London 2012: A missed opportunity to showcase sustainable innovation

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) must have been looking for hidden cameras in their Canary Wharf offices after the hilarious first series of BBC Four’s Twenty Twelve. The wind turbine “problem” and the countdown/up clock episodes were uncanny, with the latter airing just as the real Olympic clock ground to a halt. So when I was offered the opportunity to have a look behind the scenes and the press releases (once last year and again a few weeks ago) I jumped at the chance, eager to find out whether their ambition of becoming the most sustainable games ever is achievable, or whether they were in a similar predicament to their onscreen counterparts.
A key criterion in their success will be the long-term usefulness of the park and its buildings, long after the last MacDonald’s wrapper has been cast aside. And so far, it is fair to say, plans are mixed.
Plans for the Velodrome are promising: A new mountain bike course, family circuit and cycle workshop facilities are to be added and it will be well connected to nearby cycle routes to inspire the next generation of elite and commuter cyclists. The Aquatic centre also has a well thought through plan; the spectator wings will be removed after the games, leaving a useful local resource with two Olympic size pools, and a diving pool, without a big unnecessary area to heat and maintain. (No plans for those wings yet however.)
The plans for the enormous 80,000 capacity Olympic Stadium however are still uncertain. West Ham, the favourites to take it over until very recently, would have had the option to remove the whole temporary top section, leaving them with a more tenable 25,000 capacity stadium. Whether it will be enjoyable watching a football match across a running track is still clearly causing some issues. But surely when they built the stadium they had a long-term well thought through plan for it, as well as for the temporary top section, right? It seems not.
Encouragingly the long term plans for the green spaces themselves look good, with lots of useful amenitities including 2 hectares of allotments, 3,300 seats, an amphitheatre, riverside gardens, markets, cafes and other leisure facilities, all in a well-planned format. They have also restored the river ways so they can be used for leisure and commercial use again, and have put in innovative flood management techniques to reduce future risk.
However this has come at a cost, with the loss of 42.7 hectares of Sites of Importance to Nature or Conservation (SINC) including the thriving Bully Point Nature reserve, and the now famous Manor Garden allotments, which were well used by local residents, some for several generations. There were also sites that were well used by migratory birds. However they have also removed some very contaminated areas including a former industrial landfill site, the derelict Hackney dog track, some 10 acres of Japanese knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed, pylons and over 200 buildings, many of them derelict. And it seems like a lot of thought and care went into the restoration; from remediation of 2m tonnes of contaminated soil, rehoming fauna, taking seeds and cuttings from original plants, and reusing lots of materials such as timber sleepers, paving stones and cobbles from the original site. Only time will tell whether the site overall can house more or less biodiversity, and whether it is more or less useful and accessible than it was before, but it is clear that a lot of effort has gone into this part of the planning.
Another important aspect is the design of the buildings themselves; including the materials used, their embodied carbon and energy consumption. There are some common elements across all buildings including; minimum 20% recycled content used, 60% materials transported on the now tenable waterways instead of by road, 90% of construction waste reused or recycled, and water saving measures that will help reduce water use by almost 60%. The Velodrome has a lightweight cable-net roof that has saved 13,500 tonnes steel compared to a conventional roof, which greatly reduces its embodied footprint. And with its magnificent FSC Western Red Cedar cladding (hopefully British but likely to be from the US) with built in natural ventilation and illumination and its FSC Siberian pine track, it scores highly on sustainable materials usage and low energy use.
The Stadium also used an impressive 75% less steel than most equivalent sized stadiums and has used some innovative recycled content including metal from melted down knives and guns from the Met police, and surplus gas pipes, all helping to reduce its embodied carbon footprint.
The energy that will power the games will come from the 3mw biomass unit, which runs on locally sourced wood chip and a natural gas fueled Combined Cooling and Heat Power (CCHP) system in the Energy centre. The centre will power all the buildings saving approximately 30% over individual units. LOCOG are also now looking into a hydroelectric system, and where they can fit PV around the park. So far there is talk of using it on the media centre, and hopefully there will be a long list of other sites also, including potentially the aquatic centre (all aquatics centres in the last few Olympic games have had PV, so surely London will also have it?) and any unshaded roof space. The handball arena’s beautiful copper cladding could also happily be replaced with PV cladding – it might not be as pretty but will be much more useful.
The highly publicized wind turbine, set to produce 10% of the sites energy (and half of the renewables target of 20%), was dropped last year because there wasn’t enough wind to justify the investment and new safety measures came in which made it more complicated. It would be ridiculous to spend £2m on something that did not work, but surely as “the country’s largest producer of low carbon electricity” EDF could have come up with some other solutions? And I don’t mean nuclear.
The highlight of the energy portfolio is the £1m+ carbon saving scheme for local housing and schools (installing low energy lighting, insulation and standby switches), saving carbon and money, but most importantly engaging lots of children and home owners on sustainability and what they can do. This will be a good legacy for the park and it is exactly the sort of engagement that they should be looking into for the 9m visitors to the games.
They have recently launched BP’s Target Neutral offset scheme for all visitors, which is another good engagement step, and hopefully there will be more to come. My suggestions would be allotments tours to show sustainable living at its most sublime – even better if Macdonalds and the other caterers were using tomatoes and vegetables from them, or if the flowers for the bouquets were being grown there too. Or how about some bicycle workshops and safety registration schemes around the Velodrome to incentivise more people to cycle there? And access to showers in athletes village as an added bonus? And what about tours of the energy and recycling facilities? And drinking water fountains to help reduce waste and educate on water? I look forward to some innovative schemes here.
Will it be the most sustainable Olympic games ever? For now the answer is probably yes, but only on a technicality – and that is because Beijing weren’t transparent enough about the impacts of their games, and failed miserably on some key issues such as sustainable wood. However what Beijing did show was some true pieces of sustainable innovation (such as the highly efficient ETFE clad Aquatics centre) which seems to be sadly lacking in the 2012 buildings. The Velodrome is the star of the show but even that fails to showcase any significant innovation, even when compared to the 2009 World Games stadium in Taiwan. (It has 8,844 solar panels on its roof, which helps it to generate 75% of its own energy and it passes the surplus to its local community.)
I suspect that Rio will easily take the title of most Sustainable Games from London in 2016, but perhaps with some more innovation around energy provision and engagement, and some innovative but realistic plans for some of the as yet unassigned buildings, London can still assert itself. I hope so, but let’s wait and see – the second series of Twenty Twelve should be on our screens soon, so we might find out more.
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