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Profitless dreams

Sustainability: The Greenwich Millennium Village was to be the embodiment of current sustainable development theory. Instead, it has degenerated into a row over sustainable credentials versus profit. Can the two ever be reconciled? David Taylor reports

THE MILLENNIUM Dome and the London Eye Ferris wheel have shown the huge potential such grand schemes have for embarrassing anybody connected with them. Both have been called ugly, both have hit snags and both have been accused of being an epic waste of money.

But no millennial project has proved so excruciatingly embarrassing as GMV - the Greenwich Millennium Village.

This scheme should have been the least controversial of all. It comprised the redevelopment of a brownfield site to provide 5,000 homes, 100,000 sq m of office space, 28,000 sq m of retail and leisure space and 20,000 sq m of commercial and light industrial space.

Central to the project was the intention to create a sustainable community with excellent levels of energy and water efficiency and low levels of waste and harmful emissions.

Launching the design competition for the development back in July 1997, deputy Prime Minister John Prescott declared: 'This will be a showcase for Britain...only the best need apply.'

The winning design came from HTA Architects and the contract to develop the 13 ha site was awarded to Taylor Woodrow in joint venture with Countryside Properties.

But two years after the scheme was announced, HTA Architects had left the scheme, dismissed after having protested that Taywood/Countryside was sacrificing the scheme's essential sustainable credentials on the altar of profit and business gain.

Today, the Millennium Village site remains a wasteland, with no prospect of work starting before 2000.

Among the many social, envir-onmental and constructional innovations which HTA claims have been abandoned is the promised zero CO2 emissions target - now revised to a 35 per cent reduction.

The number of social housing units has been drastically reduced; the 30 per cent water saving through grey water recycling has been omitted; embodied-energy criteria for materials selection has been abandoned and what was originally intended to be a garden square is now to be a car- park.

Central to the controversy is the developer's need to make a profit, says HTA Architects director Ben Derbyshire. 'The problem our [British] house builders have is two-fold. First, they have no capacity to invest in the future. Second, they have to make a cultural change before they can achieve that capacity to invest.

'They have to make a profit, and that hinges on a value-cost equation. But that equation does not make much room for sustainable targets,' says Mr Derbyshire.

This view is, if anything, reinforced by Mr Derbyshire's critics who have claimed that HTA Architects wanted everything run its own way on the Millennium Village project, even though it was not putting up any money or taking any of the risk.

So can sustainable development ever really be compatible with the economics of the real world?

The response from Nigel Howard, director of the Centre for Sustainable Construction at the Building Research Establishment, is an emphatic 'yes' - but with certain caveats.

'First, nobody has yet come up with anything that's truly sustainable,' he says. 'We're on a journey towards achieving sustainable development, but at the moment what we mean when we say sustainable is 'more sustainable'.'

Mr Howard thinks the sustainability targets set on the Millennium Village project were 'very, very tough' to aspire to in the present market, but he believes that the subsequent problems stemmed from a lack of shared vision. 'Having agreed these targets, the whole team should have been signed up to them,' he says.

The market might not yet be ready for a truly sustainable development, but that is no reason not to aspire to that goal, says Mr Howard. He believes that the industry actually has no choice because, by definition, what we do currently is not sustainable.

'Sustainability has got to become economically viable. Business has traditionally exploited natural resources, turning them into products, which are sold and ultimately turned into waste. That waste is beginning to shout back at us now,' says Mr Howard.

That one-way process has to change, he says, because these resources we convert into waste are finite - the process must become a cycle.

'The only resource which is inexhaustible is sunlight. That can be used to drive the cycle. It is used for heating, for purifying water, for growing timber...,' says Mr Howard.

Clearly, Mr Howard is thinking long-term - and that is the key to achieving sustainable construction. The conflict with traditional business priorities comes when trying to reconcile the relatively long payback period of a sustainable development with the cashflow expectations of the developer.

Unfortunately, the whole business of speculative development - whether it be house-building or commercial property, depends upon the development team making its money in the short term. Why spend more money up-front in order to build in long-term savings which you will not enjoy?

'There is a natural conflict between the developer and the occupier,' observes Sally Uren, director of environmental management at consultant Stanger Science and Environment.

'Over the long term there are huge paybacks from sustainable methods,' she says. 'But if you're looking for a one-year payback, you're probably not going to be able to afford these methods.'

At the heart of the Millennium Village controversy is a clash of expectations. In one corner is HTA Architects, whose rigorous interpretation of the original brief has been compromised by the efforts of the GMV joint venture, in the other corner, to actually deliver something.

'We have set ourselves tough and challenging targets that are trying to set new standards...,' GMV chairman Alan Cherry said in a speech to the Housebuilders' Federation in September.

'Inevitably, this process has thrown up complications which we were simply unaware of at the outset,' he said. 'But there is no question of 'dumbing- down' or 'whittling away' at the innovation targets or aspirations of the scheme.'

He also reiterated the 'Seven Virtues' or principles of the original concept. Number seven is: 'A package that can be delivered.'

That might be a convenient let-out for the GMV joint venture. Ben Derbyshire maintains that his design was eminently deliverable: 'Our role [on the Millennium Village] was to come up with the vision,' he says, 'but it had to be a win-win situation; we wouldn't sell a vision which is a hair- shirt.'

When things turned bad at GMV, deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered the government's urban regeneration agency, English Partnerships, to commission an inquiry into what went wrong.

The findings of that inquiry, conducted by consultant Gardiner & Theobald, are now on Mr Prescott's desk and, while he has yet to pronounce upon them, it is understood that the report vindicates Taywood/Countryside's decision to dismiss HTA Architects.

The project will go ahead, insists Alan Cherry, who believes that GMV will 'kick-start' a change in the UK house building and urban planning culture.

It may not be sustainable construction as Ben Derbyshire understands it, but others, including the BRE's Nigel Howard and Stanger's Sally Uren, will welcome it as another step towards the goal of truly sustainable construction.

Trouble in store

July 1997: John Prescott announces a development competition for a scheme to build a 5,000-home village and 100,000 sq m office complex, costing £35 million, alongside the Millennium Dome. The client is urban regeneration agency English Partnerships.

October 1997: English Partnerships short-lists four consortia.

February 1998: GMV Ltd, a joint venture between Taylor Woodrow and Countryside Properties, lands development deal to a design by HTA Architects. Project architects are Ralph Erskine and Hunt Thompson.

October 1998: Greenwich council grants outline planning permission for phase one, a mixed-use development.

June 1999: HTA Architects is sacked from the project following a series of disagreements with GMV over the way the project is being run and changes to the 'sustainability' content of the original design.

July 1999: Mr Prescott orders an enquiry into the running of the project.

October 1999: The report, by Gardiner & Theobald, is rumoured to vindicate GMV's decision to sack HTA Architects. Mr Prescott has yet to make an announcement.