollution. One in four children in London now has asthma. Where is the quality of life? What lifestyle?

We're introducing a new agenda. We can get a huge reduction in environmental impact. We can improve the quality of life. That's what we try to sell.

Sierra: So you don't see that there's any self-denial implicit in opting for one of your zero-emissions units?

Dunster: No. There are greenies in this building who are upset by that. They think people are getting off easy because they gain in lifestyle without much work. What we are trying to prove with BedZED is that you can actually use less of everything and improve the quality of your life. It's possible.

Sierra: Early in the 20th century, King George V made a speech saying that the creation of innovative housing for the working classes was the foundation of social progress. How do you see your Zero Energy Developments?

Dunster: The king was referring to the Garden City Movement, which knocked slums down and moved workers to the suburbs so they could live near greenery and get on trains -- and later, private cars -- to come into the city center. The movement achieved its end, to make the workers' lives more pleasant, but now we have huge amounts of suburban sprawl and pollution all over London. BedZED is the update.

MARILYN BERLIN SNELL is Sierra's writer/editor.

Photos: Photos of interior courtesy Linda Hancock.
Photo of vents and buildlings courtesy
Photo ofrchitect Bill Dunster courtesy Debra Hurford Brown.

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