Zero-Energy Fantasy Land?

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 28, 2006

Though I wasn’t in Scotland anymore, the man next to me on the train was Scottish. Riding to the site of the final energy facility tour on my UK trip, I learned my London target’s moniker through a Glaswegian accent: “Teletubby Land.”

You know the Teletubbies, right? They are the four incomprehensibly giddy, rotund balls of foam that run around on an Astroturf set to the delight of infants and lobotomy patients worldwide.

Their colors are bright enough to have prompted Evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell to assert that the purple Teletubby (Tinky-Winky) was homosexual.

BedZED’s pink, yellow, red, green and blue wind cowls don’t ruffle as many fundamentalist feathers, though they do represent a cultural shift. That’s because BedZED, located in South London’s Beddington district, bears the acronym ZED because it is a Zero-Energy Development.

Ventilation based on wind alone is why we see these toy-like turbines atop each one of BedZED’s housing units. 3.5 times every hour, the air in a BedZED flat is refreshed naturally, obviating the need for air conditioning and saving boatloads of money for residents.

BedZED was built on the site of an old sewage plant. Now, the buildings at the site do a different kind of processing.

A “living machine” in one of the buildings on the BedZED site uses soil and plants to mimic natural waste-treatment processes. When I visited the facility, the living machine’s caretaker was ill and the unit’s many flora-filled tanks were not operating. But when BedZED’s plumber-cum-gardener gets back in business, toilet water will again be naturally cleansed for gardening within the complex.

Soil for Shingles

Out of all the colors that BedZED projects to outsiders, green is #1. And I don’t mean green in a general, ecological sense. I mean the green of grass – on the roof!

As I looked across the way from the show home I was touring, I asked Kate Millbank, my BedZED guide, “Is there supposed to be so much moss on the roof?” To my shock and laughter, she said, “Yes!”

You see, London’s soggy climate means that flash floods are a distinct risk during much of the year. Plants and soil on the rooftops help to absorb what would otherwise be pure runoff. And green-thumb residents don’t have to climb up to the top to cultivate. Instead, BedZED provides “sky gardens” to tenants for flowerbeds and a nice place to sit, and the bizarre but cool vision of a lawn 20 feet up!

Bill Dunster, BedZED’s lead architect, and his team have taken the first step in what will be the home-building strategy of the future — Local sourcing.

Think about it: we now live in a world where the average home is made from materials whose manufacturers couldn’t hold a conversation in the same language. Wood from Brazil, steel from China, shingles from Tennessee…more cost to the builder and homeowner as fossil fuel prices skyrocket.

By using reclaimed steel and local timber that is approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, BedZED is essentially a recycled product.

I want to clarify that BedZED is a zero fossil energy development. The goal is not to have people sit in darkness and never watch television, or to make the children suffer through cold winters with no heat.

It’s quite the opposite. Want for fuel is possibly the most devastating form of poverty. We see thousands die every winter from cold, and every summer from heat. Using double-paned glass that is oriented to capture heat during the day and release it at night is one huge step towards alleviating our dependence on household fuel for comfort.

The Peabody Trust, greater London’s housing association, is the primary sponsor of BedZED precisely because the development is a better model for social housing (as opposed to single-family plots) than the depressed and dank traps that are the worldwide trend for housing the poor.

A car pool allows BedZED residents to check out an automobile for the day, taking public transportation otherwise. A lifestyle officer was initially commissioned by the project managers to help residents gear their own lifestyles to carbon neutrality, saving them money and increasing their well-being through minimally chemical countertop materials and energy monitoring systems that tell you just how much juice that hair dryer is sucking up.

Now that lifestyle officer has given way to a community association that organizes activities for residents and serves as an information hub.

BedZED has housing for civil servants, upwardly mobile business people, and working families whose lifestyles benefit from a lessened carbon footprint.

Primary Colors of Profit

Bright colors like those that mark BedZED attract attention. Ideas, when put into visible form, attract investment.

BedZED is using a variety of suppliers from traditional and non-traditional building sectors. BioRegional, the consultancy that arranges such materials for BedZED (where its offices are located) and other, similarly planned facilities, is compiling a roster of firms who are proving their worth in testing labs and under the real-world crucible of BedZED.

Through my contacts at BioRegional and elsewhere in the efficient design field, I will keep you up to date on which of these new energy-focused suppliers are going to hit the new energy marketplace big time.

– Sam Hopkins

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