Andrew Pears’ Cafe Van tours sites spreading the sustainable construction word with toasted sandwiches and tea

Nobody raises an eyebrow as the white Citroën Berlingo pulls up alongside LTS Refurbishment’s site in Belgravia at 10.30 on a Friday morning. But when the driver and his mate begin unloading, it’s clear something unusual is going on. The van looks no different from the outside, but rather than building supplies, it is delivering a mobile cafe, including fold-out table, seating, food, drinks, hot-water flask and toastie maker.

This is Andrew Pears’ Cafe Van, and for 18 months it has been touring construction sites in the South-east providing a welcome breather for workers – and more importantly, teaching them about sustainability. Pears is the founder of Kotuku, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes sustainable use of resources in construction. Two years ago, he hit on the idea of using two of the most familiar and comforting aspects of building sites – white vans and tea breaks – to convert workers to his cause.

“The van is integral to the concept. It helps us to quickly explain what we do,” says Pears. “We can actually turn up on site and engage workers in the sustainability agenda. We hope they will be inspired to change their daily habits and give more thought to reusing, recycling and substituting waste.”

Pears secured a grant from the European Social Fund to buy the van and kit it out.

As well as the cafe equipment, it’s got a projector, a DVD player and a flip chart for the presentations. The government-funded organisation Envirowise provided extra funds to develop and run the project.

Pears smiles as he recalls his audiences’ first reactions when he and right-hand-man Markus Braun turned up at their workplace, breaking up their routine with gifts of food and drink. “At first you can see them thinking: Who are these funny people coming here and giving us sandwiches?”

At first you can see them thinking: Who are these funny people coming here and giving us sandwiches?

Andrew Pears

Today, Braun – Pears describes him as “Jeeves to my Wooster” – is working hard to dispel any misgivings with a constant supply of ham-and-cheese toasties. Meanwhile, the workers are watching Pears draw three different-sized skips on a flip chart. “Each represents a different kind of waste,” he tells the watching site workers as they pass the plate of toasties around the table. There are nine in the audience, a mix of labourers, electricians and project managers. There’s the odd whisper and a laugh exchanged between them, but otherwise they’re focused.

Fitting the presentations into the working day was central to the Cafe Van concept. “The two things small construction companies are short of are time and money,” explains Pears. “So we don’t charge anything and we try not to disrupt their work.” Cafe Van visits each site three times. “By the second time we are starting to communicate and at the third session we become good mates,” he says.

Pears has first-hand experience of small construction firms: he ran his own for 16 years. He saw the waste produced on sites and decided to do something to reduce it. “It was a bit of a mid-life crisis,” he laughs.

As for the van itself, he admits that driving to and from sites is not the most eco-friendly of activities. “I wanted to buy an electric van, but they cost £6,000 more. The van I bought is fuelled by liquid propane gas, which means its carbon emissions are as low as you can get. The van that became Cafe Van was the best practical environmental option.”

The best practical environmental option or “BPEO” is a mantra driven home by Pears. “It’s about doing what you can in the circumstances,” he says. At the end of each session, there is an open discussion. Today, head electrician Mark Haskins is asking all of the challenging questions. After the presentation, he says he’s enjoyed having Cafe Van around: “It’s given me a better understanding of environmental issues. We’re mainly thinking about the work. Having these gentlemen here to say ‘hang on’ is useful.”

A van for all reasons