Back in February, Building challenged three industry figures to repent their sins and adopt low carbon lifestyles. One hundred days later, Katie Puckett gathered them together to find out how they coped - and finds that things aren't going quite to plan.
As eminent construction professionals stumble backwards, clutching their ears, it occurs to me that this photoshoot isn't going at all well. We've attempted to gather together the three eco-guinea pigs who, 100 days ago, pledged to lead a greener life under the guidance of Dave Hampton, a coach in low-carbon living. We've already been driven from the roof of Building's headquarters by gale-force winds, so the dazzling view of Thames-side London that was to form the backdrop to any self-congratulatory posing has been replaced by the ducts of the plant room. Gary France had to cancel because of an Olympics strategy meeting and the comedy cardboard cut-out that was to replace him hasn't turned up either. Now - worst of all - the enormous balloon that Dave uses to demonstrate carbon dioxide emissions has burst with an ear-splitting bang and Dominic Helps has collapsed into my arms and is pretending to sob.
It all started back in February, when Building visited the homes of three industry figures and challenged them to alter their lifestyles to reduce the amount of CO2 they were responsible for. They were: Gary France, a director of Mace; Dominic Helps, a partner in law firm Shadbolt & Co; and Graham Watts, the chief executive of the Construction Industry Council. Each had some way to go - Gary was a frequent flyer and drove his Range Rover to work every day; Dominic kept the entire contents of Dixons on standby in his living room and had a fondness for new world wines; and even Graham, who contributed a trim 4.8 tonnes to the guinea pigs' total carbon weight of 38.8, had trouble getting his youngest daughter to turn off her PlayStation. To put this in context, Dave has got his own carbon footprint down to 4.5 tonnes, having converted his home to renewable energy and committed himself to stringently low-carbon measures in every area of his life.
A hundred days on, they've not met all the targets Building set them, but there appears to have been considerable progress in their attitudes towards preventing climate change.
Dominic is first up, and as we run through his six pledges, he does a masterful job of presenting good intentions as tangible results
Dominic is first up, and as we run through his six pledges, he does a masterful job of deploying lawyerly rhetoric to present good intentions as tangible results. On the subject of switching to a green energy tariff that uses electricity from renewable sources, he says: "I am seeking to do that; I must confess that I haven't, but I will do it." He was, he confesses, making desperate phone calls to his electricity board in Building's reception prior to the meeting. Dave also recommended that he buy an electricity meter that would reveal his prodigious use - has he done that? "I'd like to see this as a continuing process, the meter WILL happen. I hereby undertake that within the next two weeks I will buy an electricity meter and it WILL be used." What about paying to offset the carbon produced by his frequent business flights? "Ah. Now this is another area I feel rather guilty about …" And finally, there was the day set aside to plug the gaps in doors and windows: "I'm afraid I haven't got round to spring cleaning yet, though it's early summer, but I can assure you …" (This is perhaps the most pressing concern, since Dominic had new windows fitted "at vast expense" last spring. "They were stuck, I couldn't get them open. Then I managed to force them open and now I can't get them shut.")
But he has replaced almost all his lightbulbs with their low energy equivalents, which can save 1.5 tonnes of CO2 a year, at a cost of £70. ("About 30 seconds work for him," quips Graham. "You'd be lucky," Dominic retorts.) Here, however, he did run into a practical problem (as detailed in a recent blog on Building's website): Mrs Helps. "When she caught me trying to dispose of all the lightbulbs in the living room she challenged me - how could I say I was saving energy when I was throwing perfectly good lightbulbs away? As a lawyer I'm supposed to be quick on my feet, but I didn't find an easy answer." It was at this point that he turned to Dave for mediation, who reassured him that the amount of energy saved by the new bulbs easily eclipsed the environmental hit of sending them to a landfill.
But despite his less than stellar performance on the pledges, Dominic's eco-conscience has come on in leaps and bounds since he described himself as an "ignoramus" in February. He has been turning lights off and the heating down, his CD player is no longer on standby, he has three water butts in his garden and he has been trying to grow more vegetables. "My asparagus was very good," he boasts. Dave is impressed - for every kilo Dominic grows he could save five kilos of carbon by not buying air-freighted produce.
