Guest Blog: Mervyn Bowden – Inconvenient truth or economic reality?

It was reported by the Independent back in March this year that Sainsbury’s innovative supermarket, built for the last millennium with lots of tremendous environmental initiatives in the late 1990’s, […]

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By Priyanka Shrestha

It was reported by the Independent back in March this year that Sainsbury’s innovative supermarket, built for the last millennium with lots of tremendous environmental initiatives in the late 1990’s, is to be demolished as part of a property deal with IKEA which is taking over the site.

I think this is, in many ways, very sad as the supermarket has been held as an icon of sustainability and been an inspiration to many others, both within and outside retail, to establish their own sustainable development programmes.

To find that it is being demolished after only 14 years – and by two companies who scream their environmental credentials from the rooftops all the time – is fundamentally disappointing and challenges many of the aspirations and supposedly beneficial techniques for achieving long-term improvements.

The reason given for Sainsbury’s not wishing to stick with its iconic store is that it can’t be extended or re-used so they’re moving to a store elsewhere which will be three times the size.

This calls into question many of the fundamentals of “sustainable development” as well as raising a whole raft of issues about how the respective retail and property industries operate.

One would assume that JS Greenwich would have been built to last much longer than 14 years and that the investment in sustainable measures was designed for a much longer life, perhaps even accounted for using Whole Life costing principles?

Are they open and honest?

It raises one question that if this is what happens in the world of aspiring leaders in “sustainable development”, are all these paragons of sustainable virtue actually being as open and honest about what they’re doing as their constant release of green hype about their brilliance in this field suggests?

Would Greenwich have won all the awards and plaudits for the original building if the judges had known it would be demolished in a mere 14 years’ time?

Retailers are all trying to out-green each other through the construction of ever more “innovative” concept stores. The financial aspects probably don’t look anywhere near as attractive as the PR opportunities. Once the surface is scratched many “inconvenient truths” start to become apparent.

Some examples:

Many of the originally intended sustainable highlights like control systems for lighting and heating and ventilation for both new-builds and refurbishments are “value engineered” out of the specifications meaning that major improvements in energy efficiency are limited before they even get installed.

Many companies will focus their investment capital on furthering their core business, which is perfectly understandable but not when they are espousing their sustainability credentials and at the same time squeezing the investment for it to progress.

It would be wonderful if property companies/developers included extensive on-site generation capability into plans for new business parks, shopping centres, housing developments and the rest but the progress is slower than it perhaps should be. Property companies need to get much better at spelling out the benefits of being sustainable, like generation of cheaper on-site energy with greater security of supply, than they have historically done.

Often the most “sustainable” buildings on the drawing board, at massive expense, end up being anything but, as a result of penny pinching on specification, poor understanding, poor contracts – like “design & build” – and ultimately, and probably the most inconvenient truth in this space, they never get fully and properly commissioned because of time pressure. So the best laid plans fail to deliver a result that is anything like they intended.

No easy way to compare sustainability

Unfortunately, because of the different formats used when the myriad of sustainability reports are put in the public domain there’s no easy way of comparing the performance of one company against another when it comes to sustainability.

All sorts of spurious claims can be made but usually aren’t supported by numbers. Views tend to become very subjective whereas energy is probably the only area which is subject to true quantitative analysis in a meaningful way but even there comparisons are horribly difficult because of the diverse factors involved.

An Inconvenient Truth

Some of the misleading claims are where new technologies are being employed and major splashes are made in the press about things like having 100% LED lighting installed in new stores. They don’t say they have only used LED technology in 2% of their buildings or that, of total lighting installations, maybe less than 5% is LED. An “Inconvenient Truth”.

Another inconvenient truth is around statistics on the percentage of their total energy consumption which is generated on-site. This doesn’t have to be electricity, with the RHI set at attractive levels it could also be about heat generation, or natural gas displacement. Facts and figures are rare for these.

In many ways it would be unfair to criticise either JS or IKEA in this space as they have, without doubt, been two of the leaders over many years in applying on-site generation and energy efficiency to their considerable estates. This makes them vulnerable to comment when potentially deviating from their own PR but the central point is that if pioneers and leaders in the field of sustainability are acting in this way, what are the “followers” and “non-compliers” doing?

No doubt even more very inconvenient truths would emerge!