Micro economics

How much should we spend to save a tonne of carbon emissions? That’s one question raised in this article for Building magazine, prompted by a report commissioned by the British Council for Offices (BCO), which attempts to attach some cold, hard numbers to the disparate costs and benefits of small-scale installations of technologies such as photovoltaic panels and biomass boilers. Their startling conclusion is that commercial developers are paying an average of £380 per tonne of emissions reduced and, in the most extreme cases, as much as £2,800. The authors argue that the economics of renewables is strikingly similar to any other method of power generation – and that you wouldn’t ask a developer to pay for a mini nuclear power station on the roof of an office block. But does such a narrow focus on costs give the full picture? Others argue that no other property investment is ever subjected to such close analysis, and that if green technologies don’t stack up, perhaps the problem is not the technologies themselves but the way the calculations are done. They pose a different question: given the urgency of cutting our carbon emissions and the cost of replacing our ageing power stations, can we afford not to seize every opportunity to reduce the bill?

Dark side of the cloud

Cloud computing is becoming a corporate no-brainer as a sustainable, energy efficient alternative to buying and managing your own servers and software. But is it actually any greener? Greenpeace says not – it points out that the extraordinary growth in the number of data centres means that even significant improvements in efficiency are dwarfed by the increase in total energy demand, and that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity consumption in the world. But the crucial detail is the source of that electricity. Because data centre owners seek a cheap, constant power supply and have historically favoured locations – Virginia, North Carolina – where electricity is produced from coal, their carbon emissions can be enormous. The good news is that in a fiercely competitive market where all the main providers are building furiously, some have realised the marketing potential of locations like Iceland where the power grid is almost zero-carbon. By shopping carefully, companies can not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but everyone else’s as well. For this piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Business Technology supplement, I investigated the hidden environmental cost of cloud computing, and the key questions to ask a potential supplier.

That sinking feeling

That the climate is changing is now “unequivocal” according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the changes caused by our past emissions will continue for centuries. That means we have no choice but to adapt, and it is the world’s coasts that will be on the frontline of that adaptation, under threat from rising sea levels and more frequent storms and flooding. Coasts are also the most densely populated places on earth – most of the world’s major cities are on floodplains and, by 2050, they will be home to 70% of an estimated population of 9bn people. In this piece for Modus magazine, I investigated how engineers worldwide are preparing to fight the tides. I found that the response very much depends on how valuable coastal land is, and that the most valuable land is not necessarily where you’d expect. In the declining cities of the developed world, a managed retreat seems to be the only option; in Jakarta, meanwhile, demand for land is so high that the authorities are planning to build a completely new city several miles into the bay.

The lighter side of concrete

Carbon-neutral homes in inner city Derby that run on recycled vegetable oil and a German school that barely uses any energy at all were just two of the projects featured in the spring issue of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for UBM and the Concrete Centre. Though all of the buildings are architecturally very attractive, the real theme this time was sustainability, and it was their environmental performance that earned their place within CQ’s pages.  You can also take a look behind the green glass facade of the Environment Agency’s new headquarters in Bristol, setting a very good example with one of the highest-ever BREEAM ratings – and a wildflower meadow on its roof.

“Life seems more meaningful in a tiny house”

Small may be a relative concept when it comes to homes, but there’s no question that the “micro homes” increasingly popular in crowded cities around the world are very, very small indeed. I investigated the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, speaking to residents of tiny houses smaller than most people’s garages, office designers condensing the footprint per employee by a third, and psychologists seeking to find out how our diminishing place in the world is changing the way we think.

More adventures in concrete

If you’d like a tour of Europe’s most sustainable building, look no further than the summer issue of Concrete Quarterly, which I edit for the Concrete Centre and publisher UBM.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s new Swiss HQ is the only building in the world to have met the exacting standards of both the US LEED environmental rating scheme and Switzerland’s own Minergie – chosen because they were the toughest the client could find. Six different types of concrete went into the structure, and even if  it’s unlikely to win any high-flown architectural awards, I think those exposed concrete finishes have a certain charm. Also in this issue: Vodafone’s bonkers-looking new office in Oporto, and a gorgeous aircraft museum in Krakow that’s like a paper aeroplane made out of concrete…

How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…