An article by Krystal Sim from Building Sustainable Design
The 2012 Olympics sustainability watchdog wants to inspire change, not win medals
London last hosted the Olympics in 1948, when the country was in the grip of postwar austerity. There was argument against spending precious funds on the event, already twice-cancelled, and as a result the Games were a spartan affair. No Olympic village was built; overseas competitors lived in barracks and schools while the British team lived at home. Instead of travelling in a grand fleet of sponsored vehicles, athletes took regular London buses to Wembley Stadium. They were even asked to bring their own towels.
Such pennypinching was not an issue four years ago when London won the right to host the 2012 Games, this time centred in east rather than west London. Britain was booming after a decade of economic growth. Now, of course, austerity Britain is back. We might not have food rationing, but national debt has skyrocketed just as it did at the time of the last London Olympics.
With every pound spent having to be justified, can London live up to its promise of hosting "the greenest Games of the modern era"? Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, is confident that it can. Not only that, he believes that the lessons learnt from the event will have a positive influence on the construction industry for years to come.
"The 2012 Games are all about legacy," he says. "Not just in the buildings we leave behind; we must learn from the whole process, otherwise we've wasted 3.4m tonnes of carbon [the predicted carbon footprint]. Forget the money: wasting that amount of carbon over an event where folk run about in a stadium would be a disgrace."
McCarthy trained as a mechanical engineer - a "bloody awful one", he says. He was a buyer at Shell before moving in 1995 to BAA, where he worked on the corporate energy and carbon strategies and on elements of Heathrow Terminal 5. As well as his part-time role at the commission, McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability, a not-for profit group set up to encourage sustainable procurement.
Can any Olympic Games truly be sustainable? The event lasts only weeks yet demands massive development and leaves a multi-billion bill in its wake. McCarthy ponders for a moment. "If we can use the Olympics to change the way things are made or procured and do more net good than net harm, I think we will have a sustainable Olympic Games."
The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 was created in January 2007 to provide independent monitoring and ensure that the green goals made at the bid stage are realised. Hosting the greenest Games was a lofty target even before the global recession set in. Nonetheless, in its report Swimming Upstream: Sustainable in Challenging Times?, published in April, the commission said it had seen "no evidence to date that cost reduction has led to any compromise" on sustainability standards.
On the contrary; McCarthy has seen "real rigour" in design innovation. "The original velodrome was too big, too heavy and not sufficiently energy efficient. We went back to the designers and asked them to fix the problem. It needed to be cheaper but still has to be BREEAM excellent."
He is complimentary about the Olympic Delivery Authority, likening the body to Blackpool rock, "with sustainability running right through it". Where it has faltered, in his opinion, is in not providing a framework for designers to operate within. This has, for example, led to problems over hydro-fluorocarbon refrigerants (HFCs) in the venues' air-conditioning systems.
"For the last 200 years London has failed to regenerate its East End and we cannot afford another failure. That is much much more important and bigger than an Olympic park"
McCarthy says the lack of a design standard for use of the greenhouse gases has led to lengthy management debate. "We've ended up with a situation where the big energy centre for the whole site will have ammonia chillers but there are HFCs designed into other buildings that can't be cooled from the energy centre because of the geography of the park."
He is confident his influence will win out and keep the sustainability of venues such as the aquatic centre unblemished. "You can't have iconic buildings like the aquatic centre claiming to be part of the greenest Games ever with such an obvious Achilles' heel," he says.
"The aquatic centre is being built but is nowhere near fit-out yet. The air- conditioning will need to be ordered soon, so a decision is imminent. Unless there is truly no alternative, how could we justify that decision? It may cost extra but it's an investment in the future. David Higgins [chief executive of the ODA] is clear that when management makes a decision, the engineers have to find a solution."
McCarthy winces at mention of the Olympic village, the athletes' housing. Planning consent was sought ahead of the main sporting complex, before the 2006 revisions to the Building Regulations. Does he see it as a wasted opportunity? "A good compromise has been reached and the village will be built to level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. We still have concerns about waste management and air-conditioning, which could have been designed out. It's not ideal but you have to think in terms of battles worth fighting. I'm keen to learn from that mistake and code level 4 is pretty damn good. All of the organisations involved will learn from it and be better equipped. It's all about investment in the sustainable future."
Does the commission provide a model to be used in other development projects? "We are influential. The HFCs issue and our successful push for a true carbon footprint prove that. Perhaps you could see an independent commission for Crossrail or Building Schools for the Future."
McCarthy is an affable character, infectiously cheerful, as well he might be since evidence suggests the commission is getting the job done. There must, though, be something that keeps him awake at night. He pauses, then says: "For the last 200 years London has failed to regenerate its East End and we cannot afford another failure. That is much more important and bigger than an Olympic park. That's the challenge we have to meet.
"You don't set good standards by just doing a good job; you do it by getting people to follow you and your example."