Ecology at Work

Article excerpt

By the time you've arrived at the front door of the Eco Centre on the banks of the Tyne near Newcastle, you've already taken a trip through industrial history. In the short walk from the gates, you'll have trodden on ground reclaimed from colliery spoil and on tarmac made from power- station slag. You will have walked past walls of reclaimed bricks festooned with old tennis and fishing nets pinned together with clutch plates from deceased Ford Transit vans. Inside, the pace hots up. There's matting from recycled car tyres, a reception desk made of old washing machine doors and, holding the roof aloft, defunct railway lines from the Tyne and Wear Metro. The roof, by the way, used to be drink cans - two tons of them.

The Eco Centre is one of Britain's newest and most unusual buildings and, as will by now be clear, it makes something of a fetish of recycling. If it were a Lottery-inspired environmental demonstration centre, this might be nothing to marvel at. But it's an office block, inhabited by white-collar mortals who like their creature comforts. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of its right-on environmentalism though is its reassuringly ordinary character.

Opened late last year, the Eco Centre is an attempt to combine the best current ideas about planet-friendly architecture and technology under one roof. Hence the array of resource-efficient gadgetry - a wind turbine, solar panels, compost toilets, ground-water heating and cooling through 60- metre boreholes, green trelliswork on the facade, systems that recycle rainwater and "grey" water from sinks and basins. Hence also the emphasis on reclamation, from the interior plasterboard, made of gypsum residue from a power station, to the trelliswork net supports, which look like wood but are reconstituted plastic bottles. Thanks to pounds 95,000 worth of Lottery money from the Arts Council, the objets trouves are happily integrated into the design - the washing-machine-door reception desk, for instance, was the work of a local craftsman. The pay-off is environmental and financial. At around pounds 1.5m, the Eco Centre cost 10 to 15 per cent more to build than a conventional office block but running costs are estimated at between a third and a half less. It was originally intended to be wholly self-sufficient and although this proved a dream too far, Lionel Hehir, director of Groundwork South Tyneside, the environmental organisation which built and owns it, believes that "we are 90 to 95 per cent of the way there." Rainwater, for example, feeds the fire sprinkler systems and, mixed in a 10 to one ratio with urine from the toilets, is distributed in underground pipes to feed and irrigate the gardens. The compost, human waste mixed with wood shavings, should, when ready (in about three years' time) provide a bucket of manure a week. The gardens will need it too - on a point of principle, no topsoil was brought in so the earth, battered by decades of tipping, is hostile. However, much of the ground will be landscaped with wild flowers, which prosper in poor soil conditions. Thanks mainly to the wind turbine, the Eco Centre should also end up as a net "exporter" of energy to the National Grid. But the building is also meant to be a commercial letting proposition. Since last year, 2,000 of its 15,000 square feet - arranged on two floors around a glass-roofed atrium - have been occupied by Ground-work staff. In June, with half the remainder let, the first tenants, an advertising consultancy, moved in. Other space has been taken by an employment agency, a security firm and a public relations consultancy. For an office which, on Hehir's own admission, is a "bit nowhere-ish", this is progress. Anything above a gentle breeze, and the disc in the complex metering configuration that governs the balance of power with the outside world stops moving, indicating that the Eco Centre is selling surplus energy to the Grid. …