A new office block on Tyneside will be a model of renewable technology, the greenest in the UK. But why are people fascinated by the lavatories? Report by David Nicholson-Lord
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LIONEL HEHIR has a grumble. Later this year he is due to take possession of what will probably be the greenest office block in the UK. Around 100 staff will be working amid a heady array of renewable technology - wind turbines, solar panels, bio-diesel generators, a roof made of recycled cans - in a building that looks like a cross between a tent, a conservatory and a pyramid. It is an exciting prospect - hence Mr Hehir's exasperation that all anybody seems to want to talk about are the lavatories.

Compost lavatories have an uncertain, not to say humorous, reputation. "People seem to think they're a bit wacky," Mr Hehir says. "When we put the proposal for a 100 per cent environmentally friendly building to my board everybody was very keen, but the discussion on the building lasted a quarter of an hour and we had nearly an hour on the way the lavatories work. It's not really a problem at all. They don't smell and they work like normal lavatories. But people seem to be obsessed by the bodily functions."

Wacky or not, you will find precious few compost lavatories in the UK outside exhibitions of green technology. The decision by the South Tyneside Groundwork Trust to abandon WCs and mains drainage in favour of compost loos for its new eco-office on the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow is thus a bold one. "I don't think anyone has yet tried to gather all the available technology under one roof," says Mr Hehir, the trust's director. "I'm fairly certain there is no building like this being constructed anywhere in the country."

A decade ago, such a building would have been unthinkable. Then came global warming, the late Eighties surge in environmentalism and a ferment of discontent about working conditions in offices. The typical 1980s office block, with its energy-guzzling air-conditioning, emerged as a threat to person and planet - a source of the malaise known as sick building syndrome. Paradoxically, the collapse of the commercial property market at the end of the Eighties provided a breathing space in which new ideas about design could flourish. The Jarrow eco-office, which brings together many of these ideas, thus has much to tell us about the office of the future.

Perhaps significantly, it is not wholly a private-sector venture. Groundwork is an environmental organisation that uses a mixture of public and private funds and voluntary help to "green up" derelict urban land. South Tyneside is one of around 40 local Groundwork Trusts, and the 15,000 square foot building, due for completion by November, is Groundwork's first purpose- built office.

It will also be the most eye-catching. Its triangular plan is carefully oriented towards the north, south-east and west, to prevent over-heating from the sun. Two 80-kilowatt wind turbines, each more than 40 metres high, will generate its electricity; they are, Mr Hehir says, the only ones in an urban area in Britain. A "wind tower" at the centre is designed to act as a chimney, creating a gentle draught to provide natural ventilation. And the facades will be clothed in "biotecture' - deciduous greenery that supplies shade and cooling in summer but dies away in winter to let in warmth and light.

Inside, finishes will be natural - linoleum, jute or sisal for floors, for example - plants will oxygenate and cleanse the atmosphere (the detoxifying and stress-relieving properties of indoor greenery have been confirmed by the American space programme) and the atrium, or indoor courtyard, will contain a waterfall. Water cools and moistens the atmosphere, combating the "dry eye" syndrome common in under-humidified offices. Splashing water generates negative air ions, which have been linked to physical and mental well-being - a finding that be one reason why most of us feel better at the seaside.

At the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Wales, or in one of the many demonstration "eco-houses" and green buildings springing up around the country, you will find many such features. But the eco-office is more than a collection of technology. It is a working commercial building informed by a distinctive design philosophy. Central to this is the concept of autonomy.

Autonomy is to buildings what self-sufficiency, in the Sixties and Seventies, was to people. A building, in other words, can generate its own energy, provide its own water supply, dispose of its own waste. Much of the inspiration for the Groundwork eco-office came from Britain's first "autonomous house", in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, designed and inhabited by the green architects Brenda and Robert Vale. It is hard for us in the 20th century to imagine a world without a vast and complex infrastucture of ducts, drains, pipes and power lines, but the costs of such a network, in both energy and environmental terms, are enormous. After last summer, we are well acquainted with the 25-30 per cent water losses from leaks in mains pipes - but what about the two-thirds of energy wasted by big generating plants and cumbersome transmission systems? Nationwide networks also consume resources, destroy landscapes and largely waste a valuable recyclable resource - human sewage.

