Azara Blog: BedZED opens for London Open House

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Date published: 2007/09/16

This is the one weekend in the year when many public and private buildings open up courtesy of London Open House. The most popular buildings (e.g. the Gherkin) get booked up almost instantly, but there are still plenty of other buildings to see. BedZED is one of the more interesting housing developments of recent years (2002). "Bed" stands for Beddington, where it is located. And ZED stands for "Zero Energy Development". There are 100 households and also spots for ten businesses. The householders have obviously been overwhelmed with curious visitors, so the rules of engagement were pretty bleak (no photos even outside, which is silly given that you can take photos from a public road, and no visits to any real household).

BedZED was designed by the architect Bill Dunster in collaboration with a company by the name of BioRegional (a dreadful name, it sounds like a biotech company). Of course the main claim is that it is ZED, but that is not quite true. For example, just to build the housing in the first place you have to expend quite a bit of energy. (Although they did use some reclaimed materials, but of course even that involves energy expenditure for collection and processing.) So by "zero" energy they really mean this operationally, ignoring maintenance costs. And the main accomplishment is indeed that all the housing should not need to have any space heating at all, which is quite good and significant.

They also produce all their own power on site. It's a good question how few or how many households one power plant should serve. It is flavour of the minute amongst most so-called environmentalists and amongst some politicians and bureaucrats that we should all produce our own power. This is just plain silly. (Sure, some people want to and can do it, but that is a niche of a niche.) BedZED seems to be a more realistic situation with the power needs of 100 households all the responsibility of the housing association, the Peabody Trust, that built the development. Even this might be too small a number. And, as it happens, BedZED used a supplier for a CHP (combined heat and power) plant who went bust, so that has been idle for the past year (nobody else seems to know how to maintain it).

They also have solar panels on lots of the walls and roofs, all combined into one site network. Again here the technology at the time was really not up to much. So the payback period is almost 100 years, i.e. never since it will have to be replaced by then. And the performance is not quite up to the manufacturer's claim (surprise). So the solar panels are more for show than for anything else. (And wind power is not suitable at the site.)

The houses themselves have very thick (30 cm) exterior walls, in order to be well insulated. This means that the interior spaces are smaller in compensation. BioRegional is located on site and has a show home next to their office. And the show home gives an immediate impression of how small the interior space is, especially the kitchen and lounge. On the other hand, one of the nice features of the housing is conservatory space along the south-facing walls, which helps (a lot) with passive heating. But many of the houses have their (tiny) garden space over a (narrow) road via a bridge. This site could all be a bit of a nightmare to maintain in future, but fortunately that is all down to the Peabody Trust, not the households.

On the transport side, BedZED is of course anti-car, and allowed just under one space per household, lower than the area figure of 1.5. But apparently 25% of the site uses a car share scheme, and that has obviously helped. People with petrol cars have to pay a couple of hundred pounds per year for a parking permit, and people with electric cars do not and also apparently get free electricity (from charging points on site) to recharge their cars. But surprise, surprise, there were hardly any electric cars on site. Electric cars are not there yet. (And of course just because a car is electric does not make it environmentally friendly, since there is the question of how the electricity was generated in the first place. At BedZED it is on-site, but if every household there had an electric car that might not be feasible.)

BioRegional seems to be a fairly clued up organisation. They are not totally dogmatic about the world. Even so, the marketing information in their office borders on propaganda. And they like to hammer home that allegedly the average British person is responsible for 3 planets worth of consumption. Well, take that figure with a grain of salt, and of course a lot of our consumption (oil) is from the past, so we do not have to be at <= 1 planet to survive into the near future.

Worse, the problem of population is completely ignored by the 3 planet crowd. Between now and 2050 the world's population is going to increase by 50%, but not in Britain or in rich countries, instead mainly in poor countries. If you believe that you should just take the planet and divide by the number of people to get your share, then that says the British have to reduce their consumption by a third by 2050 just because other countries have irresponsibly allowed their population to increase (ignoring the claim that we already consume too much). Population should be taken into account under any system of fairness. The more children you have, the less your quota should be.

The main question about BedZED is whether it scales up in any way, or is it just going to end up as a middle class enclave the way the Eric Lyon 1950s and 1960s Span developments did (the underlying philosophy is pretty much the same). For example, to run the CHP plant (when it was running) BedZed used wood scrap from Croydon city council. But that does not scale up very well (there is not nearly enough wood available). And similarly, there is only so much reclaimed building material to go around (but obviously it is better that at least someone uses it). Even BedZED had to use (new) concrete. And in spite of what the ruling elite believe, most people want a car.

The real indication that BedZED has actually played any significant role in the world is if it scales up and is widely used. Otherwise it is just a model village, of interest only to the few residents and to the academic middle class as a day out for London Open House. (BioRegional is doing more developments in several countries, but it's still small-scale.)

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