Graham has done rather better. Lightbulbs? Check. Turning down the thermostat on the heating? Check. Green energy tariff? Check. Draught stripping? Check. He says he has a good builder, who came back to check on the garage extension and gave his doors and windows a going over. Only the meter remains unbought and he, like Dominic, has promised to go online forthwith to purchase it.
Gary offsets the carbon produced by his holiday flights to Florida by paying £32.70 to Climate Care, which will spend it on renewable energy and reafforestation
He's also been looking into powering his Norfolk holiday home from local wind and water turbines, and made a concerted effort to persuade his daughters to switch off televisions, lights and gaming consoles - with mixed results.
Both Dominic and Graham seem to have enjoyed the novelty of shopping for new gadgets. Homebase in particular has been quite a hit: "I think it's my wife's favourite shop," says Graham. But Graham still feels guilty about the amount he flies for work: "I've been thinking how gluttonous it is." A month ago he flew to the British Council of Offices conference in Dublin. "I had a 10 minute spot in one session, I was just there for that and I flew there and back. And next year it's in New York!"
He also met our errant third eco-musketeer Gary France in Dublin airport, but Gary has been taking measures to assuage his own frequent flyer guilt. When he calls the next day, he says he fulfilled his pledge to "offset" the carbon produced by his holiday flights to Florida by paying £32.70 to an organisation called Climate Care, which will spend the money on renewable energy and reafforestation to neutralise the 4.36 tonnes of carbon that the flights produced. "I did it on the internet, it was really, really simple," he says. "I'll definitely keep doing it." He's also started to drive to work in his Mini rather than his Range Rover, nearly all his lightbulbs are now low energy and he's intending to switch to a green energy tariff. When it comes to the electricity meter, however, he rebels: "Dave says it helps you understand what electricity you're using, but if you already switch things off, what's the point of going out and spending £70?"
Dave is pleased nonetheless. He calculates that between them they've saved 2800 kg of carbon so far, and if they keep it up they're on track for an annual saving of 10 tonnes. His wider goal of getting our three industry figures to apply low-carbon principles to their work lives is also paying off. Sustainability is now "way up the agenda" at Mace's board meetings and in their work on the Olympic projects. At the CIC, Graham Watts has spent £12,000 on a video-conferencing system so staff don't have to travel to take part in meetings abroad, and Dominic says he'll broach the subject of offsetting the carbon from business flights with his partners.
Go green this weekend
Three easy steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint
Dominic Helps and Graham Watts said they enjoyed their shopping sprees in B&Q and Homebase, and there was a decent range of low energy bulbs to suit most uses – not all of them ugly. Gary France turned to the internet, where there’s more choice; sites such as BLT Direct offer attractive alternatives to electricity guzzling standard bulbs, including “softone” and dimmable versions. The lightbulbs cost £2-5, but you’ll save 10 times this over their three-year lifetime and shave 0.5 tonnes off your carbon footprint for every 10 you install.
Switch your electricity to renewable sources
There are two ways to do this, depending on which you think sends the strongest message to power companies – switching to their own green tariffs or leaving completely to join one of the smaller start-ups such as Ecotricity. Switching should take no longer than five minutes on the phone or the internet, although the customer-unfriendly systems that power companies use can be a hindrance. Graham eventually found the GreenPlan option on the Powergen website by typing “green” into its search engine. You can also input “[name of your power company] + green” into Google – Building found this was the quickest way. It may cost slightly more – Graham’s monthly direct debit has gone up £15 to £105, but this is also partly to redress payments that were too low in previous months. If you do make the switch, you could save up to 5 tonnes of carbon a year.
Offset the carbon from your flights
It may be a confusing concept but Gary found this the simplest step of all. Climate Care funds projects that aim to reduce emissions and on its website you can work out how much pollution your flights will create and the cost of absorbing that amount of carbon. For example, Gary paid £32.70 to offset 4.36 tonnes created by taking two flights between London and Florida. It’s not as good as not flying in the first place, but it’s a start.