An autonomous building taps, and recycles, resources where they are used. At Jarrow, compost from the lavatories will restore soil fertility and help recreate landscaped gardens on a patch of ground rendered toxic by waste from mines. Rain from the roof will supply a low flush to the lavatories as well as water for washing. Waste water from sinks and basins will be piped into a subsoil irrigation system. Back-up power for the wind turbines will come from diesel derived from locally grown oilseed rape.

The dream of independence has not quite been realised. The plan was to draw fresh drinking water from a borehole, but drillings revealed that even at 60 metres' depth the influence of Tyne and tide made the groundwater salty. Purifying it, through reverse osmosis, would have been too expensive. Similarly, the wind-turbines may not be able to generate the brief surge of power needed to start the groundwater-linked heating and cooling systems. To guarantee that, the eco-office will probably need electricity from the national grid.

Nevertheless, for a capital outlay only 10 per cent more than for a conventional building, Groundwork's new office will consume less than half the energy, nearly all of it home-produced. For long periods the wind turbines will export surplus electricity to the grid. Metered water charges will be low, sewerage costs non-existent. Having set out to make the building wholly autonomous, Mr Hehir says, "we have got 90-95 per cent of the way towards our goal."

Yet if the eco-office is setting the pace, mainstream commercial developments are not too far behind: buildings such as the Inland Revenue centre in Nottingham, the Ionica office in Cambridge, and the new energy-efficient "office of the future" under construction by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) at Garston in Hert-fordshire. If these buildings are a guide, the office of the 21st century will be naturally ventilated, oriented to the sun, and have, if nothing else, windows people can open and lights they can switch on and off.

Studies by the BRE have shown that an important constituent of sick-building syndrome is powerlessless - lack of control by staff over their working environment. Air-conditioning, which is largely to blame for this, looks increasingly likely to emerge as one of the great design disasters of the 1980s; its economic costs in health and thus absenteeism may, according to Washington's Worldwatch Institute, run into hundreds of billions of dollars a year worldwide. Why then have the last 15 years witnessed such a huge growth in air-conditioned office space? The answer, says the BRE, is profit - the extra rent air-conditioning generates outweighs its installation cost.

The tide, however, appears to be turning. The prevalence of sick-building syndrome, which may affect up to four-fifths of buildings, could, Worldwatch says, lead insurance firms to reward "healthier" buildings with lower premiums. Sweden's largest housing bank last year announced that it would lend money only on green buildings.

The move towards "bioclimatic" or environment-sensitive design ought also to produce lower, smaller offices, since natural light cannot penetrate into the dimmest recesses of deep-plan buildings. And if autonomy catches on, and worries about global warming grow, solar panels, currently classed as "uneconomic", could join wind turbines on the exterior of tomorrow's office blocks.

Across the Tyne from Jarrow, in Newcastle, is Britain's first solar-powered office block, a Sixties building housing the University of Northumbria which was refitted last year with 450 solar panels: these supply 30 per cent of its annual electricity needs. The environment group Greenpeace backed the project and describes solar power as "the only form of renewable technology that can be deployed on a mass scale in the urban environment". A l992 Government study found that two-thirds of the UK's electricity needs could be supplied by the sun if all our buildings were fitted with solar panels

Unlike oil or coal-generated electricity, solar and wind power do not produce carbon dioxide and thus do not add to global warming. But a crucial new calculation - "embodied" energy - has recently entered the equation. This measures the energy it takes to manufacture materials and shows that synthetics such as plastics, carpets and non-ferrous perform badly while natural materials do well.

A genuinely green building, it seems, is a healthy one - physically as well as psychologically. According to the Building Services Research and Information Association, the autonomous building fulfils two concepts that could hold the key to the future: subsidiarity (doing things as locally as possible) and sustainability (supplying the present without endangering the future). The designer of the eco-office, Carole Townsend, of the Tyneside consultancy Earth Sense, also believes green buildings could bring architects back to their senses. "Architecture today has become too focused on style. We have to be more like the great architects of the past - scientists and technicians as well as designers." !


Entries for this award, sponsored for the fifth year by the Independent on Sunday and the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association, should be submitted by 2 March1996. Details and entry forms from Fiona Byrne, HVCA, Esca House, 34 Palace Court, London W2 4JG, tel 0171 229 2488. See also the coupon in the main paper.